As the crisp, fall air moves in and the 40th annual Bridge Day becomes a memory, some Fayetteville rafting businesses are preparing to weather the off season – as they try to figure out how to stanch the decline in their numbers.
“The rafting season as a whole has been condensing in the past few years,” said Jay Young, media manager for Adventures on the Gorge.
“In its heyday in the ‘90s, it was showing some 230,000 rafting trips a year down these rivers. Now that number is only slightly more than 100,000. That’s a pretty big shrink.”
River Expeditions, a whitewater rafting business in Oak Hill, ceases its operations the Sunday after Bridge Day.
“I know some outfitters go later in the season, but that’s it for us,” said owner Heather Johnson.
“When Bridge Day is over, someone has flipped a switch, essentially, and it’s done,” Young said.
The economic story is more promising for other outdoor adventure activities, however, to such a degree that one Fayetteville businessman said, “This is not a rafting town anymore, it’s an outdoor recreation town.”
Kenny Parker, owner of Water Stone Outdoors in Fayetteville, said that while rafting in the New River Gorge has declined, tourist subcategories like rock climbing, hiking and biking have shown significant growth.
He also said people really should stop referring to Fayetteville as “rafting town.”
“Without being critical of the rafting industry at all, because I consider them one of the core components, I think people look at this place as a rafting destination and they’re thinking in terms of 15 years ago,” Parker said.
Parker has been a business owner in Fayetteville for 25 years.
He says although the harshest winter weather slows things down, his business operates steadily year-round.
“If you ask any of the restaurants in Fayetteville, they will tell you who pays the bills today – it’s the rock climbers,” he said.
“Everything else is up”
Secret Sandwich Society Fayetteville owner Lewis Rhinehart agrees that while rafting is down, “everything else is up.”
He says his business revenue is “significantly” ahead of last year.
“We’re open nine years, and we’ve had the best year we’ve ever had this year,” Rhinehart said. “Where the real growth is now and what’s really paying the bills is the rock climbers,” he said.
“Climbers count for a huge part of what’s happening in Fayetteville.”
Rhinehart thinks a “changing dynamic” is folks wanting shorter, two- or three-hour activities, as opposed to longer day trips like rafting.
However, he credits the whitewater rafting industry for helping expand Fayetteville into the town it is today.
“The rafting industry is the whole reason Fayetteville is here now,” he said, referring to all the new restaurants and breweries that have opened in the area, establishing a night life that is attractive to a younger crowd.
Parker said the thing that sets Fayetteville apart and has helped all of the tourist-based businesses stay successful is that they’re all supportive of one another.
“It’s the collective whole of all of us here that’s the draw – not any individual business,” he said.
“We push their businesses and market their businesses. We’re very much a team-player mindset here.”
Extending the season
Still, rafting companies are trying to squeeze every last trip out of what warm weather remains. Adventures on the Gorge is trying to get a few more trips on the books this year, hoping to extend their season to Nov. 16.
“Even if we do that by three weeks, it will be really successful,” said Young.
Young said they’ve tried to extend the season before. This year, they have put an extra effort in by marketing an extended season, offering free wet suits in November.
“It’s a beautiful time of year,” he said. “There’s beautiful colorful leaves on the trees.
“We’re hoping the warm weather extends itself, too. If it stays in the 60s, we have a fighting chance.”
Even if Adventures on the Gorge gets the extra weeks, employees have the compound ready to house buses and store deflated rafts until winter breaks, the air and water warms and the new season begins in April.
But what happens when the last raft takes the final trip of the season down the New River Gorge National River?
Both Adventures on the Gorge and River Expeditions go to a “skeleton” crew.
Adventures employs 550 to 600 people during the peak season, Young said, and about 50 employees during the off season.
When it comes to earnings, Young said Adventures generates enough revenue during the busy months to sustain the business during the winter.
Johnson says her business budgets to make its peak season profits last the entire year.
“We have to make our money last 12 months. We get income basically six months,” she said. “We do get a little bit of revenue from the cabin rentals through the off-season but certainly that doesn’t sustain. We have to cut back on staffing.
“And we’re just lean and mean to go into next season and planning,” she said.
Both businesses turn to alternate offerings like cabin rentals to bring in winter revenues.
“Our cabins are roughly 50 percent off (November to March), so for local people that’s the time of year when cabins become available at a great price,” Young said.
The big money, Young admits, is in the rapids.
“Rafting will always be our bread and butter,” he said. “Rafting is the largest thing we do.”
Whitewater rafting has attracted tourists to southern West Virginia for decades. But its decline is real. River Expeditions has seen a sharp reduction in rafting trips.
“Our numbers are down this year even with the influx of the Scout World Jamboree,” Johnson said. “We’re really trying to figure that out. It’s something we can’t put our finger on.”
If she had to make a guess, Johnson says generational changes could be contributing.
“I think it’s the age of everyone has a nose in a device,” she said. “Everyone leads a sedentary lifestyle and kids aren’t getting out to play anymore.”
While rafting numbers are down, Gov. Jim Justice was celebrating reports this past week that showed West Virginia tourism dollars were up – outpacing national growth by 58 percent.
Following the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism, Justice rattled off statistics that said traveler spending in West Virginia grew at a rate of 6.5 percent, totaling $4.55 billion in 2018.
The governor’s office said travel-generated spending dropped more than 14 percent from 2012 to 2016. But there was a reverse in 2017 with a 3.9 increase in spending, outpacing the national average.
Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby went on MetroNews “Talkline” this past week to promote the positive numbers.
“Economic conditions in this state are improving, which means folks are getting out and exploring their backyard,” Ruby said. “Secondly, I attribute to better promotion. We have a governor with a vision on tourism, a legislature who has fully supported it and increased our promotion dollars.”
Ruby said that there is no one category dominating the tourism upswing.
But her pitch seemed custom-made for the outdoorsy little town of Fayetteville.
“What we are selling is the mountains,” Ruby said. “It’s that view that you got no matter where you are in West Virginia.
“Nestled in those mountains you are going to find charming small towns, unbelievable outdoor recreation, and the friendliest folks anywhere.”