By Emily Priddy
Route 66 communities looking for ways to attract tourists with a fondness for mom-and-pop businesses might want to start courting cyclists.
S.J. Morrison, director of marketing and planning for Madison County Transit in Illinois, said trail users in his area spend an average of more than $30 each at restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores.
Morrison, speaking at a panel discussion Oct. 30 at the Miles of Possibility conference in Edwardsville, Illinois, said more than 100,000 people per year — 14 percent of them visitors to the area — use Madison County’s seven-loop, 125-mile trail system.
Like Route 66 travelers, Morrison said cyclists tend to seek out locally owned restaurants and lodging options during their trips.
“They want unique experiences,” such as bed-and-breakfast inns or boutique hotels, he said. “They want to go someplace that’s local. … Those are what trail tourists, bike tourists are looking for.”
Hamel, Illinois, Mayor Larry Bloemker, who moderated the discussion, said cyclists tend to have above-average education and income levels.
“Bicycle tourism makes us relevant with a completely different group that we might not touch otherwise,” he said.
Hamel recently received a federal grant to build its own trail that will connect to Illinois’ Route 66 Trail, Bloemker said.
In some ways, the Route 66 Trail mirrors the road that inspired it: Bloemker said it was not built entirely from scratch but instead connects many pre-existing paths.
Panelist Marla Gursh, a trails planner with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said the state began working on the trail 10 years ago.
The trail diverges from the Mother Road in some areas, but it connects every community on Route 66 in Illinois, Gursh said.
Trails aren’t the only way to attract cyclists to Route 66. Panelist Nick Gerlich, a marketing professor at West Texas A&M University and an experienced cyclist, suggested communities hold special events, such as races, to draw cyclists to the road.
“You can generate economic impact really fast by bringing people to town to do something athletic,” Gerlich said.
Since the nonprofit Adventure Cycling Association released its Route 66 map set this spring, Gerlich has seen a “big uptick” in the number of cyclists on the road between Amarillo, Texas, and Flagstaff, Arizona, he said.
Cycling gives travelers a closer connection to the road, Gerlich said.
“You may think you experience it in the car,” he said. “You don’t really experience it until you’re out there in the elements. … You really begin to feel a part of it.”
More stories from the Miles of Possibility Conference will be posted in the coming days.
(Image of cyclists at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis by Trailnet via Flickr)