Mountaineer tours offer experiences beyond the beaten trail - WTRF 7 News Sports Weather - Wheeling Steubenville

Mountaineer tours offer experiences beyond the beaten trail

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Cynthia McCloud / For The State Journal. Tom Westbrook, owner of Westbrook’s Esso, a restored service station in Kingwood, talks to a tour group this spring. Cynthia McCloud / For The State Journal. Tom Westbrook, owner of Westbrook’s Esso, a restored service station in Kingwood, talks to a tour group this spring.
Cynthia McCloud / For The State Journal. Renowned bluegrass musician Bob Shank plays banjo and hammered dulcimer, sings and tells stories. Cynthia McCloud / For The State Journal. Renowned bluegrass musician Bob Shank plays banjo and hammered dulcimer, sings and tells stories.
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By CYNTHIA McCLOUD

For The State Journal

When tour groups visit the Mountain State, JoAnn Peterson plays hostess — and sometimes she plays Mary Todd Lincoln or Nellie Bly.

Peterson started Mountaineer Country Tours LLC, the only local receptive operator, or RO, in North-Central West Virginia, in 2006.

Receptive tour operators host tour groups visiting their areas. They often get tourists access to attractions and experiences they wouldn’t get on their own. The RO arranges packages, often based around a theme such as fall foliage, food, coal mining or the Civil War.

“Many of my tours are ones I develop utilizing local attractions, and adding some special touches, being creative,” Peterson said. “One of my unique tours is Appalachian Vittles.”

Peterson said the tour is sometimes known as a “progressive dine-around.”

“They experience Arthurdale (the First New Deal Homestead), the historic McGrew House with first-person portrayal of Persis McGrew, the Greatest Generation World War II museum, the scenic byway of the Cheat River, historic Preston County Inn, mom-and-pop spoon makers Allegheny Treenware and Preston Community Arts Center with entertainment by hammered dulcimer and banjo player Bob Shank,” she said.

At one stop, tourists eat buckwheat cakes and sausage, and at another pepperoni rolls. While listening to Shank’s stories and bluegrass songs, travelers eat Golden Delicious apple bread pudding and blackberry wine cake made by Peterson.

In addition to West Virginia, Peterson hosts tours in Western Maryland and Southwestern Pennsylvania. She also organizes outbound tours to anywhere in the United States or the world.

“Another one of my unique tours is ‘Stars of Yesteryear,’ which features the hometowns of Don Knotts (Morgantown) and Perry Como, Bobby Vinton and The Four Coins (Canonsburg, Pennsylvania),” she said. “You learn about their lives growing up in these towns, see sites associated with them and hear tales you might not find out about elsewhere, since (Knotts’ widow) Francey Yarborough and (daughter) Karen Knotts have personally told me stories about Don Knotts.

“They gave me photos to use on my tours. On this tour, everyone gets an apple dumpling, because of the movies Don made with Tim Conway, ‘The Apple Dumpling Gang.’”

Peterson said she doesn’t believe in “cookie-cutter” tours, meaning tours that are all the same.

“I customize my tours to fit the interests and needs of that particular group, keeping within their budget and time allowances,” she said “I’m developing a coffeeshop tour and will be writing a ‘Downton Abbey’-themed murder mystery for that particular themed tour.”

Peterson’s tour business and her interest in theater complement each other. She has written old-time radio shows and eight murder mystery plays.

A West Virginia Humanities Council History Alive! presenter, she also portrays Molly Brown, heroine of the Titanic.

“They can be added to tours as the entertainment or can be the main feature of the tour,” Peterson said. “You can hear about Nellie Bly’s around-the-world trip, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary, and also hear of her other exploits, including when she pretended she was insane, was committed to an insane asylum, and did an expose on her experiences that led to massive reforms in the treatment of the mentally ill.

“I tie it in with a tour of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston.”

Peterson started in the tourism business in 1996 by taking a tour guide training class because she loved to travel and wanted to discover the history of Western Maryland, where she was living at the time. She grew up in Fort Ashby, in Mineral County, and moved back to West Virginia in 2005. She lives in Kingwood.

“West Virginia is such a beautiful state, so rich in its culture, its heritage, its history,” Peterson said. “I am often asked to plan ‘mystery’ tours because the tour operators tell me West Virginia is a hard sell. But, once those on the tour have experienced it and spread the word about what a great time they had and how wonderful West Virginia is, then they can actually sell it as a West Virginia tour.

“Mystery tours are ones where people sign up not knowing where they will be going or what they will be doing. It’s signing up on blind faith that the company has planned something really cool.”

It’s difficult for the state tourism department to track the number of motorcoach tourists who visit West Virginia each year, though many convention and visitors bureaus do. Peterson has personally seen her business grow over the years.

“Last year I had about 2,200 people on tours,” she said. “A tour can range from 20 to 57 people on it, with the majority in the 25-35 range. In 2012 and 2011, it was around 1,900 each year. In 2010, there were 1,100.

“I’m not sure if the increase in the number of tours I do is because the economy is improving or because each year I am in business, my reputation and referrals grow,” she said.

Her satisfied customers are a big source of referrals and she gets a few from CVBs, the West Virginia Division of Tourism and vendors, such as the hotels and attractions with which she works.

She said some members of the tourism industry lack knowledge and understanding of what she does, and the cost of marketing is a challenge because the profit margin on a tour is very small.

“I plan probably about three to four times the actual number of tours that actually happen,” she said. “Some are proposals that don’t get accepted and then there are tours that tour operators advertise, but don’t get enough signed up to be able to conduct them.

“I plan the tours; they market them and sign up the people. I don’t make any money until the tour is conducted and tours are planned sometimes over a year before the tour occurs.”