Destinations

Colonial Williamsburg Struggles to Reinvent Itself as a Hip Historic Destination

Apr 10, 2014 5:00 am

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Williamsburg, Virginia, wants to figure out how to attract travelers from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but it will need a more competitive marketing budget and something new to peg a campaign around for that to become a possibility.

— Samantha Shankman

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Joe Ross  / Flickr

Actors mill about in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Joe Ross / Flickr


With only sporadic success, local government leaders and tourism professionals have been trying to tackle the problem of declining visitation.

They have studied other areas to see if they could copy what worked for those tourist communities. They have spent money to improve Colonial Williamsburg with new exhibition buildings, added new rides at Busch Gardens and Water Country USA, or tried high-tech solutions such as the RevQuest interactive game to give the area more appeal to a younger demographic.

Depending on who you ask, those involved in the tourism industry give different answers for how to improve. There’s no single answer, according to experts. Suggestions range from something as simple as focusing more marketing on the core summer tourist season, to a more complex solution of finding a new attraction to bring in a new round of tourists. Reversing the decline will take time, money and cooperation.

“We lost the momentum of 2007,” said Colonial Williamsburg President Colin Campbell, referring to the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the area’s last strong year for tourism. “The recession (that followed in 2008) was a tremendous blow.”

Karen Riordan, the new president of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance, noted than an effort to turn Asheville, N.C. into a vibrant city focused on art, food and shopping took about ten years. “The clock started ticking here in 2013,” she said in an interview Thursday. ” I do not want it to be a 10-year journey.”

Successful tourism cities

Among the dozen locales tracked in STR, formerly Smith Travel Research, greater Williamsburg has the worst hotel occupancy for February 2014 at 25.3 percent. Only Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge, Tenn., is close at 28.1 percent. At the other end of the spectrum is Orlando at 80 percent, Charleston, S.C. at 68.6 percent and Nashville at 66 percent.

One of the cities Williamsburg leaders often look to for inspiration is Asheville, N.C. Like Williamsburg, Asheville has a history component with the Biltmore Estate, completed in 1895 by George Vanderbilt. The elegant mansion drew more than 1.1 million visitors in 2013 according to Carolina Publishing Associates, which annually ranks the state’s attractions. That’s a visitation plateau Colonial Williamsburg craves, but for the Biltmore it marked the first time in nearly decade it wasn’t the state’s most visited attraction.

Unlike Williamsburg, Asheville has leveraged existing tourism from visits to the Biltmore and combined it with art, music and scenic beauty to create a booming destination. According to the area’s convention and visitors bureau, Asheville attracted more than 9 million visitors in 2012. It’s also a different audience than the one Colonial Williamsburg attracts, featuring fewer families and more singles.

The Historic Triangle has already copied some of the steps that helped Asheville. Led by the hotel industry, greater Williamsburg adopted a special tax to promote tourism. In Asheville that money went to the support the convention and visitors bureau, the region’s destination marketing organization. In greater Williamsburg the $2 per night per hotel room tax goes to fund the Williamsburg Area Destination Marketing Committee, which is tasked with spending the money to increase overnight stays in the destination. Based on the STR occupancy figures, it hasn’t worked.

Asheville was also the model for Williamsburg’s Arts District, which offers tax incentives for creative-economy businesses. Those can cover anything from an art gallery to a cupcake shop to locate in that part of town. The goal, which is an unspecified number of years into the future, is to create a quaint, walkable part of town relatively close to the Historic Area where visitors can be lured to spend money.

Like Riordan, Lum and Campbell say they believe the Historic Triangle could match Asheville. “I think we might be able to do it in less than 10 years,” Campbell said.

Though not a locality typically compared to the Historic Triangle, Savannah, Ga., has seemingly found its own successful tourism elixir — youth. The city set new records for tourism in 2010 and 2011, bringing in 12.1 million people. The key, according to Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, the area’s destination marketing organization, was a number that shrank. The average age of overnight visitors and day trippers fell to 43 and 42, respectively, according to a June 2012 report in the Savannah Morning News.

In a March interview with the Gazette, Marinelli said the success continues. “Our numbers, both visitation and expenditures, have grown every year since 2009. 2013 was our strongest year yet.” He said the idea was to still focus on the city’s culture and heritage but to do it “in a hipper way.” Savannah’s website emphasizes much about the city — except its history. A link to historic sites is only found within a tab for arts and culture. “The idea is not to get away from history,” Marinelli said. “But it’s to be more than just history.”

That’s similar to the History Plus approach taken by Corrina Ferguson, the marketing director for the Williamsburg Area Destination Marketing Committee. The 2014 marketing campaign will be her first here.

The number of room nights that Savannah has added is equivalent to the number of annual admissions Colonial Williamsburg has lost over the last 20 years. It’s also the number of room nights Williamsburg hoteliers think this region needs to reclaim to get back to a healthy level of visitation. Campbell is keenly aware of the number. “We are the biggest hotelier here,” he said.

One of the things greater Williamsburg lacks is the marketing budget competing destinations have to invest in bringing more visitors. The Williamsburg Area Destination Marketing Committee has a budget of about $3.5 million. Asheville spends $8 million-$10 million, and Virginia Beach $15 million. “We’re showing up to a gun fight with a knife,” Campbell said.

New investment

Both Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens have invested heavily in their properties over the years.

“We have spent more than $220 million in facilities renovations and new construction in the last 15 years,” said Colonial Williamsburg spokeswoman Barbara Brown. Busch Gardens has never divulged what it spends on new rides — three major thrill rides in the last seven years. Yet some operational and capital spending may be reported now that owner Seaworld Parks is a publicly traded company. New, bigger and wilder slides have also been added at Water Country USA, with Colossal Curl set to debut this year.

(c)2014 The Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg, Va.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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