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Economic benefits of trails and greenways
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West Virginia study looks at trail tourism on rail trail

A trail-user survey was developed to assess both user preferences and trends and, at the same time, amass basic economic impact data on trail use.

Also see Economic benefits of the Hatfield-McCoy trail system.

From the Fall 2001 issue of Trails Tracks, the national newsletter of American Trails

From Maximizing Economic Benefits from a Rails-to-Trails Project in Southern West Virginia: A Case Study of the Greenbrier River Trail; Download the complete text Map of West Virginia

A recent report from West Virginia provides more data on the economic and tourism benefits of trails. The title is very descriptive: Maximizing Economic Benefits from a Rails-to-Trails Project in Southern West Virginia: A Case Study of the Greenbrier River Trail. It presents the results of a 10-month project designed to inventory the recreation opportunities in the Greenbrier River Trail corridor, to assess the level of trail use and its economic impact, and to generate broad-based cooperative efforts to expand marketing and promotion.

"The results of this project clearly indicate that there are opportunities to enhance the economic impact of the Greenbrier River Trail on the area."

A trail-user survey was developed to assess both user preferences and trends and, at the same time, amass basic economic impact data on trail use. During October, 2000, trail-side surveys were conducted, while several state agencies, commercial businesses, and travel and tourism offices solicited survey responses from the trail users they encountered.

Survey analysis showed that trail users tend to be highly educated with family incomes over $60,000 per year, and that more than 60% were residents of other states. It was also found that the amount of money spent by out-of-state visitors far exceeded that spent by West Virginia residents. Ninety percent of the out-of-state visitors indicated that they were highly likely to plan a return visit to the area. This has profound implications for expanded promotion and marketing opportunities.

The overall economic impact on the area by trail users was significant. Out-of-state visitors purchased the broadest range of goods and services and made the greatest total expenditures. Visitors were very pleased with the quality of their trail experiences, the trail itself, and the surrounding environment.

The project began with an inventory all leisure industry providers, points of interest, and infrastructure. Next, a survey of trail users was conducted, followed by public meetings in an effort to create a broad-based support group for economic enhancement. The final step was to produce the documentation of trail user demographics and economic impact.

Trail user survey results show economic benefits

The following is a summary of some of the findings of the West Virginia economic impacts study of the Greenbrier River Trail:

Sex and group size of visitors

Trail users were almost evenly divided between male (53%) and female users (47%). This may have positive implications for future marketing and promotion efforts. If use were skewed heavily toward one gender, marketing and promotion would be more challenging in many respects.

The most frequently reported group size was two people (42%), followed by four.


The age classes representing the greatest trail use were 25-39 (34%) and 40-59 (44%). Only 10% of users were in the 16-24 age class, and 12% were 60 and over. Of particular interest is that West Virginia has one of the highest senior citizen populations in the country, and an increasing percentage of out-of-state visitors are retired. Opportunities abound to market the Greenbrier River Trail to this age class. During summer vacation periods the proportion of younger users is probably be much higher.

Education level

The results of this survey strongly suggest that there may be a high correlation between use of the Greenbrier River Trail and the education level of the users: 90% of the trail users hold college degrees or have attended college.

Profession and family income

Of those surveyed 52% were white-collar workers. Only 9% were retired, indicating this group may be a prime target for marketing. Incomes were consistent with education level and profession: 54% reported family incomes over $60,000.


The fact that 63% of the respondents were from out of state has profound implications for marketing strategies, as does the discovery that only 16% were residents of the two trail corridor counties. Virginia zip codes accounted for 37% of the out-of-state visitors, indicating that Virginia would be a prime target market for promotional campaigns.Principal type of trail activity

The most popular type of trail use reported was overwhelmingly bicycling (75%). Future marketing and promotion strategies should attempt to focus on this user group. While walking and jogging are significant uses (20%), they are probably restricted to relatively short sections of the trail near trailheads while bicycle use extends over much longer sections.

Items for which visitors spent money in the area

Food, travel, and lodging headed the list of items on which visitors spent money. As expenditures on equipment rental or purchase, guide services,and clothing were almost non-existent, it is obvious these are areas that require more effective marketing and promotion efforts. Only souvenirs showed a moderate level of expenditure outside of the top three, perhaps because of limited opportunities for such purchases.

Duration of visit

The duration of visits was about evenly distributed among one-day (34%), overnight (27%), and multiple-day visits (39%). Of the reported visits, 93% occurred during a one- to four-day period; and only 7% of the reported visits occurred during periods longer than five days. Marketing and promotion strategies, from a cost effectiveness perspective, might be best focused on the one- to four-day visitor.

Estimated total expenditure for this trip

58% spent between $100 and $500. Those who reported spending less than $100 were those who lived within the corridor. Of the 39% who spent more than $500 on their trips, virtually all resided outside West Virginia.

Is this your first trip to the Greenbrier River Trail?

The 47% who indicated "yes" is an extraordinarily high first-time visitor figure. Any tourist-related industry would cherish a first-time attendance rate of 47%. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that almost half of the visitors indicated that word-of-mouth was the greatest influence on their decision to visit the Greenbrier River Trail.

What influenced your visit to the trail?

More visitors (47%) were influenced by word-of-mouth than were by electronic and print media combined (39%). The fact that 54% of the visitors did not seek or receive printed or electronic information about the trail is further evidence that a broader marketing and promotion effort could positively influence visitation in the corridor.

Quality of trail, surroundings, and experience

When viewed together, scenic quality, physical condition, quality of experience, and likelihood of planning a return visit provide excellent opportunities for future marketing and promotion efforts. An overwhelming percentage of the respondents ranked these items very highly.

It is clear that visitors appreciated and enjoyed their trail-related activity and that almost every one of them plans a return visit. An expanded promotion activity should obtain mailing addresses of trail users in order to mail printed information to them within a few months after their visits.

Other recreation activities in the area

As 48% indicated their trip included other visits or recreation activities in the corridor, it is apparent that trail users who have a greater awareness of other activities and facilities in the area are more likely to extend their visit to take advantage of these opportunities.

The 59 other outdoor recreation activities reported by trail users are clear evidence that many trail users are interested in other outdoor recreation opportunities when available. The economic impact of these other outdoor recreation opportunities could possibly be enhanced through expanded promotion and marketing efforts in the area.

Additional conclusions

Officials of state government agencies and convention and visitors bureaus have suggested that the results of the trail user survey are probably very conservative because use of the Greenbrier River Trail is considerably higher in the summer months. They have suggested that the economic impact results would be significantly greater if a similar survey were conducted during the summer.

The results of this project clearly indicate that there are opportunities to enhance the economic impact of the Greenbrier River Trail on the area. The key to success will be to find ways to develop cooperative promotion and marketing agreements among all agencies and organizations that now promote and market in a more narrow focus.

Download the complete text of Maximizing Economic Benefits from a Rails-to-Trails Project, case study of the Greenbrier River Trail, WV (pdf 333kb)

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