IronPigs

The IronPigs have given fans like these teenage girls something to cheer about in the Lehigh Valley. (Emily Robson/The Morning Call)

With the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem set to open this year and the Lehigh Valley IronPigs savoring a successful debut season, the Lehigh Valley has plenty to crow about.

But there have been ominous signs as well: Sands put its hotel and shopping mall complex on hold, ticket sales were down at the Valley Preferred Cycling Center, and, if the Lehigh Valley wants to be home to a minor league hockey team, it will have to be ready to show the money by Aug. 1.

Still, there's a silver lining in all the dour news about the economy, tourism officials say.

With 31.1 million people living within a 100-mile radius of the Lehigh Valley, and hotel rooms and attractions more affordable than New York or Philadelphia, the Lehigh Valley can be a draw for tourists who need to scale back on vacation and leisure spending.

"That's why we think we're in a sweet spot," said Michael Stershic, president of the Lehigh Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, as he reflected on the number of people within the region's reach.

Still, the visitors bureau isn't content to rest on the laurels of attractions such as Musikfest, Dorney Park and the Allentown Fair.

It has drawn up an ambitious master plan to boost tourism, with ideas ranging from a 12,000-seat arena for concerts and sporting events to the cataloging of the region's public art to the installation of public bathrooms in the downtowns of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. (Research shows that having access to public bathrooms extends a person's stay by two hours, Stershic said.)

The visitors bureau will be able to carry out some initiatives on its own, but others will require private and public enterprise.

Three goals are seen as crucial:

-- Development of a 100,000- to 200,000 square-foot convention center and hotel to cater to large trade shows and conventions;

-- Installation of directional signs to get tourists to and from sites, whether on foot or in a car;

-- Aggressive use of the Web, including social networking sites, to market the region and showplace its offerings;

The Sands' plans for a hotel and shopping complex, once back on track, could meet the need for the convention center, Stershic said.

Meanwhile, outfitting the Lehigh Valley with signs to direct people to parking areas, downtowns, trails and attractions -- as well as back onto roads to head home -- could take years. The bureau is studying not only where to put the signs, but who to partner with and how to pay for them.

The Web work is under way, with people at the visitors bureau taking on new responsibilities for video and audio podcasts, e-mail marketing and social networking sites, including a blog, Facebook and Twitter, to tell the Lehigh Valley story.

"We need to intensify our efforts in electronic marketing," Stershic said. "That's the direction in which we need to move."

The visitors bureau also is partnering with Northampton Community College to relaunch "Destination Lehigh Valley," three-session seminars geared toward helping business owners, waiters, hotel clerks and others in the hospitality industry to be better ambassadors. The seminars include a bus tour of area attractions and historic sites, so that workers are well informed about what the area has to offer.

David Schweiger, director of NCC's new Hospitality Career Institute, said those on the front lines need to fill the role of concierge, by being courteous and providing tourists with great service so they will be inclined to come back.

In addition to the visitors bureau's efforts, individual attractions such as Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom and the Sands casino will have their own marketing campaigns and promotions to try to bring in a crowd.

The IronPigs, for one, surveyed fans on-line to assess popular promotions, as well as reviewed fan surveys by major league baseball. Promotions are a way of "keeping things fresh," said spokesman Matt Provence.

As of mid-January, the IronPigs planned promotions for 65 of its 72 home games, including three bobble-head giveaways and Dog Days, where fans can bring their pooches to a game.

"We're not just for people who like baseball," said Provence, pointing out that the majority of people who come to the games are not die-hard fans.

This year, the newcomer will be the Sands Casino Resort, a $743 million project rising on former Bethlehem Steel land in South Bethlehem. Although construction of the hotel and shopping mall halted in October, the casino, with its restaurant and entertainment venues, is expected to draw 5 million people annually.

The Sands brand is likely to have some resonance with people already familiar with its other casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, but expect an aggressive marketing campaign as the Sands reaches into the New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., markets, said Sands spokesman Ron Reese. The Sands recognizes the historic value of the site, Reese said, and will give ode to the past in images and references.

Stershic recognizes that issues remain, such as in developing the Americus Hotel in downtown Allentown and building an arena. Officials throughout the region will need to work better together to accomplish all the goals, he said. And the economy too will play a part.

"We need to be patient," Stershic said, "and let things work out."

Mary Ellen Alu is a freelance writer.