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EXCLUSIVE: CEO of Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance opens up about region getting national distinction (video)

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  • Josh Durso 

Earlier this month Meghan Lawton took the helm as leader of the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance. For more than a dozen years, Lawton worked through an array of roles in the tourism space. As CEO and President of the Tourism Alliance, her mission has become broader, with the goal of elevating an already elevated region. She describes getting into the tourism business as a matter of ‘stumbling’ into an opportunity more than a decade ago after college, which ignited a passion she hasn’t been able to shake.

This week we caught up with Lawton to talk about her goals, some of the exciting things happening in the region, and where the Finger Lakes sits among destinations in the United States.

What is a National Heritage Area? Is the Finger Lakes becoming one?

The Finger Lakes region is on its way to becoming a National Heritage Area. There are less than 60 of them across the U.S. and the distinction will be a big deal for folks in the tourism space. In Lawton’s eyes, it’s another example of something elevating the region more.

A National Heritage Area is a place designated by Congress where natural, cultural, historic, and scenic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally distinctive landscape arising from patterns of human activity shaped by geography.

“It’s pretty good company that we’re going to be in,” she said of the distinction, which has been a work-in-progress for years. “It opens us up to potential grant funding opportunities, a wealth of other opportunities, and raises the Finger Lakes up. Endless opportunities.”

Those patterns make National Heritage Areas representative of the national experience through the physical features that remain and traditions entrenched within that geography.

In short, it would be a big win for the Finger Lakes.

What’s next for tourism in the Finger Lakes?

Coming out of the coronavirus pandemic there was a lot of excitement around potential in 2021 and 2022. Lawton said the tourism industry, like most, was not prepared for what came in 2020. The hospitality and tourism spaces were among the hardest hit from an economic standpoint.

It was a defining moment in Lawton’s career. “Everyone tried to pivot, tried to do the best they could and adjust,” she recalled. “The atmosphere in general, tourism is ever-evolving and ever-changing. The pandemic really accelerated that.”

By nearly all accounts, 2022 was a record-breaking year. At least some of that was spurred by pandemic-related travel trends. “We’ve been seeing pre-pandemic numbers of tourists. Tourism is back, and we’re still seeing a lot of ‘drive time’ tourists. These ‘drive time’ tourists she described stem from a trend that developed during the pandemic. Travel options were few-and-far between, so to compensate people traveled 4-6 hours. 

“It’s going to be bigger than ever,” Lawton said, looking ahead to the remainder of 2023. “I think we’re going to continue to see a rise. But I don’t think 2022 was completely normal.” She believes there was still a contingency of would-be travelers who opted out of visiting last year. “I think we’re going to see more people return in even bigger force this summer, which is extremely exciting.”

What is the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance? What is its role in tourism?

The Tourism Alliance is a ‘destination marketing’ organization for the entire region. It’s a membership based organization that represents a total of 14 counties. They promote travel and tourism to the region. Specifically, they highlight partner organizations, partner members, and encourage travel to the region. 

In a nutshell, it’s the engine that keeps the marketing wheels turning for the Finger Lakes region.

Lawton’s experience and expertise lends itself to the Alliance’s mission. But she’s excited about the prospect of branching out and being more involved in providing a better experience for the businesses that make the Finger Lakes whole, and tourists who visit.

“I think we’ve done really well in the past as destination marketers, but I also think that there is so much opportunity to do more,” she explained. “We’re a little bit of a split organization because we do have partners, we have members of our organization. One of my main priorities for 2023 is really leaning into that destination marketing, pushing our marketing efforts, and create a service to better serve the people that are visiting.”

Lawton said the FLTA sees social media as the largest opportunity on that front.

Why should someone visit the Finger Lakes?

It’s not as one-dimensional as people think.

Understandably, there are a lot of folks who think of wine or craft beverages when the region comes up in conversation. Lawton says it’s far more than that. “Truly, the Finger Lakes is a four season destination,” she said. “No matter what it is that you enjoy doing on your vacation, how you enjoy spending your time, you can experience that here in the Finger Lakes.”

Whether it’s skiing, wine, family-friendly opportunities, or activities for all ages — the Finger Lakes is ready. “A lot of different areas of the country use that four-season mantra as their tag line, but it really is true here. You’d be hard pressed to find a place that truly embodies that phrase as much as the Finger Lakes does.”