Once I tracked down a particular high school teacher to tell her how much her class had impacted my life. The teacher listened politely and then confessed that she didn’t really remember me.
Beyond the bruised ego, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. At least she did not think poorly of me. Neutral is better than negative.
As West Virginians, we are obsessed with what others think of us and our state. The many slings and arrows we’ve suffered over the years have made us sensitive to how we are perceived.
The latest came just last night as MTV rolled out “Buckwild,” the Appalachian version of “Jersey Shore.” Our collective radar is up to see whether the series portrays West Virginia unfavorably.
It’s important to note, however, that for all our fears about image, most of the country has no impression at all about West Virginia.
A survey by Widmeyer Communications for the West Virginia Division of Tourism found that 76 percent of those questioned don’t know much about our state and 38 percent know nothing at all about us.
In fact—and this will come as no surprise to us—eight percent think we’re part of Virginia and 16 percent are not sure West Virginia is a separate state.
But this isn’t necessarily bad news.
“It’s an opportunity,” said Widmeyer Communications President and West Virginia native Scott Widmeyer. “It provides a lot of openings.”
Widmeyer says given the blank slate, West Virginia can build an image from the ground up in hopes of attracting tourists to the state.
And there are already a few blocks in place.
The survey found that when people are asked to describe West Virginia, terms like “natural,” “small-town,” and “friendly” come up the most.
“This can be a real magnet to attract people who are looking for getaway vacations that offer recreation, leisure and relaxation,” Widmeyer said.
But getting people to West Virginia is only part of the equation. Mountaineer hospitality must be on display.
“People are expecting high quality and good efficiency,” Widmeyer told me.
The survey also found that up to 75 million Americans are likely to visit West Virginia within the next three years. That sounds high to me, but regardless those folks are, in many cases, going to get their first taste of the Mountain State.
We know West Virginia is a friendly state with charm and beauty. Most natives have a certain pride in their birthplace, while the joke among those who move to West Virginia is that they got here as soon as they could.
So forget the stereotypes. The average West Virginian who hosts a visitor or bumps into a traveler will be a more significant ambassador for the state that the “Buckwild” gang.