Ben Berthelot got a volunteer statewide position with a tourism group and a great product to sell: Louisiana.
As president and CEO of the Lafayette Convention & Visitors Commission, Berthelot said his work with the Louisiana Travel Association has taken him to the all corners of the state, where he has gained new perspectives about its tourism riches. He’s been a member of the organization for several years but in the last four or five years took steps up the organization’s leadership ladder; he was installed as chairman of the board of directors this month.
“As a marketing professional, we have a great product to sell. New Orleans gets a lot of big-time press but there are great destinations in every part of the state,” Berthelot said. “This association has done a great job of telling that story.”
Outside of New Orleans, Berthelot said he is most familiar with his native Acadiana, where he said Cajun and Creole food, culture and music routine draw travelers. Once visitors try Acadiana, he said, they’re hooked.
“We have a great story to tell,” he said. “It’s the birthplace of Cajun and Zydeco music. We have a product, and we deliver on people’s expectations.”
But Berthelot said in the course of his travels he’s explored other tourism treasures: outdoor sites in northeastern Louisiana and Toledo Bend; gaming in Lake Charles; New Orleans, with its obvious myriad attractions.
“We work hard and we play hard,” he said about the state as a whole. That’s a message he said others outside of Louisiana appreciate. The state holds some “mystique” for visitors, which he says he encounters when he meets people from elsewhere and talks about his home state.
He said he’s been pleasantly surprised by what he’s found in other, lesser-touted Louisiana tourism sites, such as downtown Covington, which he described as “vibrant” and “just developed” with the century-old boutique Southern Hotel and access to bike trails.
“Before I had this position, I did not know,” he said in describing lesser-known destinations. But in traveling the state for tourism business, he’s taken note of what works elsewhere, such as densely developed downtowns that encourage walking to multiple sites of interest. Some of those ideas, he said, he hopes to apply here.
Berthelot said the Travel Association, almost six decades old, has in recent years touted advocacy for the industry. But he said it also needs to encourage revenue. To that end, he said, the group is formulating a 20-year association plan. That, he said, gives him a vital mission as chairman.
He said making the case for supporting tourism with state dollars is easy enough. Citing 2018 numbers as talking points, Berthelot said tourism’s impact on Louisiana is substantial: seven straight years of record tourism numbers, with 51.3 million visitors in 2018 and $18.8 billion in spending. Some 237,200 Louisianians work in the industry.
But, he said, it would be dangerous to cut back on state support because things are doing well. Some states have done that, assuming that tourists would come no matter what, only to find that they need to be sold on visiting your state.
He said the best tourists are Louisianians themselves. Their “staycations” help keep dollars home and help Louisianians appreciate their state. He said that Texans are also enthusiastic visitors here, with lots of traffic from Houston and Dallas.
There are other, possible local tourism lures, he said: A po’boy tour, a civil rights trail and a spiritual trail, among them. All have been at least in the talking stages to encourage more people to visit sites of interest around Acadiana.