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8th Annual Salute to Tourism Focuses on Community to Draw Inspiration Amid Pandemic

BRIDGEWATER – Somerset County Tourism celebrated another year of the Salute to Tourism program, going virtual this year. The program is presented by Somerset County Tourism and focuses on the vibrant tourism economy and also serves as a platform to recognize the world-renowned institutions that call Somerset County, NJ home.

To see how local tourism businesses reacted to the pandemic, the Salute to Tourism event brought five industry individuals to explore how they overcame the many obstacles in their way. The program included panelists from five Somerset County tourism and hospitality businesses including: Vinnie Cicerale, director of sales & marketing at AC Hotel Bridgewater, Leigh Zona, director of communications at The Center for Contemporary Art, Brad Fay, president at Millstone Scenic Byway, Debbie Norz, co-owner at Norz Hill Farm & Market, and Marc Russinoff, vice president of public relations at Somerset Patriots.

The tourism industry took an incredible hit from the pandemic. Jackie Morales, director of tourism at Somerset County Tourism addressed the panel noting, “We have been hardest hit by the public’s inability to travel, to meet up and to patronize our venues. Many of you went to workplaces that stood empty – for months. And countless colleagues are still out of work.”

Building community and engaging local residents became a prominent theme and tactic among the panel.

Fay noted that by treating locals as advocates, “they’ll realize what a special place they live in…hopefully they will take their friends and families to visit our many great locations.”

Cicerale described how AC Hotel found the need to provide experiences, and something other than a simple hotel room. To accomplish this, AC Hotel partnered with local organizations, which not only allowed guests to explore the surrounding community, but in-turn provided reciprocal relationships between the hotel and these community partners.

Other topics explored during the event included getting the message out about services and offerings as well as learning not only how to adapt to regulations and restrictions, but how guests and visitors would react to them.

Russinoff stated that for the Somerset Patriots, no idea was off the table, and this was how the Patriots began to hold events such a drive-in movie nights and kickball.

Getting the message out about services and offerings was also a barrier the industry had to overcome.

Norz noted the pandemic turned many local residents to farm shopping, only just learning that Norz Hill Farm & Market sold fresh vegetables and meats. How they got the word out? Through social media groups such as local mom forums on Facebook.

The Center for Contemporary Art also branched out from a local focus, shifting their communications strategy to a national level. Zona said this national campaign allowed them to hold programs for individuals from 26 states.

Duke Farms, the event sponsor, also gave an update of their activities and on ecotourism, delivered by Nora DiChiara, director of programs and strategic planning. She noted that the overwhelming demand for outdoor activities, “…will require that we think differently and sustainably about how to manage the demand while providing a great experience.”

A video of the event can be viewed at: