When he completed his master’s degree at the University of Tennessee in 1986, Landon C. Howard, a native Tennessean, began his career in the tourism industry at a convention and visitors bureau in his hometown Chattanooga. Starting as a marketing manager, he was eventually promoted to director of marketing and communications for the organization. He moved on to Mobile, Alabama, and “was very fortunate to [be there] when some pretty significant investment was being put forth.”
While in Mobile, Howard was contacted about a job in Roanoke. Both he and his wife were familiar with the area, having passed through it during trips to visit her parents and friends in the Maryland-Washington, D.C. area. Howard’s wife dreamed of relocating to the valley and when a job offer for Landon came in August 2009 they decided to relocate to the Star City. Landon Howard began his official duties as Executive Director of the Roanoke Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau on February 1, 2010, replacing the retired David Kohljede.
Owing to recent developments in the Roanoke Valley—the renovations of the Market Building and Center in the Square (upcoming), and the opening of the Taubman Museum—Roanoke is experiencing the same kind of major investment programs that Howard was involved in during his time in Chattanooga and Mobile.
“There are literally . . . ten of millions of dollars that have been invested here in downtown Roanoke, and in other projects throughout the Roanoke Valley,” he said. “So I’ve hit pay dirt again, and it’s really very fortunate for me and it’s going to reap some great benefits for us.”
As one of his first acts upon arriving in Roanoke, Howard had his staff assemble a list of things people could do within an hour’s drive of downtown Roanoke— the result was a 10-page document. Arts and culture was a special component of this and so was a relationship to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“About 98 percent of everything that we are as a people and as a culture here is related to the mountains, whether it be the arts, or the food, or the railroad history—all of its tied to these mountains,” said Howard. “If you look back into our history—back into the 1930s—you’ll find that Roanoke was referred to as the capital of Virginia’s Blue Ridge.”
Laying claim to the Blue Ridge Mountains as Roanoke’s identity, in Howard’s view, is quite important: “Right now, if you think of the Smokey Mountains, you think of Tennessee. When you think of the Alleghenies, you think of Pennsylvania. So nobody’s really taken ownership of the Blue Ridge Mountains . . . I think its time for us to step up and do that.”
Howard also feels that Roanoke’s railroad heritage is a significant part of what Roanoke is and shouldn’t be overlooked. “[But] I think that the key is for us to build awareness of other things we have as well. A lot of people don’t know that, within an hour’s drive radius of Roanoke, there [are] 22 universities. Many of them are liberal arts universities. 10.6 percent of all the population within an hour’s drive radius is in undergraduate schools – one of the highest percentages in the country. And so with that comes a lot of talent and a lot of potential product development that we could have.”
To foster awareness of what else Roanoke has to offer, the Visitors Bureau under Howard’s watch has initiated a multi-faceted program. A public relations initiative is bringing 70 journalists to the area over the next 12 months, exposing them to Roanoke’s arts community while emphasizing that downtown Roanoke is merely 40 minutes away from Virginia’s largest fresh-water lake (Smith Mountain Lake). The hope is that articles written as a result of these experiences will help put Roanoke on the map, much as the US Airways magazine story on Roanoke did several years ago.
The bureau has also launched new website features that allow businesses, hotels, convention bookers and other parties to access and update information in real time. Another feature allows the RVCVB to contact hotels and locate new business prospects. In addition to affording the bureau better data base management, this system improves interaction with the customer. Finally, a mobile apps program the bureau will be launching this fall will enable people with mobile devices to locate and shop from it. (see visitroanokeva.com for more information.)
“The key,” Howard said, “is to make it as easy as we can for the consumer so that they can purchase [from] us. We can end up creating economic impact for this community and create more jobs.” Howard, who recently spoke at a ribbon cutting about the $600 million spent annually in the Roanoke Valley by visitors, said also that the key “is to build a heightened awareness of what is here and get more people here …to buy what we have and see the unique piece of Americana that we are.”