HANNIBAL, Mo. – Summertime is tourist time. Millions of families across the country hit the open road in search of America.
Many small businesses depend on tourism dollars. One such business is Mark Twain Cave in northeastern Missouri. It was the inspiration for the fictional cavern in Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”
In 2009, Linda Coleberd was the new owner and general manager of Mark Twain Cave Complex. It had been in the family for generations, but the longtime special education teacher faced unfamiliar challenges as a new business owner. The economy was in the doldrums and tourist dollars had dried up. She knew she needed guidance, so she turned to University of Missouri Extension for help.
For the past five years Coleberd has worked with Charles Holland, MU Extension business development specialist, starting with an introductory small-business course.
“The MU Extension program gave me a lot of background in business and gave me a lot of new ideas I’ve incorporated today out here,” she says.
Of course, there are only so many times you can trek through a cave. Coleberd knew the seasonal nature of the cave’s appeal to tourists. She wanted to expand and diversify her business. But she was reluctant to take chances and make changes.
“Charles Holland encouraged me to think outside the box and get out on a limb,” says Coleberd.
In a series of business counseling sessions, Holland offered several ideas to broaden Coleberd’s business model. She’s opened a winery, teamed with a local dairy to produce and sell cave-aged cheese, and included branded products in the gift shop to promote the business and improve revenue. Coleberd attributes most of the 10 percent increase in sales to her work with the MU Extension business development program.
“You have to be a risk-taker if you want your business to grow, and University of Missouri Extension was my teacher, my professor, to help me think outside the box,” Coleberd insists. “I would never have done that without the encouragement of MU Extension.”
Last year, Missouri’s tourism industry generated $14.6 billion in total economic impact and tallied $1.2 billion in local and state taxes, according to a 2013 Missouri tourism division report. Tourism-related employment accounted for nearly 8 percent of all jobs in the state.
With the help of MU Extension, Mark Twain Cave has become more than a hole in a northeastern Missouri hillside. Linda Coleberd’s small business thrives, grows and contributes its fair share to boost tourism and the economy in the Show-Me State.