Courtesy Virginia Beach CVB
I sat down on a bench near “Neptune,” the enormous statue that graces the corner of Atlantic and 31st streets in Virginia Beach, Virginia. It was about 9:00 in the evening on a Monday in July, and I wanted to enjoy the impromptu street party that surrounded me. I had just been dropped off at my hotel by Jim Coggin, tourism sales manager at the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, who had spent the day showing me around.
The last thing Jim said to me was, “See you in the morning. Now, go take a walk on the boardwalk and enjoy yourself.” I had no argument with that — I hadn’t come to one of America’s great beach towns to spend the evening in my hotel room.
For a Monday night, the scene around me was impressive. A blues band was playing in the stage area on the corner, and people were dancing. Others listened while they sipped a drink and talked. People congregated along the beachfront on terraces, walls and benches. Kids were here. Families were here. Couples were here.
The lights of ships and boats on the ocean shone in the distance. I caught the shadows of people walking along the sand in the dark, enjoying the evening at a different pace.
Inside an adjacent hotel, dozens of guests were in the bar watching a baseball game and relaxing after a day on the beach. It was easy to imagine that most of these people were making their annual trip to that beach to enjoy a week of laid-back leisure. Any one of them probably would have told me right then that life was good.
Interestingly, Coggin had told me on my arrival that day that he wanted to be sure I saw lots of things besides the beach.
“We want to make sure that bank travel directors across America are aware of how diverse this area is,” he said. “Sure, people come here for the beach, and we love that. Three of our beachfront properties are hosting your BankTravel delegates, and you are staying at the Sheraton on the beach while you’re here. But I’m also going to show you some things that I’ll bet you never associated with this area.”
At lunch that afternoon, Ron Kuhlman, the bureau’s vice president of tourism marketing and sales, joined us to say hello and to stress the significance of the bank travel market to this city.
“I see banks as a whole new market segment we haven’t been involved in until you guys brought it to our attention,” he said. “We’re developing product right now for the banking industry. We’re developing a strong experiential product here that your clients are looking for today.
“For instance, how many people have seen a real USO show that wasn’t in a movie? We’re creating that type of product. We know banks have high standards for their trips, and we have to exceed their expectations,” he said.
Our first stop after lunch was the Military Aviation Museum, one of Virginia Beach’s local gems and site of the opening evening event for BankTravel 2013. The privately owned facility houses some of the country’s most revered planes from both world wars. And virtually all of the World War II planes still fly and are used in local events and air shows.
“BankTravel delegates will enjoy a reception here in the museum so they can enjoy all the planes,” said Coggin. “Then, we’ll have a seated dinner with a USO-style show featuring ‘Bob Hope’ and music from the 1940s. Entertainers based on the Lennon Sisters, the Andrews Sisters, Frank Sinatra, etc., will perform — that type of music and feel will make this event special.
“We’ll also have a red, white and blue tribute to America’s military, which is so much a part of Virginia Beach,” said Coggin. “This museum connects with people’s hearts and shows us how much we have to be thankful for in this country.”
A Coastal Harvest
In our drive out to the aviation museum, I noticed how quickly we left the iconic beachfront and made our way into rolling farmland. And that is precisely what Coggin intended.
“This is the agricultural side of Virginia Beach,” he said. “And this is the kind of diversity I’m talking about. I drive out this way a lot on the weekends just to escape the busy feel around the beach and get out in the country.”
Then he pulled off the road at Cullipher Farm Market so we could talk for a few minutes about the growing agritourism product his bureau has packaged. “Coastal Harvest Feast” is a five-day culinary experience being offered to tour companies to give visitors a firsthand look at the local produce, seafood, wines and other products of this area.
Within minutes, the proprietor, Mike Cullipher, walked out to our car and asked if he could help us. He was wondering, I’m sure, who we were and why we were surveying his property.
When Coggin introduced himself and showed Cullipher the brochure we were discussing, he broke into a smile.
“I wasn’t sure what you all were up to,” he said, laughing. “Excuse my appearance, but that storm last night knocked down all our tomato plants, and we’ve spent the day tying them back up.”
Coggin introduced me, and we ended up getting a photo of him with Mike and his sister for a Twitter post. Then Mike and his sister gave us tomatoes and peaches to take home. When I went through security at the airport the next day, the screener said, “Who’s carrying peaches home?” I asked if that was a problem, and she answered, “Only if you don’t like peaches.”
Our last stop that afternoon was the Virginia Beach Farmers Market back in town. The sprawling complex is open year-round and is quite the stop for many groups in the area.
“Lots of groups stop here to browse or buy local produce to take home,” said Coggin. “And a lot of them make this a lunch stop. They offer prepared lunches for groups, and there is also a bakery and ice cream shop here.”