A Warm Welcome

FEATURES July/august 2010

A Warm Welcome

Tourists bring more than traffic to Hampton Roads. Residents reap financial and cultural rewards from money spent to attract them.

Bookmark and Share By Bill Glose

As summer days grow long and already congested roadways bog down with out-of-town vehicles packed with everything but the kitchen sink (except in the case of RVs, which have that too), one could be forgiven for wishing the vacationers would just find somewhere else to go. Except we need them

It’s easy enough to say tourism is important to Hampton Roads. More than 40,000 workers are employed in jobs that are directly travel-related, and the bulk of their $750 million in annual pay is spent on goods and services throughout the local area. But what if you work a 9-to-5 and don’t sell a product locally? Does tourism have any affect on your life? Yes, even then.

“In Greater Williamsburg (City of Williamsburg, James City County, York County), tourism is responsible for more than 11,400 jobs, more than $1 billion in spending by visitors, and $81.32 million in state and local tax receipts,” says Linda Stanier, director of communications for the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance. “For an impact-on-your-wallet perspective: Local taxes generated by our tourism sector are equivalent to about $760 per household annually—taxes that support the programs and services we enjoy from our municipalities but don’t have to pay out of our own pockets. Without tourism in the Greater Williamsburg area, our three municipalities would need to raise taxes by that much per household in order to maintain their current levels of spending.”

According to the Virginia Tourism Corporation, travelers spent $3.76 billion in Hampton Roads during 2008, $142 million of which went to local tax receipts. State tax receipts were even higher, with a portion of that money returned to Hampton Roads earmarked for various programs.

“Tourism has been and still is a huge benefit to the local residents,” says Chris Canavos, president of the Williamsburg Hotel & Motel Association. “It’s clean business. It doesn’t require schools, roads, fire, police. The tax collections from it are phenomenal. It’s a way to showcase an area. Visitors come in a short period of time, and they leave a good amount of money and you don’t have to build an infrastructure for them.”

But nothing in life is free. Each city and county hoping that tourists will come with fat wallets and leave with skinny ones must first spend a few bucks of their own. Take Virginia Beach, for example, which spends approximately $8 million per year on travel-related advertising and marketing. That might sound like a lot, but in 2008 vacationers spent $1.15 billion dollars at the Beach, producing local tax receipts of $47 million. An almost 6-to-1 return on investment (ROI).

In many cases, the money spent to market Hampton Roads as a tourist destination is supplemented by the advertising budgets of privately owned attractions. While the Historic Triangle spends $25–30 million per year on marketing, local businesses kick in up to an additional $20 million. “Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens are the primary marketing drivers for our area,” says Stanier. “The attractions play the major role in marketing to individuals, but since 2004 the Williamsburg Area Destination Marketing Committee (WADMC) has added an important layer to area marketing efforts. WADMC, formed by the General Assembly to oversee expenditure of funds raised from a $2 occupancy tax, markets all aspects of the area: attractions, accommodations, dining, shopping and other activities available to visitors.”

“Over 50 percent of the budget for the city of Williamsburg is tourism related,” Canavos says. “But look how many people they employ and how many companies support them. Vast. It’s a great industry for a municipality.” True enough. Slightly less than half of Williamsburg’s population works for the tourism industry, with a payroll approaching $100 million. Makes sense that the city would spend half its budget to keep its residents employed.

Travel in Tough Times

But how has the recent recession influenced vacationers? In hard economic times, those affected tend to cut the frills first, which includes vacations. For the year 2009, real travel and tourism spending across the U.S. declined 4 percent. Hampton Roads fared better than many vacation spots thanks to its central East Coast location; travelers who found airplane tickets to far-off destinations too expensive could still afford to pack the family in the car and drive to Hampton Roads.

“Most people say 2009 was the worst year in the history of travel,” says Tony DiFilippo, president and CEO of the Norfolk Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (CVB). “But our largest markets are the association markets and the government and military markets. So they keep meeting. The associations need to have their annual meetings, because that’s how they make money; that’s how they keep their associations alive.”

Conversely, destinations that typically appeal to vacationers from other states and countries saw a larger drop off in attendance. Last year, Colonial Williamsburg suffered its lowest attendance since 1962. To boost its numbers, WADMC added a new, interactive visitor’s center at Jamestown, opened a new archaeological museum and launched a wide-reaching television and internet advertising campaign meant to showcase the interactive splendor of Colonial Williamsburg.

Some communities have opted to go in the other direction, forgoing out-of-state marketing to focus instead on day trippers from nearby cities. Taking vacations without leaving your local area became so popular during the recession that a new term—staycations—was coined and now appears in the 2009 version of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. In this vein, Portsmouth adopted the new marketing slogan: Give us a day, we’ll give you a vacation.

“We have shifted our focus from marketing our overnight stays,” says Lynette P. James, marketing coordinator for Portsmouth’s Marketing Communications Department, “to that of what the hospitality industry knows as attracting more ‘feet on the street.’ Olde Towne has a quaint, neighborhood feeling. There are plenty of antique and specialty shops within a 10-block radius of the waterfront, and everything is within walking distance to most of our hotels. Once people get here and walk through historic Olde Towne, their impressions tend to be, ‘Omigosh, I didn’t realize all this was here.’ And they want to come back. Which suits us just fine.”

Attracting tourists in a tight market means that locales need to specialize more than ever. It’s not enough that Hampton Roads has the world’s longest pleasure beach, one-of-a-kind historic sites, world-class museums, theme parks, and restaurants to suit every palette. No, the tourist trade in Hampton Roads thrives because cities go out of their way to service special wants and needs. There’s newly opened JT’s Grommet Island Beach Park and Playground in Virginia Beach, the first-ever handicap-accessible oceanfront park. There are resorts for vacationing nude and conventions where one can attend dressed as a Klingon. And there are festivals galore with events to appeal to every niche, from shag dancing to gospel singing to parading your hermit crab in a beauty pageant.

Cities are also searching for ways to provide special services to visitors. Norfolk offers an electronic golf cart called FRED (Free Ride Every Day) that picks tourists up and drops them off free of charge anywhere in the downtown area. “We also have public service ambassadors out on the streets with hand-held computers to help conventioneers,” says DiFilippo. “So when a convention comes, we’ll have their whole agenda programmed into those computers. If people walk up to the ambassadors and say, ‘How do I get to the Chrysler Museum?’ they can print out a map ... They will already know, for example, that certain conventioneers have exhibits at Scope Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and that they’re on their own for dinner Thursday and Friday night. So they’ll be positioned strategically throughout the city where the major shopping patterns are anticipated.”

Amenities Aplenty

The fat time for Hampton Roads has always been summer, when tourists come in carloads. But with fewer people traveling, locales have been finding ways to fill the rest of the calendar with vacationers as well. “Our city has evolved into a year-round destination with well over half of our almost 3 million out-of-town visitors coming between September and May,” says Pamela Lingle, communications manager for the Virginia Beach CVB. “Center stage in this renaissance has been the new (515,000-square-foot) Virginia Beach Convention Center ... hosting meetings, conferences, conventions and sporting events for people from throughout the country.”

But the festivals, special events, facilities and services aren’t just for the benefit of tourists. “Residents in Virginia Beach and the Hampton Roads area enjoy many amenities that would not be here if it were not for our out-of-town visitors,” says Lingle. “Facilities like the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center are available to locals year round because they are used by both locals and visitors. These amenities benefit our residents from both a quality of life perspective and a financial perspective ... It is a win-win for everyone involved.”

Dawn West, a transplanted Chicagoan who served on Newport News’ Sheriff’s Department for 20 years, figured she’d probably move somewhere else after she retired. “Whenever family or friends would come down to visit,” she says, “rarely did I have anything to show them in Newport News. But in the last 10 years, something happened to our dreary city. It woke up, dusted itself off, and put on its Sunday suit. Now we’ve got the revamped Virginia Living Museum, the new USS Monitor Center (at the Mariners’ Museum) and outdoor art festivals at Port Warwick. And Christopher Newport University’s transformation is just incredible. What was once a tiny commuter college now has a Broadway-quality main theater (Ferguson Center for the Arts) that brings in world-class performances. Now I love it when friends come to visit so I can show the place off!”

“Whether it is answering a visitor’s questions, sharing a favorite restaurant or fishing spot, or helping someone research their past,” says Suzanne Pearson, media relations manager for the Newport News Tourism Development Office, “tourism gives us the opportunity to meet, share and learn from other Americans, as well as from people of other countries and cultures.”

Sporting events have been a particular boon to Hampton Roads, bringing in overnight guests from throughout the state and sometimes the country. Hampton plays host to annual high school all-star games, Williamsburg features 14 championship golf courses, and Virginia Beach offers up its flat, fast roads for 24,000+ runners in the Shamrock Marathon.

When the Virginia Beach Convention Center hosts an event such as the National High School Wrestling Championship, it isn’t just the 3,000 individual wrestlers who come to the area; coaches and family members come as well, filling up hotel rooms and restaurants. Likewise, Virginia Beach’s boardwalk, Norfolk’s Town Point Park and Portsmouth’s nTelos Pavilion host events throughout the year, drawing visitors to the area in droves.

The North American Sand Soccer Championship (NASSC) attracts nearly 10,000 players to Virginia Beach for the largest single weekend of beach soccer in the world, with teams coming from as far away as Bosnia and Norway. Fifty thousand spectators also descend on the beach, turning it, like so many other boardwalk events, into one big beach party. West attended one of the tournaments, marking the only time she’d ever watched a complete game of soccer. “The kicks up in the air, the speed, the rhythm of the ocean,” she says, “and of course hunky muscles and shirtless sweaty men with sand stuck to their backs. What’s not to love?”

So, the next time traffic slows to a crawl and you’re surrounded by out-of-state license plates, try to give thanks instead of a toot of the horn. There’s a good chance the destination you’re driving to wouldn’t exist without them.

For other great articles, see the July/August 2010 issue of Hampton Roads Magazine