State Parks prove their economic power with tourism award

Although the Southern Delaware Tourism Awards honor the people who enrich the Sussex County life and economy, it’s also a great cheat-sheet for planning a night, or day, on the town.

At the Dec. 6 luncheon in Millsboro, Southern Delaware Tourism honored festivals and venues happening nearly in people’s back yards.

Winners were named in each of four categories, including Best New Event, Best Event, Best Attraction and Tourism Partner of the Year.

“All of this year’s nominees are very deserving of the award, as they provide wonderful experiences for our visitors and help make Sussex County such a special and beloved destination,” said Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism.

Winners were chosen by a panel of impartial travel writers, and voting was so close that they awarded their first-ever tie.

The Tourism Partner of the Year was Delaware State Parks, highlighting Cape Henlopen State Park and the Fort Miles Historical Area, Delaware Seashore State Park (Indian River Marina and the Indian River Life Saving Station), Holts Landing State Park, Fenwick Island State Park and Trap Pond State Park.

The award celebrates the parks’ ability “to provide visitors with experiences they may not otherwise expect to find inside a state park.”

Besides the traditional activities of hiking, picnicking, camping and beach-going, the parks also collaborate with the community to host unique events, such as the Boo-B-Que BBQ Festival, Winter WonderFest and the Beer, Wine & Spirits Festival.

Public parks are considered to increase quality of life for Delawareans, besides their 3 million visitors and more than $290 million in economic impact in the 2019 fiscal year.

But it’s the people who make it possible, said Secretary Shawn Garvin of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control (DNREC).

“It really is a labor of love,” said Garvin. “It really is part of an economic engine, it’s part of the health of our community, part of the recreation of our community.”

He commended the staff; thanked the volunteers who have given 60,000 work hours, worth $1.5 million; and handed the trophy to Ray Bivens, director of Delaware Division of Parks & Recreation.

Ideas for that next vacation

The Best New Event award was split between two winners: Delaware’s only Fire & Ice Festival — which will return to Bethany Beach in January 2019, organized by the Bethany Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce — and the Ladybug Music Festival, “the largest celebration of women in music on the East Coast,” which returns to Milford in September and was featured in Billboard magazine.

The Best Attraction was the Freeman Stage, in West Fenwick. As the largest arts/cultural organization in Sussex County and third-largest in Delaware, it attracted ticket buyers from 36 states and contributed an estimated $3 million to the local economy in 2018.

The Best Event was Mid-Atlantic Sea Glass & Coastal Arts Festival, which brought nearly 4,000 people and 70 vendors to Lewes during the typical June slump. It’s considered to be one of the largest such festivals in the nation.

Guest speaker encourages creative-thinking

Guest speaker Bill Geist is an expert in tourism and economic organizations. As president of DMOproz, he encouraged entrepreneurs to be outstanding in their fields, but also be fresh when business falls flat.

“This is your advantage: If you do anything that’s unexpected, out of the ordinary, or unexpected, … your customers will latch onto it,” Geist said. “We like change.”

Geist told businesses to contact their local Chamber of Commerce or visitor bureau for ideas to partner with other businesses or groups.

“Tourism is economic development in its purest forms,” Geist said. “Tourism is the ‘first date’ for economic development.” People who can see a place will also imagine living, working or going to school there. “How do you take the Southern Delaware experience and package it?”

More and more, he said, people want a great experience that they can share at the water cooler on Monday morning.

“What can you do with your product … that will get somebody to talk about it on Monday morning, Instagram it, Facebook it, and tell their friends?” Geist said. “Because that’s what this is all about.”

He discussed the importance of web videos; mobile-friendly websites; photographic “selfie spots” in every business; and the importance of attracting 20- to 30-somethings, who are travelling now but looking to put down roots, which replenishes the local talent and population.

“Promoting travel to our area, to Sussex County — that’s what Southern Delaware Tourism does,” said Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism. “Travel promotion creates a cycle of economic benefits,” attracting travelers who spend money, which creates demand for more good and services, kick-starting jobs and tax revenue for more public services.

In Sussex County, tourism generates $1.7 billion in GDP and 18,000 jobs, Thomas said.

Since the travelers’ experience is the most important part, the tourism offices work to enhance that experience.

Southern Delaware Tourism helps to identify, promote and grow sustainable, year-round tourism that contributes to economic growth and improves the quality of life. For more information, call (302) 856-1818 or visit


By Laura Walter

Staff Reporter