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story.lead_photo.caption FILE: A group of friends including those from the Kingdom of Callaway Historical Society, along with Renee Graham (standing in the back), Callaway County tourism director, gathered to watch the solar eclipse in a parking lot off Nichols Street in 2017. Graham has been instrumental in planning eclipse activites in Callaway County for more than a year. Photo by Jenny Gray / Fulton Sun.

Callaway County Tourism Director Renee Graham visited with the Fulton Rotary Club on Wednesday about how tourism worked in the county through COVID-19, as well as how she plans to welcome tourists back.

Graham is celebrating her sixth anniversary in her position. She commuted for five years but finally decided to move to Fulton last year, making herself a Callawegian.

"You're a Callawegian if you live, learn, work, play or love here — that's what's important," Graham said.

Though she is a separate organization from the Callaway Chamber of Commerce, they share the same goal — to bring visitors to Fulton.

Fulton saw a little growth in 2015-16, Graham said, then 2017 was a big year due to the eclipse and outage before 2018 experienced a little dip. But in 2019, revenues rebounded and things were looking hopeful.

Graham was starting to feel as though she was making a difference, a solid, conservative budget was made and 2020 was set.

"I just had this kind of feeling that when things are so high, there comes a point where there's going to be a correction, and I wasn't sure if it was going to be gas prices or international travel," Graham told Rotary members.

It ended up being a pandemic.

In the beginning, like everything else, tourism in Fulton suffered. Within the first two months of the shutdown, revenues decreased by 73 percent. Graham remembered her building had to be shut down, and she was the only one in the office. Graham would receive phone calls from distraught individuals, leaving her feeling unsure of what to do, how to help or even if she could.

But being part of the Missouri's Association of Convention and Business Bureaus, they found a way to be there for each other and start brainstorming on how to get through the pandemic. When it came to marketing, some budget cuts were made.

Graham and her board looked for other places where cuts could be made, so in April 2020, they cut their budget by 47 percent, and Graham decided to reduce her hours and take a wage reduction until the end of the year.

As things started to bounce back, she turned her attention to Kingdom City because the hotels off I-70 were thriving due to the construction crews and truckers coming through, as well as people starting to go on driving vacations. But with more and more businesses starting to open up, things started to look better and better. Then, an outage happened, and it lasted longer than the Callaway Energy Center expected. Though it was bad for them, it was good for tourism revenues.

As Graham worked with Kingdom City, the "Visit Fulton" signs were taken down and the focus primarily was upon Kingdom City because the hotels there were the county's biggest producer of revenue, especially with the gas stations and restaurants. She promoted stop spots there and expanded engagement with day trippers.

For example, in Boone County, things were much more shut down than they were in Callaway, so by advertising Serenity Winery near Millersburg was open and had plenty of outdoor space for social distancing, they ended up raising their revenues and gaining clients.

With Callaway County Tourism receiving grants from the Missouri Division of Tourism and the county's CARES Act funding, they were able to help the Brick District and the Brick District Playhouse in downtown Fulton with marketing purposes. As far as the rest of the downtown area goes, Graham started promoting day trips and bus tours, which helped drive shopping to the local stores.

"For 2021, it looks better and we're projecting slight growth, but I like to budget conservatively," Graham said. "I would rather come in under budget than over budget."

As far as its COVID recovery plan and objectives to support recovery goes, in the beginning, all that Callaway County Tourism could really do was share social media posts, inform people about free listing opportunities, stream online its application process for tourism grants and work to restore its public relation efforts.

Graham believes Callaway is full of fun, interesting stories, so that's been Callaway County Tourism's focus when it comes to advertising — to make it more about the people or the history behind the business. The idea is to focus on dining, shopping and events but to do it from a storytelling point of view.

With the new year, Callaway County Tourism has been able to start fresh by creating a new logo, a new website and a new message. The organization wants to focus on what Callaway has to offer — that it's close, safe and convenient to those within a 100-mile radius.

Callaway is a place where things are done a little differently — the Calla-way, if you will, Graham said.

"Get away the Calla-way, doing things the Calla-way," Graham said to Rotary members. "And during the beginning of the shutdown it was, staying safe the Calla-way, social distancing the Calla-way, business done the Calla-way."

Speaking of the Calla-way, this year's Bicentennial Bash 2.1 will be Aug. 28. The Wise Brothers will host the Kingdoom of Callaway Historical Society's vintage tractor drive in the morning, and in the afternoon Callaway Electric Cooperative has opened its grounds to host country music band Shenandoah.

For more on Callaway County Tourism, go to www.visitfulton.com.

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