Representatives from the major Historic Triangle tourism attractions gathered Thursday to discuss the state of their industry in 2014, and their message was largely the same: Growth has been slow but steady.
Busch Gardens Park President Carl Lum, DoubleTree by Hilton Williamsburg General Manager Mark Tomlinson and Blue Talon Bistro Owner Adam Steely all said during a panel discussion Thursday that the spring was a tough stretch for their businesses and that sales and attendance picked up as the year progressed.
They blamed a long winter, which shuttered schools in the northern states early in the year, forcing those schools to remain open into the summer and delaying family vacations. Visitors from out of state are especially valuable to the area because they tend to stay longer and spend more money.
Colonial Williamsburg Director of Marketing Janet Eason, also on the panel, agreed with the slow and steady sentiment expressed by the other panel members.
“We’ve seen a lot of change in how families vacation, and that impacts [the summer tourist season],” she said.
The slow and steady sentiment expressed by the panel members mirrors the analysis of the greater Williamsburg market by Smith Travel Research.
Allison Cowan, a business development executive for STR, said “life is great” in the hotel industry nationwide, with national statistics reaching highs in revenue and rooms sold not seen since the mid 1990s.
But in the Historic Triangle, those statistics are lagging behind their national counterparts, with supply, demand and room revenue slipping across the approximately 73 percent of hotels that share their data with STR.
“It’s not great, but it’s better than last year,” she said.
With the year winding down, there are still a couple of major tourism initiatives planned. Christmas Town at Busch Gardens starts Nov. 21. Christmas in Williamsburg — an effort to attract out-of-town visitors to the area for a holiday getaway — will also be marketed to select audiences to try to drive more people to the Triangle, according to Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance President and CEO Karen Riordan.
Riordan said 2014 was a year of transition. She started work eight months ago at the Alliance — a chamber of commerce for the greater Williamsburg area that works to bolster the local economy and promote the area as a travel destination — and has initiated several changes, including working with Luckie & Company, an advertising firm hired to study how to market the area to potential visitors.
She said the Historic Triangle is often thought of as a family-friendly destination, so the Alliance is working to figure out how to better market the area to couples and millennials, two groups with a different expectations for vacations than families. She also said she is looking at the wedding market, branding the area as a food destination and as a place where sports tournaments for children and teens can be held.
The Historic Triangle and Virginia as a whole must compete with other states to attract tourists, and the commonwealth is losing the financial battle.
Esra Calvert, research director for the Virginia Research Tourism Corporation, said at Thursday’s panel discussion that other states are spending tens of millions more dollars than Virginia to promote themselves to national audiences. That makes it tougher for Virginia, which has a leaner budget for tourism promotion, to compete.
“It’s only going to get tougher because consumers are spending money on travel,” she said.
She said millennials are a valuable group to target because they tend to spend a lot of money to travel, as they value experiences over material wealth. While millennials have only 5 percent of the wealth in the nation and baby boomers have 50 percent, they still spend the same levels of money while traveling as boomers.
“There is a huge opportunity, and we have to change with the changing times,” she said.
One way to do that is to make sure the Historic Triangle’s web presence is up to par. That means paying attention to and responding to commenters on websites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, where people go to read about places before they make the decision to go and spend money at them.
Tomlinson, the DoubleTree by Hilton Williamsburg general manager, said he has had a positive experience using those websites to respond to criticisms and concerns from people posting reviews.
“You’re telling those other hundred thousand people how you manage your product,” he said.