BY TOBY MCCRAE
Elkhart County tourism experts have the future covered -- with a floral patchwork quilt of bright ideas inspired by local history.
From May through the "first frost," visitor groups with a passion for quilting and flower gardening are being targeted to cruise through the communities of Amish country for a new take on classic American hobby-crafts.
"We have to reach to provide everyone with something authentic. For us, here, quilting and gardening is pretty authentic. It's so Amish," says Diana Lawson, Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau's executive director.
The 2009 Quilt Garden Tour event taps into the growth and popularity of quilting and flower gardening, says Lawson.
The tour invites visitors to see 16 large gardens of 80,000 colorful annuals planted throughout northern Indiana Amish Country. The quilt gardens mimic the intricate patterns and unique shapes of Amish quilts.
Add photography and leisure traveling -- and the people who spend money indulging these hobbies -- and there's plenty of marketing inspiration for an annual event, Lawson said.
While visiting the region for the "free" tour of the gardens and hand-painted murals, leisure travelers and visitor groups ultimately boost the economy whenever they stop to shop, dine and lodge.
In three to five years, the intent is "to gain national recognition as the place to come to hold your quilting or garden event," said Lawson.
"We want national and regional conventions and meetings of these hobby groups to come back to Amish country, year after year."
This doesn't appear to be too lofty a marketing stretch, if tourism officials can successfully capture and retain the interest, time and money of these targeted groups.
According to 2006 figures from the National Association of Quilters, 27.7 people spend time and money on hobby quilting. That's up by 6.3 million people in only three years, a 35.5 percent boost to the $3.3 billion total U.S. quilting industry.
The National Gardening Association indicates flower gardening is also a $3 billion annual business.
The Quilt Garden Tour, which had an intentional "soft launch" in its first season last year, is currently being advertised in niche magazines, on the Internet, through blog sites and in chat rooms.
The visitors bureau is running advertising programs and leveraging available dollars to reach into pricey markets through advertising partnership co-ops.
"We talk to a triangle -- Chicago, Detroit, and Indianapolis. There are 30 million people in those population centers alone," said Lawson.
Al Hesselbart, author and historian with the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum, is feeling optimistic -- despite the economy -- about the RV tourism industry's future.
The Indiana Tourism Council estimates potential for 30,000 out-of-town visitors to the RV museum between May and September, he says.
"I think from the time of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, American people are inherently vagabonds. We like to see the country. We like to get around and see the land," he said.
Hesselbart says historically, economic downturns and social crisis have built, rather than destroyed, demand for the RV lifestyle.
During the first full season of operation last summer, the center saw an average of 3,000 visitors a month, or 150 per open day.
"This year, we're expecting to exceed that. We might get 4,000 a month."