CHARLESTON — The combination of adding a stop in Charleston, a Marshall University homecoming weekend in Huntington, and some fast thinking is turning the Autumn Colors Express weekend into a tourism boomlet for Charleston.
“A lot of people were involved. We were just the matchmakers,” Alisa Bailey, president and CEO of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Wednesday of the logistics for the excursion train’s weekend, Oct. 25-27.
Ticket sales for the train, which is replacing the long-running but defunct New River Train, have been strong, with the Saturday run 96% sold out, according to Lou Capwell, marketing director for Rail Excursion Management Co. (Railexco).
“I think a lot of people waited until the last minute,” he said, noting that ticket sales have accelerated in the past two to three weeks.
“Adding Charleston, that has been huge for us,” he said of receiving permission from Amtrak in August to add stops in Charleston to the Huntington-to-Hinton excursion route. “That accelerated sales for us.”
With hotel rooms in Huntington booked for homecoming weekend, and with Charleston a convenient drive from key markets in Ohio, particularly metro Columbus, he said adding Charleston has turned out to be a key to the excursion’s success — with one key hitch: There is a limited number of long-term parking spaces at the station.
He said Railexco contacted city and CVB officials about the problem, and he said that within 24 hours, they made arrangements for free parking downtown and shuttle bus service to and from the station.
“The city of Charleston, to say they hit the ground running is an understatement,” Capwell said, adding, “Everything clicked into place. Everybody should be so lucky as to have a CVB that good in their town.”
Bailey gives officials with the city and KRT credit for quickly making arrangements for parking and the shuttle service.
“We’re just excited Charleston was added as a stop,” she said. “Obviously, it was the right move on their part.”
It also means a tourism boomlet for the city over a weekend that normally would not be particularly busy, she said.
“It’s our job to fill these hotel rooms, and we were fortunate this fell into our lap,” Bailey said.
The morning departure and evening return for the train means that most out-of-town riders will spend two nights in Charleston.
“Most people want to do that anyway to get to experience the city,” she said.
Given the strong ticket sales despite a sales window of less than three months (after multiple delays, tickets went on sale Aug. 5), Capwell announced Wednesday that the Autumn Colors Express will return in 2020.
He said officials in Hinton and Summers County have also been helpful, agreeing to have Railroad Days festivities in downtown Hinton all three days of the train’s runs, after initially balking at closing downtown streets Oct. 25.
“All three days of the excursion there will be full-blown Railroad Days in Hinton,” Capwell said.
He said plans are for the 26-car train to arrive in Huntington from Chicago on Oct. 23, with training for car hosts set for that Thursday.
“Hopefully, we can cross the finish line strong and have a great event,” he said.
A limited number of tickets are still available at the train website, www.autumncolorexpresswv.com.