Last Saturday morning, 33 passengers boarded a bus at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station for a weekend trip.
This was no ordinary excursion: none of them knew where they were going, and most didn’t know their fellow travelers.
It may sound like the premise for a reality TV show, but blind vacations—trips where the destination stays under wraps until the participants arrive—are a fast-growing travel trend. Solo travel, where adventurers embark on journeys without friends or family in tow, are also gaining traction among younger travelers.
As the bus made its way out of the city, the passengers tried to guess where they were headed. A little under three hours later—and 3,000 feet above D.C. elevation—they got their answer: West Virginia.
Passengers were greeted by a postcard-worthy view of the 13-mile Canaan Valley between two of the highest ridges in the Allegheny Mountains just as the area’s renowned fall foliage season kicked off.
“We were looking for a unique way to get people excited about fall in West Virginia,” said Chelsea Ruby, the director of the state’s tourism office. “Our fall foliage is second to none and our mountain towns are marvelous hosts, but a lot of travelers still don’t think of us as a fall destination. This event lets us cut through the noise of everyday advertising and get our message out: Come see West Virginia this fall!”
Ten days before the trip, ads began appearing in the greater D.C. area promoting a fall weekend getaway to a mystery destination. Five hundred people applied to get in on the fun, and a few days before the trip, 33 lucky winners got the news they had been selected.
Their instructions: Show up at 7 o’clock Saturday morning with layered clothing, hiking boots and a sense of adventure. The mystery destination would take care of the rest. The spontaneous strangers boarded the bus cautiously optimistic, buzzing about where the mystery destination might be. By noon, they were dining al fresco on a forest path overlooking the iconic Blackwater Falls.
The next 48 hours featured a full schedule of some of the best ways to experience West Virginia in autumn. From adrenaline-pumping excursions at Seneca Rocks and NROCKS Outdoor Adventure to exploring the small-town charm of Davis and Thomas and horseback riding in Canaan Valley, there was something special to see and do at every turn.
“One of my favorite things about the trip was getting to meet a lot of great locals,” said Destination Unknown participant Albert Ting. “My impressions of West Virginia have certainly changed. There’s so much this state has to offer in terms of food, culture and exploring nature. If there’s anything on your bucket list for vacation, West Virginia will definitely deliver.”
The two jam-packed days offered just a sample of West Virginia in autumn, to the surprise and delight of the participants. Although it took less than three hours to make the journey from Washington, the sweeping mountainsides and country roads give a feeling of being far away in a world that’s truly almost heaven.
Participants experienced some of the first fall color of the season in West Virginia, as higher elevations always change first. Other areas of the state are just now starting to turn, so there is plenty of time to plan a fall weekend getaway to Destination West Virginia.
More about fall colors and activities in all of West Virginia’s travel regions, including a live leaf tracker, is available at WVTourism.com/fall.
About the campaign
Meanwhile, in Washington, the pixilated mystery ads that intrigued the participants were switched out for ads that revealed West Virginia in its full fall grandeur.
The goal of the campaign was to build intrigue and curiosity that would ultimately reveal West Virginia as a premier fall destination and help potential visitors see how beautiful, fun, and accessible the destination is, especially for travelers in the D.C. metro area.
West Virginia has a lot to offer yet largely remains a hidden gem. Less than a day’s driving distance from major cities like Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore and Cincinnati, the Mountain State wanted to encourage people to pack up for a weekend adventure this fall.
West Virginia’s award-winning Almost Heaven ad campaign features the John Denver song “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The success of the campaign over the last 18 months has resulted in increases in visitation, but the state’s Tourism professionals wanted to do more. Departing from a proven campaign for an unbranded promotion was a risk, and the payoff was tremendous.
About West Virginia Tourism Office
The West Virginia Tourism Office, an agency of the West Virginia Department of Commerce, aims to promote West Virginia as a leading four-season travel destination and top state in which to live, work and retire.
Known as the Mountain State, West Virginia is one of the most scenic states in the nation and is home to the beautiful Monongahela National Forest, six national parks, and 45 state parks and forests. In addition to its majestic mountains and rolling hills, West Virginia is full of rich historic sites, enchanting art galleries, charming towns and an immense sense of belonging found only in its heaven-like landscapes.