Making Greater Williamsburg a 'fun' place to be

Jimmy LaRoue

It's hard to miss the bold, electronic billboards along Interstate 64 on the Peninsula.

Among the rotating advertisements is one for Busch Gardens that encapsulates the theme for the 2017 tourism season: Fun Starts March 25.

The theme is one the Greater Williamsburg Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Alliance, along with officials from Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown, is aggressively pushing at every opportunity.

The message?

Come hither, and stay longer — there's more here than meets the historical eye.

Karen Riordan, president and CEO of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance, said there has been an emphasis on fun as part of its grand strategy to boost tourism, which the U.S. Travel Association says generated $1.18 billion in revenue for the area in 2015, including more than $550 million in Williamsburg, $408 million in James City County, and $218 million in York County.

The groups aim to prove the Historic Triangle is a dynamic one.

"We really want that mom, that family, those kids, to say, 'I want to go there. That does sound like a lot of fun. It looks like we'll have a lot to do, and it's not the same old, same old,'" Riordan said. "Because earlier research had really indicated that they had considered this place to be fairly static. And if they had (come here) before, there wasn't really any reason to come again.

"So we have to bust through that and make sure people see that we're vibrant, we're dynamic. It's different in the summer than it is in the fall, different in the winter. But it's also different year-over-year because we're keeping the product fresh."

Peter Seibert, Historic Area of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation executive director, said his goal is for visitors to get caught in an immersive, fun experience similar to what he experienced coming to CW as a 10-year-old in the late 1970s.

"It's building that curiosity, and part of curiosity is fun," Seibert said. "They have to go hand-in-glove. Curiosity without fun is just pretty darn boring."

Seibert understands the changing visitor demographics means Colonial Williamsburg has to change its approach to meet them.

And it has.

Something old is something new

Friday was the first day of an official roll-out across Colonial Williamsburg's attractions to provide what it is calling "a new, enriched and more engaging experience."

"The worst thing I think that happens in a museum is when you walk in, and it's as silent as a tomb," Seibert said.

Colonial Williamsburg performed a test run of its new approach about 10 days ago and received a positive response. Seibert used the Wythe House as an example of how visitors will experience the Historic Area going forward.

"Of course we're going to explain to them who Mr. Wythe was, and we're going to have that piece and provide you with context," Seibert said. "But we also, more importantly, have that discovery part of it, which again, is where the road to fun rests."

Interpreters and music from the 18th century were at the Wythe House, and throughout Colonial Willilamsburg Friday letting visitors immerse themselves in various 18th century trades, experience food from the period, take part in a musket demonstration and hear stories of the bizarre on one of its new Renegade Tours.

The American Revolution Museum of Yorktown is wrapping up a $50 million renovation from what was formerly known as the Yorktown Victory Center. The facility filled with immersive, interactive experiences.

"We're doing great hands-on history, we're making a lot of memories, but we also want to start the wheels turning, keep the conversation going, bring folks back to us, or maybe take them to other museums," said Homer Lanier, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation interpretive program manager.

Great Wolf Lodge on East Rochambeau Drive in York County also has a few new wrinkles planned for the spring.

MagiQuest, Great Wolf Lodge's interactive storymode game, will have a new plot and added quests.

"We took the adventure and amped it up," said Dan McGee, Great Wolf Lodge director of retail. "We have new video animations. We also added another 80 quests. It's really exciting."

The indoor swimming park will also unveil its Spring-A-Palooza. The promotion, which runs though April 16, will feature a themed picnic, a jellybean jar guessing contest, a dance-off featuring bubbles and spring-themed arts and crafts.

"We're celebrating everything spring from flowers to gardens," said Brian Pinkham, Great Wolf Lodge general manager.

Broader view of fun

It's fun experiences in and out of the historical realm that the Alliance hopes visitors will have.

In its recent presentation to the Tourism Marketing Forum, the Alliance outlined its strategic direction for 2017. They talked about Greater Williamsburg's "brand positioning" and de-emphasized the region's history.

In addition to the interesting history, the Alliance also talked about the area being a destination "to relax and recharge" — taking in the region's wines, craft beer, multiple championship golf courses, spas, a top-10 water park destination, a "beautiful" theme park in Busch Gardens and the College of William and Mary.

All of those things came before mentioning the area's rich history, but still, that's no afterthought to those responsible for programming their attractions. What is at the forefront is making that history vibrant.

Corrina Ferguson, director of destination campaign marketing for the chamber and tourism alliance, told a meeting of the Williamsburg Economic Development Authority this week that for the past three years, vacationers have provided a consistent message of what they want on vacation, and what motivated them to come to the Williamsburg region. Just the one word — interesting — was prominent on both lists.

There's a difference, she said, between what consumers want and what they think Greater Williamsburg has to offer. Riordan stressed the need for tourism to be "a driving force" for the region.

Those things were on the mind of Ted Maris-Wolf, the vice president of education, research and historical interpretation for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, as he stood in the Wythe House Friday.

"We are in a moment of evolution for cultural institutions, especially museums," Maris-Wolf said. "The way Americans relate to history, the way they're educated about history, is different today than two decades ago. And we need to reach the public where they are — and hook them."

So what is new?

•The revamped and remodeled American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

•A new wooden roller coaster at Busch Gardens, Invadr

•400th anniversary commemorations of Pocahontas in Jamestown

•New Historic Area programming

•Williamsburg Inn renovation and its new restaurants

•Commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum

•Upcoming Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg $40 million expansion

•A complete renovation of the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club's Gold Course by July 1

•Apps debuting soon for Colonial Williamsburg and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

LaRoue can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

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