Happy Valley expects record-setting number of tourists this summer

07/09/2024

by Holly Riddle

When is Happy Valley at its busiest and most bustling? Some might say fall football weekends, when Nittany Lion fans flock from near and far to fill up the 100,000-plus seats in Beaver Stadium. However, those people would be wrong. 

“Hotel performance is probably the best barometer of the health of the visitor industry. The hotels [in Happy Valley] run the highest occupancy through the summer months,” said Dave Gerdes, vice president of sales and marketing for The Happy Valley Adventure Bureau. “That surprises a lot of people.” 

Last year, from May to August, The Happy Valley Adventure Bureau estimates that the county welcomed approximately 1.9 million visitors. Events are largely to credit for this high visitation.  

Gerdes continued, “We have so many things that are taking place now in Happy Valley, almost every weekend. June is, without a doubt, the most stacked month of the year, as far as activities, events, festivals and tournaments. That doesn’t even include the camps that are taking place on campus or the camps out in Woodward… We have 15 weeks that we are without the full student body, and it is a very busy time for this area, despite no students.” 

Summer events that draw in large crowds include IRONMAN 70.3 Pennsylvania Happy Valley (which generated over $4.4 million for the local economy last year), People’s Choice Festival in Centre Hall, the Bellefonte Cruise and the Centre County Grange Fair — but the one summer event to rule them all is, without a doubt, the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, which regularly draws more than 100,000 attendees to downtown State College over the course of four days.  

Central PA Festival of the Arts Website

Pam Etters, the event’s executive director, said that her team has used geofencing to collect data on cell phone usage during the event, and, based on that data (as well as the facts that not every cell phone is detectable via geofencing and plenty of attendees, such as children, may not bring a mobile device to the event), she expects past years’ attendance to be as high as 175,000 attendees.  

“There are not a lot of festivals that you can go to, and get the quantity, quality and variety of artists that we have present at our festival,” she said, regarding the event’s popularity. “It’s like a one-stop shop. [Attendees] really know that they’re going to get [high] quality when they come. There’s going to be a wide variety. They’re going to see artists from all over… We also bring in a lot of performance groups that aren’t local…Additionally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that we are in Happy Valley and the Penn State alumni absolutely use Arts Festival weekend as an opportunity to return.”  

Click here to watch our Arts Festival Instagram reel. 

For the first time this year, the event will be entirely free, as part of Etters’ aim to make the festival and exposure to the arts as accessible as possible, for all community members. Additionally, she noted, removing ticket costs for certain performances will hopefully allow those who might’ve purchased a ticket in years past to spend that money supporting the attending artists.  

A summer visitation record  

This year, The Happy Valley Adventure Bureau expects the number of May–August visitors to the county to exceed 2 million people, setting a summer visitation record. This increase in visitation, Gerdes said, is due, first and foremost, to the Bureau’s increased promotion of the county — an effort the community largely supports, as increased visitation means economic growth, as well as the growth of lifestyle amenities for residents.   

However, some businesses do a better job capturing the economic impact of these events than others. Hotels have to do little to benefit from increased visitation, whereas local restaurants, shops and attractions may need to rethink their strategies. 

Gerdes said the first place for those businesses to start is by becoming a member of The Happy Valley Adventure Bureau. “The objective with all the promotion we’re doing is to drive people to our website,” he explained. “There’s an event calendar there. There’s a section on restaurants and the food and beverage scene. There are blog posts and accommodations — hotels, B&Bs, short-term rentals and campgrounds…and to get on that website, you need to be a member of the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau, which is very reasonable and not expensive at all. That’s the first step if you want to get a part of the visitor economy.”  

Looking at an individual event, Etters noted that the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts is “very conscious of working with the Downtown State College Improvement District to find unique ways for [businesses] to be involved and…make sure they’re seeing some sort of patronization from the festival.”  

“It’s an exciting time in Happy Valley.”

In some cases, she said, that might mean businesses need to extend their business hours to coordinate with the festival, or supporting the event through visible sponsorships. “We’ve had restaurants that normally wouldn’t be open for breakfast, open for breakfast because people need a place to go eat,” she added. The Downtown Improvement District is also running a lunch program with restaurants outside of the festival zone, which will allow the 300-plus attending artists to pre-order meals from these restaurants, which spreads the economic benefits beyond just downtown.  

Etters said, “It’s tricky, but we’re trying to navigate that and ask the very same questions: How can we make sure that this economic impact has sprawl? How can we make sure that it spreads throughout the community? Again, some of those ways are just having [businesses] think about the timing of the festival. Or, can they offer creative activities at their storefront? Anything that’s going to attract the crowd to where they’re located.”  

“An exciting time in Happy Valley” 

There’s no indication of tourism growth in Happy Valley slowing, with more events growing in size — such as State College Pride and the Remington Ryde Bluegrass Festival — and efforts from the relatively new Happy Valley Sports & Entertainment Alliance.  

"We’re a billion-dollar industry in this small county, and that’s pretty amazing when there’s only 160,000 people that live here.”  

“It’s an exciting time in Happy Valley,” summed up Gerdes. “We have a fantastic community and organizational support to promote the region as a year-round destination, and there’s momentum there. It builds on itself, in a very competitive market… We’re a billion-dollar industry in this small county, and that’s pretty amazing when there’s only 160,000 people that live here.”  

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