Peninsula Civil War Trails could benefit from millennial trends

Peninsula historic sites and its Civil War Trails markers could benefit from millennial heritage tourism.

Drew Gruber, executive director at the Civil War Trails nonprofit based in the Williamsburg area, told attendees of the program’s regional meeting at the historic Warwick Court House in Newport News Thursday that staff has noticed a shift in who they’re encountering at the Civil War Trails signs.

“The age seems to get younger and younger,” Gruber said.

Civil War Trails educates visitors on lesser-known Civil War sites in 1,550 places across five states, including at more than 550 sites in Virginia and more than 75 sites on the Peninsula with interpretive signs and guides, Gruber said. More than 100 new signs are pending in its coverage area of 200,000 square miles, he said. The trails system is known for its red bugle markers.

The recent headlines and protests over Confederate monuments have renewed interest in the Civil War Trails’ educational signs, Gruber said. He told meeting attendees this is also an opportunity to add more context or to add different perspectives to signage.

Maintaining this relevancy is important in attracting millennials, roughly ages 19 to 36 years old, who are also looking for authentic experiences they can’t download, said Gruber, who is a millennial.

Plus, 71 percent of 636 millennials responding to a survey commissioned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express said they enjoy exploring the history of an area when sightseeing and half would prefer shopping or dining in places with historic appeal.

The Civil War Trails can serve as a gateway to getting heritage tourists to visit communities’ other amenities, like breweries and restaurants, and vice versa, he said. This could mean a kayak tour and brunch like they did in Maryland, for example, he said. This could also be bikes or hikes, he added.

Civil War Trails, which relies on 1,100 members for funding and in maintaining signs, has started digitizing its maps to make it easier for bed-and-breakfasts and hotels to print information for guests, Gruber said. The next stage is in creating a consumer website to help tourists find nearby sites, he added.

J. Michael Moore, the historic sites curator for Newport News, said it’s different to learn about Yorktown in a textbook than to experience it. Civil War Trails aims to get people to follow in the footsteps of soldiers, residents and the enslaved and to discover these personal stories, Gruber said.

“The trail system’s great because it’s an outdoor classroom,” Moore said.

And the demand is there. Hampton has been distributing roughly 15,000 of its own Civil War sites guides every 12 to 15 months, said Mary Fugere, director of the Hampton Convention & Visitor Bureau, which is a sponsor of Civil War Trails. A lot of the recent trend in culinary tourism blends with historic and heritage tourism, she said.

For more information, visit www.civilwartrails.org.

Bozick can be reached by phone at 757-247-4741. Sign up for a free weekday business news email at TidewaterBiz.com or follow @TidewaterBiz.

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