CHARLESTON, WV: As the world fled crowded metropolises and adjusted to remote work in the 18 months since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Chelsea Ruby was presented with an opportunity.
Ruby, who was appointed West Virginia's first secretary of tourism earlier this year, saw the shuttering of office buildings and the populace's increased interest in the great outdoors as a chance to remind the country—and the world—what the Mountain State has to offer.
In April, West Virginia's Department of Tourism and Department of Economic Development launched Ascend West Virginia, a remote-work program aimed at recruiting outdoor-enthusiast professionals to the state.
"Having worked on the West Virginia tourism campaigns for four years, I know that West Virginia is a little bit of an unknown," Ruby said. "We're a hidden gem on the East Coast, and a lot of folks don't know much about what there is to do here, so we've been working really hard to tell our story."
In addition to promoting West Virginia's uncrowded spaces and low cost of living, those accepted to the program will receive $12,000, a year's worth of free outdoor recreation and access to a co-working space.
The five-year program looks to relocate outdoorsy professionals to Morgantown, Shepherdstown and Lewisburg, West Virginia, for a period of two years. Each location will have a separate application process.
The Ascend project builds on the state's Almost Heaven branding, a phrase pulled from the opening lines of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," which evokes a feeling of nostalgia for the states' idyllic landscapes.
The program was launched with the support of a $25 million gift to West Virginia University's Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative, from Brad Smith, former executive chairman at Intuit.
Smith, who was born and raised in Kenova, West Virginia, has never forgotten his home state.
"It has always been my dream to give back to the state that forever has my heart," Smith said in an email to PRWeek. "When Alys and I created the Wing 2 Wing Foundation, we set forth a mission to unlock economic and lifestyle prosperity for all by creating opportunities for the dreamers and do-ers to leverage all that West Virginia has to offer, propelling Appalachia and beyond."
The Smiths' Wing 2 Wing Foundation has partnered with Access Brand Communications for several years, but Ruby and the state's tourism department led PR efforts for the campaign.
The tourism department did a small amount of digital ads targeted at remote workers, but the vast majority of applicants heard about the program through earned media placements.
"The PR pitching was the most successful part of this," Ruby said. "We launched it with a live stream event with [West Virginia Governor Jim Justice], the Smiths and WVU President Gordon Gee, and then we just started pitching to anybody and everybody who would take our calls."
Ruby and her team cast a wide net, pitching to local and national outlets but also across industries.
"We didn't just target business publications," she said. "We really tried to come at it from the lifestyle perspective, and then looked at industry publications of folks who were working in tech companies or businesses that would be more likely to have remote workers."
Having the full support of Justice was another boon for the program. In 2021, Justice allocated $14 million to the tourism department, $10 million of which was allocated for brand promotion.
Justice also signed H.B. 2026 into law in April, which provides income tax relief to employees working temporarily within the state.
The program has been an overwhelming success so far, according to Ruby. The website has attracted more than 250,000 visitors and 7,500 applications were submitted for the first 50 positions in Morgantown with more than 1,500 more people interested in the other two cities.
Applications flooded the department from all 50 states and more than 70 countries.
As Ascend West Virginia continues, Ruby hopes it becomes less a talent attraction program and more a talent retention program.
"Post pandemic, we're seeing that travelers want to visit small towns and it's the same when you look at where people want to live in this post pandemic world," she said. "They want to get away from the crowd. They want smaller cities. They want access to the outdoors, and in West Virginia, you can find those things very, very easily."