VisitPittsburgh envisions more connections, places to attract visitors

In recent years, the nonprofit tourism group Visit Pittsburgh has focused on marketing and sales goals. But this year, they decided to do something more ambitious: create a 10-year plan that attempts to identify all the key assets that will be needed to fully develop Pittsburgh’s tourism industry.

To do this, the organization spent 14 months meeting with over 3,000 people and 150 industry and community groups to find out what the city does well and what needs to change. The resulting “tourism development plan” sets out a total of 80 action items that the agency hopes to deliver over the next decade with the help of partners across the region.

“Sales and marketing is still a big part of our focus. It’s very much a flagship,” said Jerad Bachar, CEO of Visit Pittsburgh. “But to make sure that we grow the sector in the most robust way, in the most economically sustainable way, we need to make sure that the assets and expertise that we need to compete are also there.”

The tourism industry is struggling, especially downtown, according to figures cited in the plan. There is hope that the city will bring in nearly $7 billion this year, finally pushing it above its pre-pandemic level in 2019, but last year total spending was $5.9 billion. About 30% of the ground floor retail space in the center is empty. Trips from office workers to the city have decreased by more than 10%. The city is losing its tourism workforce to places like Butler County. Public transport travel has decreased, which can make it difficult for tourists to get around the city.

“These headwinds are what drive the strategy,” Bachar said. “It’s not going to happen organically. This will happen through really thoughtful and targeted strategies.

The plan identifies a number of strategies to enhance the area’s already thriving tourist destinations. For example, one suggestion is to build an entertainment venue downtown to attract families, since most of the current attractions – the zoo and aquarium, Kennywood, etc. – are not easily accessible to hotel visitors.

The plan includes piloting dedicated transportation options that will take people between Pittsburgh’s various tourist hubs, including Downtown, Northside, Lawrenceville, Oakland and Squirrel Hill. Another proposal would allow families to board a boat at the convention center and take it all the way to Kennywood, then return to Sandcastle Water Park and the Strip District. A third shuttle will allow people to hop on and off at various craft breweries.

“Whether it’s an entertainment venue or whether it’s water mobility, all of these things that we see as tourism assets are very important to our local community because they’re also quality-of-life assets,” Bachar said.

The plan also calls for the creation of events and strategies to attract visitors in all 90 neighborhoods of the city. Tourists will be able to take guided tours of the various murals and art projects. Foodies would have better guides to the city’s culinary offerings. Sports fans will be able to follow a “sports trail” that celebrates the city’s athletes, while other tourists can tour key sites in African-American culture, such as August Wilson’s childhood home. The plan calls for other strategies to attract and improve experiences for LGBTQ visitors, as well as international visitors from India, China and the Dominican Republic.

“What we know about travelers is that they are looking for authentic experiences,” Bachar said. “And the good thing about Pittsburgh is that we have so much depth and character in all of our across the region, but certainly in all of our different communities.

Some of the plan’s action items are very detailed, such as allowing zoning for Airbnbs in certain areas and for Airbnbs in owner-occupied housing throughout the city. Other parts of the plan are broader, such as a plan to develop “large-scale nighttime events.”

Some of the proposed projects in the plan that would require large capital expenditures, such as a new hotel at the convention center, may be more challenging and take longer, Bachar said.

“However, we know that with the right development plan, with the right focus on these things and with the right stakeholders and partners at the table, we can make progress,” he said.

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