Colonial Williamsburg tackling decreased visitors with relaunched experiences

Jonathan Black
Contact Reporterjoblack@dailypress.com

In Mitchell B. Reiss' office, there are a few relics of note. There is a signed photo of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a replica painting of Patrick Henry and, right behind Reiss' desk, a sign saying, "Is it good for Colonial Williamsburg?"

About the size of a large computer screen and written in cursive, the sign was made by Reiss' daughter when he became president and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The saying dates back to when Reiss worked as a diplomat under Powell, whom Reiss credits with teaching him how to be a leader.

"It was great leadership because it wasn't about him. It was about the mission first," Reiss said. "Is it good for Colonial Williamsburg, even if it may be difficult for some of us? We have to put the foundation first. It's been here for 90 years. It's not inevitable that it's going to be here."

This mentality is sparking Colonial Williamsburg's push to make itself more attractive to visitors to create a more viable business.

The foundation revealed its changes and updates to the Historic Area, dining and hospitality during a media tour in March.

Please touch

While Reiss' reminder remains firmly in place on his wall, other signs aren't so lucky. Specifically, "Please Do Not Touch" signs.

It makes Ted Maris-Wolf, vice president of education, research and historical interpretation, one happy man.

"We're evolving from 'please do not touch' to 'please touch,'" he said. "We're hoping to reinvent what history education will look like in the future."

Maris-Wolf was speaking in the Wythe House, located right off Palace Green, during a media tour in March. Wythe House is one of the many structures within the Historic Area that has shifted the way it operates. Long gone is the simple act of learning how Founding Father George Wythe and his family lived. Guests can now live it.

Strike up a conversation with one of Mrs. Wythe's ladies in waiting. A conversation one Friday morning in the house between an interpreter and guests started with fashion but organically made its way to vaccinations. Step into the parlor to listen to live music or just scoot outside to see what 18th century delicacies are being made in the kitchen. It's a choose-your-own adventure for guests.

"The big change is a very different feel, especially with a lot of the traditional houses. We wanted to convey a home where things are happening all the time," said Peter Seibert, executive director of the Historic Area. "Guests might find a Founding Father or meet a whole lot of interesting people."

Getting similar makeovers are the Randolph House, the Geddy House and the James Anderson Armoury.

"We started doing a lot of research. We started doing some test cases," Reiss said. "The takeaway was we needed to make the place more fun, more accessible and more engaging, more interactive, especially for young families and children."

That includes dining in Colonial Williamsburg. Its four taverns have been reformatted for more specialized menus. Chowning's will focus on casual fare, Campbell's on seafood, King's Arms' on steak and up-scale food and Shields' on family-style dining with cuisine inspired by the Caribbean and African flavors that were preserved by the black population of Williamsburg.

"It's important that we branded each tavern," said Mark Florimonte, director and executive chef of the Historic Area's food and beverage. "You have to create moments and memories. We're very good at getting people here once, not so good at a second and third time. That's what we're working on."

The menus feature items created by Michael Twitty, a culinary historian and author.

Twitty is part of the newly launched Revolutionaries in Residence program, in which Colonial Williamsburg hosts "modern-day innovators" that tie into the Colonial era. The next guest will be actor and scholar Chaz Mena, who will give a "REV Talk" at 7:30 p.m. April 28 at the Kimball Theatre.

Lodging and leisure are getting some updates as well. The Williamsburg Inn and Golden Horseshoe Golf Club's Gold Course are both under renovation with the Williamsburg Lodge set to be revamped this summer after joining the Marriott International's Autograph Collection Hotels.

A $40 million expansion, funded by donations, will begin in April at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. The money will cover the cost of a 60,000-square-foot addition, which includes a new entrance.

All of this is part of Reiss' three pillars of the foundation: the Historic Area, the museum and the educational programming for teachers and students.

"We want to make sure we're bringing people here to create memories that will last a lifetime," he said.

Pillars

Reiss is pleased and impatient with the progress the foundation has made since his arrival. He says he is battling a competitive marketplace with more living history museums popping up and a working culture in which people take off less time.

"We know that less history is being taught in K-12. There's less money for school trips. It's a challenging environment," he said. "We have to be really smart in how we have to play in this world. We have to recognize these new trends."

Customer satisfaction isn't a problem for the foundation. Reflecting the trends of many museums around the country, Reiss said one of the biggest struggles for Colonial Williamsburg has been the decline in visitation.

One way he's hoping to capitalize on that is in the years leading up to the 250th anniversary of the United States, in 2026.

"Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C., will probably own that date. But it's the years that happen leading up to it where we became America. That happened here. That's what we need to capitalize on," Reiss said. "Everybody had their own story. Everybody had their own journey. Being able to tell that in the run-up to 2026, I think is a great opportunity for us."

One of his first priorities is continuing to stabilize the foundation's finances. Colonial Williamsburg has jumped on the opportunity to expand its brand by working with people like Twitty and by capitalizing on pop culture.

A recent episode of "The Goldbergs" has the family discussing if they want to visit Williamsburg for vacation, so the foundation edited a photo of the lead actress, Wendi McLendon-Covey, in the stocks on Duke of Gloucester Street.

"We're going to have find ways to break through the clutter, to break through the blizzard of emails and social media. How do you get the country's attention? That's a huge challenge," Reiss said. "We can be smart about technology. We can partner with people who have existing followings and get the news out that way."

On March 22, news surfaced about Reiss submitting a memo to Williamsburg City Council about installing a fence to keep nonpaying customers out of the Historic Area. It received mixed reviews from visitors and locals, according to the Virginia Gazette.

The memo was submitted by the foundation to the city as part of an update regarding Colonial Williamsburg's challenges with an open campus. No plan has been made to create a managed access area, Reiss said.

"Looking at the financial challenges that we face, I would be remiss at my job if I wasn't looking at how to generate revenue and save money," Reiss said. "There is no plan right now. Obviously there's enormous sensitivities about this, and I'm aware of it."

Black can be reached by phone at 757-247-4607.

What to do over spring break

Colonial Williamsburg's latest addition is just one of the many activities for families over spring break.

American Revolution Museum

The newly completed museum includes outdoor exhibits with living- history re-enactors and replicas of a Revolution-era farm and war encampment. Indoors, visitors can view four films, explore more than 400 artifacts and enjoy an interactive tour through the museum's mobile applications.

Where: 200 Water St., Yorktown.

Info: historyisfun.org or 888-593-4682.

Busch Gardens

The Williamsburg amusement park opens its newest roller coaster, InvadR, April 7. It's the park's first wooden coaster and has been marketed as a family-friendly attraction.

Where: 1 Busch Gardens Blvd., Williamsburg.

Info: seaworldparks.com/en/buschgardens-williamsburg or 757-229-4386.

Virginia Living Museum

The Newport News museum's current rotating exhibit is "Wolf to Woof," which traces the history and roles of the dog. Check out the museum's outdoor exhibits, like the Dinosaur Discovery and Boardwalk trails.

Where: 524 J. Clyde Morris Blvd., Newport News

Info: thevlm.org or 757-595-1900

Virginia Air and Space Center

Located in Hampton, this facility recently installed a new exhibit about what life on the moon could be like. Watch the latest IMAX documentary or explore the galaxy with "Space Quest."

Where: 600 Settlers Landing Road, Hampton

Info: vasc.org or 757-727-0900

If you go

What: Colonial Williamsburg.

Where: The Visitors Center is located at 101 Visitor Center Drive, Williamsburg.

Cost: Virginia residents can receive a year's access to Colonial Williamsburg for the cost of a single day's worth of admission until May 31. Single-day tickets are $40.99 for adults and $20.49 for youth.

Info: colonialwilliamsburg.com or 888-965-7254.

More online

For more photos and video of Colonial Williamsburg, visit dailypress.com/entertainment.

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