HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — Thomas B. Riford jokes that he started his career in marketing and promoting Washington County at the youthful age of 18.
Working as the marketing director for the Washington County Economic Development Commission from 1998 to 2000 — when the Internet and email still were relatively new tools in the public relations world — Riford started sending out news releases about area activities on a daily basis.
It’s something that has continued to this day, touting local events, ribbon-cuttings, anniversaries and accomplishments.
“People say I also helped invent the spam filter,” he said with a laugh, referring to the tremendous number of emails announcing events, conventions and other PR-related activities that he sends out each week to the media.
Riford, 56, has worked as president and chief executive officer of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau for nearly a decade. He will leave that post in late January 2014 for a corporate position with Homewood Retirement Centers.
“It is a significant opportunity,” Riford said. “It is the kind of job that will be my next 10 years of my life.”
Homewood Retirement Centers on Dec. 6 announced that Riford had been named the new vice president of funds development at Homewood, and will oversee the private not-for-profit company’s fundraising subsidiary, The Homewood Foundation. In his new position, Riford will raise funds to support Homewood’s Benevolent Care Endowment, as well as head capital campaigns in support of various building projects, special events and planned giving.
Although Riford said he is excited to begin work with a $230 million corporation that boasts about $85 million in annual revenue, it comes with a price — leaving the realm of local and regional tourism that he’s grown to love over the last 10 years.
“I will miss it with all my heart,” he said.
In his travels as a county business leader, Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce President Brien J. Poffenberger said he often runs into people from outside Washington County, and even if they’re not very familiar with the area, nearly everyone knows of Riford.
“He has effectively projected a brand for Washington County and the positive things we have to offer here, really throughout the state,” he said. ” … It’s a gift that he has, and a gift that he shares with us.”
Privatized as a 501(c)6 nonprofit membership-based organization in 1997 after formerly existing under county government, the mission of the CVB is to develop tourism and market Washington County to meeting planners, leisure travelers and business customers, according to its 2013 marketing plan.
Officials said that under Riford’s watch, Washington County’s tourist trade has grown.
When Riford became president of the CVB, about 1.2 million visitors came to Washington County each year. That figure was about 2.8 million in 2012, he said.
“In 2003-2004, we saw visitor spending totaling about $165 million,” Riford said Dec. 5 in an email. “Last year, (it) was over $300 million.”
Local jobs directly supported by tourism jobs also have grown, jumping from about 2,300 in 2003, when the county had about 5,000 total people working in the leisure and hospitality industries, Riford said.
Leisure and hospitality jobs include those in arts, entertainment and recreation, as well as lodging accommodations and food services, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
“Today, there are over 6,700 (jobs) in that classification,” Riford said, noting that more than 4,000 local jobs are directly supported by tourism.
Increased tourist visits and job growth have had a positive effect on total county lodging taxes, which have increased from $1.2 million in fiscal year 2003-04 to $1.8 million in 2012-13, according to statistics provided by county officials.
Receiving half of the hotel-motel tax as the primary source of funding in accordance with state law, the CVB’s budget also has increased from about $625,000 in 2003 to more than $1.1 million this year.
“While lodging revenues have increased through increased and effective marketing, including advertising, public relations, product development and sales, (state) sales (tax revenues) have greatly increased,” Riford said.
Riford also has been a local advocate for the film and television industries, noting several projects that have been filmed in and around Washington County in the past 10 years, including the movie “Fields of Freedom” and various History Channel and Discovery Channel productions.
“These not only fill hotel rooms while the crews are here, but the publicity is priceless,” he said. “Every single project has been assisted by the CVB.”
During Riford’s tenure, the CVB has received several state tourism awards, including the Governor’s Cultural Heritage Tourism Award in 2012.
Always on the go, Riford was honored earlier this year by a national magazine, Rejuvenate, as a top tourism professional in the country — the only Marylander to make the list of 34 people.
Connie Yingling, communications specialist with the Maryland Office of Tourism Development, said Thursday in an email that Riford has been a “tireless advocate” for tourism in Hagerstown and Washington County.
“Personally, it always has amazed me the extent of Tom’s efforts in promoting the county — he puts his heart and soul into every press release, every event, every speech and every ribbon-cutting,” Yingling said. “He can be found working days, nights and weekends. In my 21 years in the tourism industry, I consider him a colleague who has truly gone above and beyond the norm.”
Margot Amelia, executive director of the state tourism development office, called Riford “an amazing partner and supporter” for not only statewide tourism efforts, but also for the Maryland Film Office and state parks.
“His leadership will be sorely missed,” Amelia said in an emailed statement.
CVB board members Julie M. Rohm and Al Martin spoke highly of Riford when interviewed about his planned departure, calling him a “great asset” to the local tourism bureau.
“I look at the leadership that he has provided, his role as a cheerleader for our community, and I think probably most importantly are the results” he’s produced, said Martin, the board’s treasurer. “I’m not at all surprised to see Tom courted by other organizations.”
Rohm, who has been board chairwoman for the past two years, said she’s happy for Riford as he enters a new phase of his life.
“We have to be happy for him,” she said. “He’s accomplished so much in 10 years, and sometimes, you don’t have someone that long. And he’s still going to be here to continue to contribute to Washington County, just in a different capacity.”
Although Riford is not a county employee, Washington County Commissioner William B. McKinley spoke highly of Riford’s work at the CVB to improve local tourism, saying it might prove “rather tough” to replace “someone as articulate as Tom.”
“Generally, I’ve been happy with the CVB and what they’ve done for Washington County,” he said.
Just about every event put on by the City of Hagerstown each year has some level of involvement from Riford and the CVB, according to Karen Giffin, the city’s community affairs manager.
Giffin said Riford’s efforts to bring the Maryland International Film Festival-Hagerstown to downtown has been a great thing for City Center.
“Tom has been a great partner for the city,” she said. “Not only has the CVB helped us in sponsoring events that bring people to hotels, he also has helped us by being a master of ceremonies at times,” and helping to coordinate with other agencies to make events possible.
Augustoberfest, Western Maryland Blues Fest, commemoration events surrounding observances of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary in the area last year — Giffin said the list of events that receive monetary, marketing or coordination assistance from the CVB is just about endless.
There are “probably very few events that happen without Tom and the CVB as a partner,” Giffin said.
Over the years, Riford has served — and continues serving — on various volunteer boards for local organizations. One of them is Discovery Station in downtown Hagerstown.
B. Marie Byers, president of the downtown museum, said she’s thankful Riford will be taking a job locally and will be able to stay on as the vice president and marketing chair.
“He’s a marvelous person,” Byers said. “No. 1, with Tom, if there’s a significant word, it’s honesty. And then his enthusiasm for creating quality of life.
“I’m very, very, very happy (and) very relieved that he is remaining an actively involved member of our board of directors.”
Riford’s work to help promote and improve Discovery Station’s reach has been two-fold, using CVB funds to pay for advertising for the nonprofit organization and infusing ideas and energy into board activities such as an annual golf fundraiser at Black Rock, Byers said.
“He has actually created a destination (in Discovery Station), and we have had visitors from 20 states and 15 countries,” she said. “It’s wonderful.”
Noted by many as a trove of information when it comes to local historic and cultural information, Riford gladly touts the area’s abundance of state and national parks, Civil War battlefields, dozens of shopping areas and other attractions to stimulate conference, group and individual visitation.
Concern over the tourism bureau’s finances cropped up in September, when a now-former board member of the Washington County Economic Development Commission called for a review of the hotel-motel tax revenue collected by the county.
Although not required to do so under Maryland law, Riford, Rohm and Martin recently produced itemized financial documents for the 2012 and 2013 calendar years at the request of The Herald-Mail to show they had “no secrets.”
“We’ve never once felt that it wasn’t (the public’s) business,” Rohm said. “We just wanted to have it prepared for them in the correct manner.”
Riford has said that his departure from the CVB is in no way connected to the recent calls to see the CVB’s finances, calling it “an unfortunate coincidence.”
On Dec. 17, CVB officials will present their finances for 2013 and the 2014 budget process during the annual membership meeting at Cortland Mansion, north of Hagerstown. The public can attend the meeting, officials have said.
A member of the CVB for a number of years prior, Riford took the reins of the CVB during a time the agency’s finances were in the spotlight. In 2004, when he began working for the CVB, Riford had to deal with the challenges of digging out from under a $180,000 debt created, in part, by former President Ben Hart, who was charged with taking nearly $16,000 from the agency. Hart later said that he had a gambling problem. The CVB board forced Hart to resign in October 2003, and Riford was asked to apply for the job soon afterward — something he admits that he was unsure of at the time.
“I liked my job where I was,” said Riford, who was working at Associated Engineering Sciences Inc. at that time.
To clear the air after Hart left, Riford and then-CVB board President Ron Vitkun met with The Herald-Mail to go over its finances, showing what had happened and explaining how it was going to be corrected.
At times, during that difficult year-and-a-half after, the CVB had some trouble making regular payroll, Riford said.
“There were a lot of sleepless nights,” he said.
The CVB overcame that debt in the years that followed while maintaining its required 70-30 percentage split on the use of its funding — 70 percent going to promotions and operational costs and the other 30 percent being used for administrative costs.
Each year, the local chamber holds an event to celebrate local educators, and Riford — as he does with many other local events — often takes the microphone as the evening’s emcee.
The chamber’s Poffenberger said Riford always had the ability to keep people interested while speaking at the celebration held at Fountain Head Country Club, even though he’d have to read 30 to 40 names of teachers — something that can “get boring after three or four” names.
But Riford has an uncanny ability to bring “the steak and the sizzle” to his work, Poffenberger said, meaning he has a knack of maintaining high levels of both substance and excitement.
“He brings that high level of energy,” Poffenberger said.
When asked about highlights of Riford and his time with the CVB, the push to restore and reopen the Big Slackwater portion of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath south of Williamsport still is fresh in the mind of Poffenberger. That section of the towpath, which had been largely washed away by floodwaters over the years, reopened in 2012 after the completion of a more than $19 million construction project, which received monetary contributions from federal, state and local agencies, including the CVB.
Poffenberger said the county’s tourism bureau will “miss that voice” and it will be hard-pressed to replace Riford’s enthusiasm.
“There is no bigger cheerleader for Washington County … than Tom Riford,” he said.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)