For more than nine decades, Colonial Williamsburg’s bustling sidewalks, costumed interpreters and reconstructed historic houses and shops have attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists to Williamsburg each year.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s 301-acre Historic Area is a staple of the Greater Williamsburg area for both residents a guests alike, boasting the Governor’s Palace, the colonial Capitol building and Merchants Square shops.
In a recent Tide Radio interview, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s president and chief executive officer, Mitchell Reiss, spoke about his priorities for the organization, including getting the organization back up on its feet after years of declining visitation.
Colonial Williamsburg doesn’t always look inward for answers to its questions, Reiss said. He has toured other historic attractions, including Conner Prairie Interactive Historic Park, to see what other places are doing and what Colonial Williamsburg can do better.
One thing Reiss has noticed at other places of historic significance is other parks’ controlled access — a perimeter fence, a wall, or employees standing guard — to keep unticketed visitors out.
On March 21, the WYDaily published an article highlighting a memorandum written by the Foundation and shared with City Council, detailing the Foundation’s significant loss of revenues from not having controlled access or a “fence.”
“One of the recommendations was that we seriously consider putting a fence around it — not only for the financial reasons, but also for the safety and security of our guests and our employees,” Reiss said in the interview.
Reiss added that online ratings for the Historic Area left him feeling “bittersweet.”
“I’m sort of bittersweet that we are now the number one free tourist destination in Virginia, according to the Internet,” Reiss said.
Beyond controlled access to Colonial Williamsburg’s sites and activities, Reiss said increasing tourism-related taxes would hurt the Foundation’s bottom line.
Williamsburg’s recent tax hike on admission tickets, meals, and lodging — a tax increase the Foundation came out staunchly against — would raise nearly 21 percent of the city’s annual revenue for a Tourism Development Fund, just on Colonial Williamsburg’s admission tickets alone.
No one in the area wants tourism to decrease, Reiss said. Increasing tourism is “the goal we all share.”
Reiss called the tax “short sighted,” before saying he thinks there’s a chance for the tax to be reworked before its implementation on July 1, 2018.
“Perhaps there is an opportunity here for us to come up with alternative ideas that may actually achieve that goal in place of, I think, this is sort of an ill-conceived tax plan,” Reiss said.
Despite challenges the Foundation has and will face, Reiss said he wants the organization to live not only another 90 years, but in perpetuity.
“We’d like to think it’s always going to be there — and God willing it always will be,” he said of Colonial Williamsburg. “But it needs to be managed properly, it needs to deserve the support of our donors. It needs to win the patronage of the local community. We’re on track to doing that.”
This interview was conducted as part of a regular segment produced by WYDaily’s parent company, Local Voice Media, and an edited version aired on 92.3 The Tide FM.
Listen to the full interview here:
Mitchell Reiss, president of Colonial Williamsburg: My name is Mitchell Reiss. I’m the president and chief executive officer of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Tom Davis, founder of Local Voice Media: That’s beautiful. Thanks for coming in. Great to see you.
Reiss: My pleasure. Very happy to be here.
Davis: All right. So, going to that question list.
Reiss: We can just talk about the Patriots?
Davis: We could talk about the Patriots and the Sox.
Reiss: Oh, Sandoval, Panda, he’s back at San Francisco. He’s playing well again which is what happens sometimes with these guys.
Davis: I think there’s a good chance we’re going to see a little Red Sox – Yankees in the play offs.
Reiss: Well I dunno. I don’t know. If Price is healthy. They have a chance to go far.
Davis: Yeah. Let’s start with that first. Let’s start with that first conversation that we were taking is you coming in here had a big challenge in front of you which you brought a lot of energy into this and you’ve done the things that you need to do for the Foundation. And so, what’s your vision going forward? Tell us tell us what it looks like.
Reiss: Well, let me just say thank you for inviting me on the show today. It’s a pleasure to be here. During the search, the board made very clear that this was a turnaround challenge, and it took a little bit of time for me to wrap my mind around the dimensions of the challenge both on the non-profit side, and on the commercial side to get a team in place, and then to build a plan that I thought had a very good chance of success. And so, I’m very confident with the restructuring plan that was announced on June 29. The response I think has been very positive from our employees from the local communities overwhelmingly positive from the donors around the country in terms of the emails and letters I’ve been receiving, because I think people understand how important this place is not just for the local community obviously, but I think also in a larger sense for our nation. Especially at a time when we appear to be more divided than ever before, so the idea of Colonial Williamsburg I think resonates loudly across the country.
Reiss: And I am very positive about the future. I think financially we’re on our way to stabilizing our finances so that the endowment as intended will support the core educational mission of the Historic Area, the museums, and teacher education and that the commercial operations will pay for themselves. And that really, I think is the best model for us going forward. So, we stabilize the endowment and then we can start to rebuild. And as I said on June 29th, we are already planning to rededicate ourselves to the core mission we’re putting in place an unprecedented professional certification training program for the interpreters in the historic area.
Reiss: And I’ve committed publicly to doubling the number of teachers that we bring here in part to compensate for the relative lack of history, American history education, being taught in schools these days and the lower school budgets that traditionally have brought schoolchildren to us so there’s more that we have to do. And I think folks, so far, are rallying to that idea.
Davis: So, what is it going to feel like for somebody to come let’s say a year from now? What’s the experience going to be like? What true visible changes will somebody see?
Reiss: Well, I think that we’re going to continue to do more of what we’ve already started doing which is to put an emphasis on families and children — to make sure that the experience is engaging. It’s interactive. It’s not a look-but-don’t-touch type of immersive experience. And I think perhaps most of all that it’s fun. We know, and I think people understand that we are the number one, gold standard in terms of historical authenticity and living history museums. But what people perhaps forgot is that you can have a lot of fun here, and there’s all sorts of scientific studies. The more fun children have learning, the more they retain, the more they understand. There’s a lot that they can do here: getting in the dirt at an archaeological dig, candle making, firing off the cannon and pulling the lanyards. There’s more and more that we’re doing. We just introduced an axe-throwing program a few weeks ago. It’s been immensely popular. Last year it was the colonial musket range, so we’re always looking for ways to do things that are fun, but also educational.
Davis: Steve Roberts our WYDaily senior reporter, of course, threw the tomahawk. Actually, that was Andy Harris another one of our WYDaily reporters… It was Andy Harris went over and did that. He said it was great fun. Much more of an art than you think.
Reiss: It’s a little bit more difficult than you think. We had to check with the lawyers to make sure that we could do it in a safe way. But I think it’s also educational.
Davis: And again, it’s something that you can do with the family and it’s something that you can’t do other places and so again yet another reason to come and visit us or revisit us if you haven’t been back in a while.
Davis: In the process of just talking about the family orientation, but continuing the fun experience of history, what did you look at; any other programs and see things that you might implement in terms of how that experience will go other places in the country that have had success doing something you have haven’t?
Reiss: We’re constantly looking to see what best practices are. For many many years, we set those best practices for the rest of the country. I still think that we’re the leader in the field. But you can always learn from other institutions so a few weeks ago I went to visit a place called Conner Prairie outside of Indianapolis. Conner Prairie gets very high marks for guest satisfaction. And one of the reasons is that they’ve come up with some interesting ways to make it fun and make it interactive and it’s very much a hands-on, please touch type of environment there.
Reiss: So, there were a couple of ideas that we’re going to borrow and implement from Conner Prairie that we think it’ll make a little bit more interesting for folks. But the biggest idea when we look around the country is that every other place that we look at has a gate — every other place has a fence whether it’s Mt. Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier — every place around the country.
Reiss: And so, we were recently reviewed and reaccredited by the American Alliance of Museums [it was] very very important for us to get that re accreditation. And one of the recommendations was that we seriously consider putting a fence around it — not only for the financial reasons, but also for the safety and security of our guests and our employees. It’s also, I think, reasonable to expect that we could put together a better work-product because we could use the open spaces in ways that we don’t now because we’re afraid to give away the value of the ticket for free to people that are just walking down the street who don’t purchase anything. So again, this is something that we do see everywhere else. To my knowledge, Colonial Williamsburg is the only place that doesn’t have this gate.
Davis: Well to your point, I’m sure you’ve seen this in Yelp and TripAdvisor and other places. There’s a lot of people online all over the country saying go there but don’t necessarily buy a ticket.
Reiss: I’m sort of bittersweet that we are now the number one free tourist destination in Virginia, according to the Internet. You know we know that that’s the case.
Reiss: And I think that it’s only going to put additional strain on our resources. There’s wear and tear on our facilities. We all see the buses that drop people off at one end of DoG Street, “We’ll meet you in a couple of hours.” We want people to come, but we need people’s support if they’re going to come and experience what we have to offer.
Davis: It seems that being in that position for the Commonwealth that you actually don’t get much of any funding do you from the Commonwealth.
Reiss: We get no annual support from the state or the federal government. And often that’s a surprise to people and that’s just one of the realities here. It’s part of the explanation that I tried to convey to people on June 29th, is that we do have financial challenges. The state and the federal government do not help us the way they help other institutions in the state.
Davis: It’s a really big point. I think it’s also one of those that if it had been there all along, nobody would think there was a problem with it being there now.
Reiss: Well that’s human nature right. That things roll over, there’s inertia. You think it’s inevitable. The reality is that there’s nothing inevitable. Colonial Williamsburg, we’ve been very successful in terms of capturing the public imagination and being part of the cultural landscape across the country for 90 years. But as we saw with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus — American icons may not last forever. They have to be stewarded they have to be managed properly and they have to be run like a business in order to make sure that people can continue to enjoy them.
Davis: And so, what is the primary [goal]? First of all, you’ve realigned yourself operationally. What’s the primary goal to drive revenue up? More visitation? Just more bodies in general?
Reiss: Well, of course, we always want more people to come and visit. That is our mission after all. There are three ways in which we can raise revenue. One is to attract more people, ticketed visitors certainly. And on that score, we’re very excited about expanding our museums which will be above ground for the first time ever when the expansion is completed in a couple of years time. There is hospitality which means the hotels and food and beverage, again, the trends are very positive over the last couple of years.
Reiss: We need to do better. We are investing millions of dollars in these facilities to bring them up to world class standards, and we think that this will continue to spur their revenue growth that they’ve already demonstrated. And then the third is development. Our development team is getting out there in front of our wonderful donors and trying to connect with their passion, trying to see what gets them excited. What living legacy do they want to leave behind in this very special place so the generations to come can still enjoy it?
Davis: Are there some changes that you might like to make but because of the core base of your most important donors it’s just not possible under the mission or has flexibility increased over time?
Reiss: Well again, I think that the board is very cognizant of the financial challenges they approve the restructuring plan unanimously back in April. There’s capital improvement plans that we’ve made to some of our facilities, the hotels, the golf course, again, these were seen as smart investments. We do the financial analysis beforehand. We calculate what the return on investment should be, and we manage these properties very carefully. So far the board has been extremely supportive. And again, we have a little bit more flexibility in terms of what we do outside the Historic Area than inside the Historic Area, but in a couple of months’ time, we’re going to be finalizing the porch on the Raleigh tavern. This was something that our architectural historians discovered. It’s historically accurate, and it’s going to, I think, enhance the streetscape there when it’s completed. We’ve got a lot of ambitions for Colonial Williamsburg, and as I said, we’re investing millions of dollars because we believe in it and we’re confident about the future.
Davis: Are you trying to partner up with any specific other organizations or destinations here in the Historic Triangle?
Reiss: Well we are part of an Historic Triangle commission that meets regularly. The other two legs of the triangle and myself are also part of the 2019 project that the state is putting on, so we’re in pretty regular contact. Beyond that, we’ve set out an unprecedented partnership with the College of William and Mary — for the first time in 90 years. And also [we’re] just about to ink a similar agreement with Christopher Newport University. We reached out to Busch Gardens [and] became the official hotel of Busch Gardens, so that folks could stay with us and they could take advantage of that relationship. So, we’re always looking for ways to extend our reach to make it easier for people to come and enjoy themselves.
Davis: I’m aware of the partnerships through the Kimball [Theatre]. Tell us a little bit more about the partnerships with both William and Mary, and CNU.
Reiss: Well, the partnership with William and Mary really starts, dates back almost 20 years when Taylor Reveley and I were both Deans. He was Dean of the law school, I was Dean of the Reeves Center and he had come, I think, a year or two before me, but we were relative newbies. And so, it’s very easy dealing with Taylor. We generally meet once a month for breakfast.
Reiss: We talk about things off-the-record, and about a year ago we decided that it would be beneficial for both institutions if we could institutionalize the relationship. We had already put in place an internship program for William and Mary students in which they get paid in order to intern at Colonial Williamsburg. So, this was just a logical extension of our friendship and some of the steps we had already taken. And it provides a great benefit to the 100,000 William and Mary alumni, the parents, the faculty, the staff, and the students to take part in things that Colonial Williamsburg has to offer. CNU, it’s very similar. I got a chance to meet Rosemary and Paul Trible a couple of years ago, and I am just beyond impressed with what they have accomplished at CNU. It is absolutely remarkable growth. The quality of the education has continued to improve by leaps and bounds.
Reiss: And something similar seemed a natural for us. And so again it was something that Paul could give as a benefit to his alumni, and his parents, and his staff and faculty if they want to come and stay with us. So, these make sense I think for everybody. My preferences are we always try and structure it so it’s win-win.
Davis: Also, just having the students come more to the Kimball for different things because it will be their new PBK hall, which will be which will be good for the community and good for Colonial Williamsburg to have them coming into the downtown a little bit.
Reiss: Exactly and good for Merchants Square. And these folks are our tenants. We want them to be successful. It’s one reason why we put the ice skating rink right next to Merchants Square and it actually lifted their business which is wonderful for everybody.
Davis: So, I’d like you to talk a little bit also about the whole situation of the tax base. My experience in other places that I’ve lived, where property taxes was the primary engine to pay for everything from the school systems to public services to your baseball fields and basketball halls, everything that you had was paid for through property taxes and that would put a really big burden on people on their taxes. Here we have a very different situation because of hospitality. There is a lot of revenue that comes into the city and the county that keep the tax base on our homes lower, and that is driven obviously by the center of this thing, which is Colonial Williamsburg. I sort of look at Colonial Williamsburg not being there is the second time Jefferson took the capital and moved it.
Davis: That’s sort of how I look at what would happen if it were if it weren’t for having Colonial Williamsburg there and that’s just an observation based on being in places where there is a financial engine that helps everybody. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like you’re getting credit for that to the public.
Reiss: I’m sorry, could you say that again? [laughing]
Davis: No, I’m not paid to make that announcement.
Reiss: We don’t need credit. I think we just need a little bit of appreciation for the fact that we’re responsible either directly or indirectly for more than 8,000 jobs in the community and in the region. We bring in, we generate more than half a billion dollars worth of economic activity every single year. We are the long pole in the tent and that’s an enormous responsibility, and we want to continue to provide good jobs and to drive that economic activity and to make it bigger. As I said before, we want all the merchants, all the surrounding businesses to be successful as well. The way to do that is to try to figure out a way to bring more tourists here. The tax especially coming at a time when we are trying to turn around our financial fortunes, we believe would deter people from coming here. We think it would deter people from staying in the city of Williamsburg. They can stay just over the border in James City or York County. And if there is a tax. Why wouldn’t they do that?
Reiss: And so again I think that all of us at Colonial Williamsburg share the goal that the city council has voiced, and we all want to figure out ways in which we can grow revenue. But, I don’t think that this tax is the best way to do it.
Steve Roberts, reporter for WYDaily: I just want to sneak in here real quick. This is Steve Roberts WYDaily Reporter. You know, I ran the math on that tax. And just in the admissions tax creation: 21 percent of the total TDF value would come just from Colonial Williamsburg ticket sales. But then there’s the part that we can’t really talk about, because we don’t have any good data for it. You have restaurants. You have hotels. It’s affecting you in other ways. This tax is paid for by Colonial Williamsburg by all appearances.
Reiss: Well I think that’s absolutely clear, Steve. And again, it’s one reason, it’s not just me opposing it. I think everybody who works at Colonial Williamsburg is against it. Again, the goal we all share is this being the means to achieve that goal. I think it’s really short sighted. And again, there hasn’t been any financial analysis I’ve seen behind it that actually shows that it will drive revenue and achieve the objective that its proponents suggest. Now the good news is it doesn’t take effect until July 1. And so perhaps there is an opportunity here for us to come up with alternative ideas that may actually achieve that goal in place of, I think, this is sort of an ill-conceived tax plan.
Roberts: OK. I think we can maybe move on to the next point. The pivot for the tourism tax, made before the tourism tax, Colonial Williamsburg was attempting to pivot back to its core mission: feeding the enduring American spirit. I’m paraphrasing.
Reiss: We’ll get you the missions.
Roberts: I’ve got to get the hat.
Reiss: We’ll get you a hat with a mission statement.
Roberts: But, you know, what does that pivot really show for Colonial Williamsburg? What kind of returns are you seeing?
Reiss: Well thanks for asking. I’m happy to say that this year, the first six months of this year, tourism was up 10 percent. School groups were up 20 percent. And again, I think it’s because people are beginning to understand that we have been making these changes over the last couple of years. It is more fun it is more family friendly. There also is more to offer people of diverse backgrounds. The Native American program has expanded. The African-American program has expanded we’re opening our arms wider to a more diverse America. We’re not removing anything, we’re just adding. And I think people can find their story if they come and visit with us. I think an important part of that is that we’re also increasing the amenities at the inn and the lodge, in the woodlands. We’ve improved the golf facilities as well so I think people are starting to rediscover that this really is an extremely attractive and historically significant place, and for the tax to now come at this time seems really ill-conceived and I think it’s exactly the wrong message at the wrong time.
Roberts: Understood. You know, but Colonial Williamsburg itself plays a vital role in how people perceive history itself. I mean the 90 years of Colonial Williamsburg that we have enjoyed has brought around so many different [eras], we’ve seen world wars, we’ve seen it all from Williamsburg growing from a very small town that was fairly insular to what it is today, a very well-connected city with two large counties around it. Colonial Williamsburg has been there throughout and it’s led to the question of, you know, what is Colonial Williamsburg’s role in preserving history, when the perception of history itself is so volatile?Like we saw in Charlottesville just a couple of weekends ago.
Reiss: Look, our job is really unchanging. It’s to share America’s common national inheritance with all Americans and any non-Americans who can come here as we think they should. How we tell that story has changed but the underlying ideas, ideals, and values — they haven’t changed. The story is more complicated because we’re learning new things all the time. It’s more complex. And so, we’re trying harder to show that complexity. But again, the ideas, the ideals, and the values, that’s what made America that’s what made our country come from a colony to decide that they could no longer tolerate living under the Crown.
Reiss: I mean it’s remarkable in 2026 we’re going to celebrate the 250 fifth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. And I’m pretty sure that folks in Boston, in Washington, in Philadelphia are going to try and own that. But for me, the more interesting story is what happened in the years that led up to the Declaration, the debates, the arguments, the discussions, the family fallouts. They all happened in Williamsburg. The journeys that individuals took happened in Williamsburg.
Reiss: Patrick Henry got there sooner than anybody else. Washington was a reluctant revolutionary. Each person had a journey. Peyton Randolph, the wealthiest man in all the colonies, decided that it was intolerable for him to live under the Crown. That he had a nice life, he had a great life, but he could no longer accept that and he was going to pledge his life, his liberty, and his sacred honor — as they all did. How did they make that journey? Those are the stories that we can tell, that nobody else can tell. And that’s what we’re going to continue to do as we move forward.
Davis: On that note, one thing I talked to Steve about this we actually sent you a note about it, too. I’ve always been interested in the way that the Thomas Jefferson Hour has presented history. He does this show in public radio, where the first half he is in character and the second half he is a Jefferson historian talking about how Jefferson would react to things that happened today, like Charlottesville. You know what would be his view, but applying a Jeffersonian mentality to it. Have you thought at all about having some of your interpreters come in and out of character like that?
Reiss: Sure. We’re experimenting with different ways of delivering the message and again I think the story is enduring, but how we connect with people has to change because how people absorb and process information is changed. Our attention spans are much shorter today than they were when I was growing up. Just look at the length of movies these days there used to be over two hours. Now they’re always under two. We do that transition between characters, actually, in a remarkable performance called Journey to Redemption, where the characters are portraying the household of George Wythe and they step in and out of character to connect with the audience and they go back in. And it’s extremely emotional. I think it’s been very well received. We also, under Bill Barker’s leadership, Thomas Jefferson, Bill led a national search to find a young Thomas Jefferson. We hired a remarkable young man named Kurt Smith.
Reiss: And so, Kurt is being mentored by Bill, but one of the things that they do is they talk to each other in character. What is the young Thomas Jefferson thinking? Looking forward, what is the older wiser Thomas Jefferson has the experience looking back, and they have that debate about the motives for why they did things and what they learned. And again, audiences find this — and who wouldn’t like to have a conversation with your younger self to give him or her advice? So again, ways we’re always doing this. And again, this new program that we’ve launched, the certification program for the interpreters, we have high hopes that we’re going to get even better at it.
Davis: Bill was on Tide Radio years ago and he did a great job of explaining a lot of the buildings there and what went on and why they were built the way they were built and what happened during that time, so I’m sure that’s a great program.
Reiss: And these folks are scholars who just happen to be dramatic actors. And you know that’s really where the magic happens.
Davis: You’ve got to tell a story these days. That’s one of the things you see.
Reiss: That’s one reason we’ve hired more nation builders, because again, we think this is what audiences want they want that interactive experience. And our folks do it better than anybody.
Davis: So, on that, let’s talk about the locals. Well, you know what do we do to have the locals be more engaged. For instance, the one thing I’ve found interesting since the day I moved here that the people who live on the other side of [Route] 199, I would say something about going down to Merchants Square to Colonial Williamsburg and they’d say, “good luck getting a parking space.” In 13 years, I have never not found a parking space. Every single time and so there are these perceptions of “Oh, we can’t go down there, it will be too busy” and yet it’s busy. But we have a parking deck that never has anybody in it.
Reiss: It’s like Yogi Berra. And nobody goes there anymore. You know, I know that the city has been looking at parking. We’re looking at parking. We want to make it easy for people. We want to make it accessible for people. There’s also an issue with the college and college students. So, I think that this isn’t an easy or obvious answer. But the bigger response to your question is, I think the locals are fantastic. Many of them are our most passionate donors. We have over 1,000 volunteers who, God bless them all, they do a great job for us. They bring their friends. They bring their families. We want them to try our restaurants again. We’ve put a lot of time and effort and thought into how we can improve whether it’s Sweet Tea and Barley at the Lodge or the social terrace behind the Williamsburg Inn. These are becoming more and more popular. So, I think the locals are fantastic. They’re great. We couldn’t survive without them.
Davis: What else Steve?
Roberts: I’m sorry if I muddle through questions.
Davis: That’s why we have radio editing.
Roberts: Radio is not my medium. I’m a writer.
Davis: You’re a multimedia journalist. And there you go. You are a five-tool player. Exactly. But the tools, he’s got the talent.
Davis: You know I think we’ve covered pretty well and I’d like to know is there are some other specific message you’d like to give here?
Reiss: You know I’m trying to think. No, I think I think I think we’re good.
Roberts: We covered all the questions.
Davis: Thank you. There’s a couple I might. But never mind. Push it. Fair enough, though that’s good.
Reiss: You know, I could say and I’ll just give the answer and you could do so with, but I am very excited about the future of Colonial Williamsburg. I’m very confident about the business plan. The restructuring was painful. We don’t want to go through it a second time there are no plans to go through it a second time. We want to add additional positions as we grow our way to financial stability in the future. And I’m very confident we can do that. We’ve got very talented folks at CW. We have a business plan now. It has to be run like a business. I know that for many of us, it’s also a calling, which is true in [that] a lot of people have devoted their lives to the place. But unless you have financial stability, we can no longer tell or share America’s enduring story and that really is what it comes down to.
Reiss: There’s nothing inevitable about CW. We’d like to think it’s always going to be there — and God willing it always will be. But it needs to be managed properly it needs to deserve the support of our donors. It needs to win the patronage of the local community. We’re on track to doing that. If you haven’t been in awhile, please come on back try us. If there’s something you’d like, please let me know. If there’s something we can do better, please let me know. But we’re on track right now, and that’s very good news for everybody.