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Hershey Harrisburg Sports & Events Authority makes debut

New division of visitors bureau aims to attract big events

Gregg Cook, the executive director of the newly formed Hershey Harrisburg Sports & Events Authority, spoke at the third annual Mecum Auction Block Party on Wednesday. The event served as the official launch of the newly formed authority.

Sporting events, especially anything involving young people, are a big business in Central Pennsylvania, but they have room to grow, according to local tourism professionals.

Hoping to accelerate that growth, the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau has launched a new division aimed at attracting sports and other large-scale public events: the Hershey Harrisburg Sports & Events Authority.

Sports and public events account for 80 percent of the bureau’s top 20 clients and an estimated $132 million in annual economic impact. Private group tours, including international visitors, and corporate meetings and conventions are other core markets for the bureau.

But while they are often busy, regional venues and hotels still have holes to fill in their calendars. At the same time, plenty of sports and event organizers are looking to move tournaments or expand into new markets, officials said.   

A dedicated staff that can speak the language and understand the needs of a lacrosse tournament organizer, for example, can make the difference in what has become a highly competitive market. The Harrisburg area might be bidding against State College, Erie or Valley Forge to host an event. 

“Sports people want to know they are dealing with sports people. It carries a little more weight,” said Gregg Cook, the executive director of the newly formed authority, which will make its formal debut this afternoon at the third annual Mecum Auction Block Party at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center, site of this week’s Mecum collector car auction.

Cook, the bureau’s sports marketing sales manager and lone sports staff member for the last 13 years, said the bureau’s expanded commitment to these markets, which includes hiring two staff members, should help grow sales by 10 percent in the first year.

“The upside is strong,” Cook said.

Allison Rohrbaugh, the bureau’s content marketing manager, has moved over to the authority and a third staff member will soon come on board to head up business development efforts.

Sales growth could come from more people attending repeat or new events, staying in hotels and spending money in restaurants and shops.

The authority also will have more capacity to help existing clients with marketing their tournaments and events, which frees other bureau employees to focus on broader destination marketing efforts.

A similar model exists in Erie, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and several other cities boast organizations active in sports tourism and events.

“We aren’t necessarily changing our focus on the types or sizes of events we are pursuing,” said Mary Smith, the bureau’s president and CEO. “But we are greatly expanding the scope of services we can provide to our clients.”

Smith cited Mecum and Lego KidsFest as recent success stories for Harrisburg. Both are national brands that wanted to hold more shows, and both have been successful in Harrisburg.

The long-term plan includes producing authority-branded events in the Harrisburg area, officials said.

A portion of the bureau’s annual budget will help fund the new division, along with Dauphin County tourism grants. The bureau gets most of its operating budget from a 5 percent county hotel tax.

Top events


The Harrisburg area is home to many big events throughout the year.

Here are some of the top events over the past year for the visitors bureau:

  • Great American Outdoor Show: Largest attendance and economic impact at 178,500 people and $75 million.
  • PIAA wrestling: Attendance of 39,000 people.
  • Lego KidsFest: The traveling Lego event, which typically doesn’t return to the same city each year, had attendance of 27,500 people and an economic impact of $7.1 million.
  • Pennsylvania National Horse Show: $12 million economic impact.
  • Mecum Auctions: 22,000 people and $8.3 million economic impact.
  • Fire Expo: 16,500 people and $4.5 million economic impact.

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