Hunterdon County allocated $250,000 from the total American Rescue Plan funds it received to launch its “Explore Hunterdon. The Other Side of Jersey” tourism initiative this year; county officials hope to dedicate even more next year. In 2021, Hunterdon County attracted 900,000 visitors of the state’s total 96.6 million.
“The shore gets a lot of attention, but this part of the state, the true garden part, doesn’t get a lot in the summer,” said Marc Saluk, the director of economic development for Hunterdon County. “The shore is great, but [the state tourism board] wants to be able to use the whole state for tourism purposes. They were very much about providing some alternatives to the shore [when we proposed this].”
Saluk said that in 2018 a local study to evaluate the usefulness of a local tourism initiative showed that tourism receipts in Hunterdon County had gone up for 10 consecutive years. He said the finding helped show local commissioners that tourism was an expense with a good return on investment.
“We were already going in the right direction with no effort whatsoever, so the thought was, ‘what would happen if we actually tried?’” Saluk said. The 2018 study also found that unlike the shore, which has significantly more tourism dollars flow to it during beach season than the off season, tourism spending in Hunterdon County is consistent throughout the year.
Hunterdon’s tourism initiative launched in April, around the time people start planning their trips for the summer. Much of the money spent on the initiative so far has been marketing, along with the creation of ExploreHunterdonNJ.com, where visitors can curate exactly the type of experience they want to have during their visit. In a play on “the other side” tagline, a page with biking, hiking and paddling trails highlights “the sporty side of Jersey,” while a page with restaurant, coffee shop and farmers market options highlights “the tasty side of Jersey.”
The site’s Hunterdon County Trip Planner widget allows visitors to design their own personalized itinerary. In the future, Saluk plans to develop tourism packages for people to choose from—eat at this restaurant, stay at this bed and breakfast, and rent bikes from this shop to explore these towns, for a set price without any guess work.
“We’re not just throwing the [initiative’s] name out there. We’re immediately going to start work on Phase 2 to make it a useful, informative and fun tool for anyone who visits. We’re going to get our tourism board together, we may consider starting to do events next year… at the moment, the goal is to do whatever we can to try to make Hunterdon County top-of-mind as a tourism destination,” Saluk explained. “We want people to associate something with that brand. When they hear Hunterdon County, we want them to think vineyards, the great outdoors, the Delaware River. When people think of the Hudson Valley or Napa Valley, images come to people’s minds. Up until recently, when people thought about Hunterdon, they didn’t have those images. [We want] people to have associations when they think of this brand.”
In the meantime, towns can apply for $5,000 Rediscover Hunterdon grants, a separate program designed to revive COVID-affected festivals and community days. Saluk’s office has given out about 15 this year for events like Lambertville’s Shad Fest and Frenchtown’s upcoming River Fest.
What’s Up in Somerset
Nearby Somerset County has an initiative of its own going on with the Sip and See Somerset, a challenge to travelers and locals alike to drink up at the county’s five craft beverage makers. Following a trip to the brewery, winery or distillery, the Sip and See passport – a handy tool that Somerset County representatives have been giving out at local events and markets that is also available online – provides recommendations of activities nearby in hopes of attracting visitors to stick around a while.
Folks visiting Burnt Mills Cider Co. in Bedminster are directed to visit the Scherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary 18 minutes away if they’re an outdoorsy type, or Gilded Age estate Natirar just five minutes away if they’re high society history nuts. Sports fans who stop by Village Brewing Co. in Somerville for some suds are directed seven minutes down the road to catch a Somerset Patriots game at TD Bank Stadium; or for those who prefer some retail therapy, Bridgewater Commons mall is five minutes away.
Visitors who show up to the five craft beverage makers have their Sip and See passport stamped, and anyone with stamps from all five places by Labor Day. gets a free t-shirt.
The initiative was created in response to the county’s slow recovery following the pandemic. Vice President of Tourism and Communications Melissa Defreest said it was one of the hardest hit in the state.
“Our spending is still pretty low compared to how other counties have been recovering. Our tourism spend is about 43% behind what it was pre-pandemic, and we need to find a way to recoup those spending dollars,” she said. “Prior to the Pandemic, 70% of our tourism was business travel. This has been an effort to try and capture more of the leisure tourist.”
Sip and See Somerset aims to turn what would be a two-hour, one stop trip to Somerset County into a four-hour, multi-stop rendezvous. The eventual goal is to attract more overnighters. The average person passing through spends about $75 in Somerset County, Defreest said, but that goes up to about $800 if they stay overnight.
“Once we can get someone to stay here overnight, that person is now paying for breakfast, lunch, dinner, entertainment. With the business traveler, not having them back has been hard on many of the businesses, restaurants and hotels in particular,” she said.
Sip and See Somerset launched June 24 to get a head start on summer. The following day, the program welcomed its first completion, someone who did their own “tour du drink” by bicycle.
The rider sent Defreest’s office their pathway, which she’s been able to share with others curious about completing the trail on bicycle. She’s unsure of how many people have completed it so far (by bike or car), but the goal is for 5,000 people to visit each location by Labor Day. To cover the cost of advertising, of making t-shirts, of maintaining a website, and of printing passports, Somerset County used $175,000 in American Rescue Plan funds.
Sip and See isn’t just about loosening up on the weekends. It’s about making connections between locations.
“If you’re Beth the birder, you’re not just Beth the birder. You’re also someone who likes to hike, kayak, explore the outdoors, and this is a way to help residents get more familiar with their own backyard and help familiarize other individuals in other counties with what Somerset County has to offer,” Defreest said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 12:45 p.m. ET Aug. 9 to clarify how Hunterdon County allocated its American Rescue Plan funds and also to add photo credits.