WALLA WALLA -- Walla Walla was named America's friendliest small town in Rand McNally's Best of the Road competition this morning.
The town so nice they named it twice won over guest judges Jason and Nikki Wynn as well as an accompanying road crew who visited six communities in the running for the title during a three-week road rally this month.
The announcement -- as well as winners of four other categories -- was made this morning during the Destination Marketing Association International annual conference in New Orleans. Tourism Walla Walla board President Michele Rennie was in Louisiana for the event.
"We're thrilled as punch," said an elated Michael Davidson, chief executive officer for Tourism Walla Walla, when he got the word.
"I think it's another indication of the Walla Walla way," added Downtown Walla Walla Foundation Executive Director Elio Agostini. "We have become a wonderful wine destination, but this is living proof that we are more than wine."
Other winners and their categories: Sandpoint, Idaho, Most Beautiful; Rapid City, S.D., Most Patriotic; Most Fun, Glenwood Springs, Colo.; Best for Food, Lafayette, La.
The point of the competition was to highlight communities with fewer than 150,000 people. The destination communities were determined through online voting in their respective categories.
A designated travel duo was selected to explore the towns in each category. The travel teams were also part of a separate competition for best coverage -- including videos, blog entries, photos and social networking updates -- from their three-week trek.
The Wynns were named the winners late last week. Their prize was $10,000 and a SAAB 9-4X.
Walla Walla's prize, officials said, is the title and the attention received along the way. The community will also be written about in USA Today and featured in the 2013 Rand McNally Road Atlas.
Officials who helped coordinate the visit from the Wynns lauded the local organizations and residents who participated and said the result was a grassroots effort. They include Tourism Walla Walla, the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce, Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance and Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center, among many others.
The committee wanted to stay away from manufactured experiences for the Wynns and instead offered opportunities for interaction with the people of Walla Walla, said Jennifer Northam, events and public relations manager for the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation. Those included a horse and carriage ride, hot air balloon ride, bike tour of the community, visit to a working winery and tickets to the summer musical.
The Wynns were even ushered into town by a police escort, though at first blush they worried they were being pulled over as they crossed into Walla Walla from Oregon. An officer came upon the vehicle flashing his lights. When he approached the driver's side, he broke the news that he was going to have to give the Wynns a ticket. He then pulled out tickets for the couple to see "Hairspray" and offered an escort to their arrival ceremony at Pioneer Park. The incident was part of their video blog.
Northam said it was evident the Wynns enjoyed their visit, but they also appeared to enjoy their time in the five other communities in the running: Mount Airy, N.C.; Woodward, Okla.; Nacogdoches, Texas; Valdosta, Ga.; and Lake Havasu City, Ariz.
"We had high hopes that this would be the result of our visit from the Wynns," Northam said. "Comments from the RV film crew hinted that they found Walla Walla to be very genuine in our friendliness, but watching the online videos of their experience in other communities really didn't give us any clues."
Participating organizations and businesses include:
- Tourism Walla Walla
- Downtown Walla Walla Foundation
- Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance
- City of Walla Walla
- Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce
- Marcus Whitman Hotel Conference Center
- Building 270
- Walla Walla Vintners
- Jerry Lynn Cummins
- Olive Marketplace
- Mark Brown
- AJ Carriages
- WWCC Foundation
- Marcus Whitman
- Roy Lianne Schellenberg
- Allegro Cyclery
- Cyndy Lawson Knight
- Duane Wollmuth
- City of Walla Walla
- Jim Bock
- Salumiere Cesario
- WWV Chamber
- Bright's Candies
- Klicker's Berries
- WW Sweet Onion Marketing Comm
- Bob Bennett
- Sonia Schmidt, Jamie Guerin, Emily Riley
- Sarah Koenigsberg
- Gordy Venneri, Myles Anderson
- Tom Maccarone
- Amy Jim Finley
- Doug Bayne Denise Marr
- Kyle Mussman, Shanna Hatfield, Jonathan Grant, Chef Antonio Campolio
- Steve Rapp, Michael Austin
- Nabiel Shawa, Jim Dumont
- Jay Brodt, Rob Blethen
- Damon Colby Burke
- David Woolsen
- Paul Tiffany Jenes
- Kathy Fry
- Mike Moses
- Jeana Garske