Williamsburg working at drawing 'hip' crowd

svaughan@vagazette.com

When you think about greater Williamsburg, you probably think about history, about a place that's "educational," but the area's marketers think it would be cool if the destination were also thought of as "hip."

Recent native content ads on Buzzfeed - ads designed to look like stories written by the Buzzfeed staff - are just one way the Historic Triangle is trying to connect to a younger, more hip demographic.

It's not that the destination is abandoning its long-time audience — families with children — but efforts are being made to attract a broader audience, including younger people and couples. That's a response to 10 years of disappointing tourism numbers, which started to turn around last year.

And that means appealing to more tastes: to craft beer drinkers, to foodies, to music lovers and to those who enjoy outdoor activities.

"Yes, we are working to shift perceptions about greater Williamsburg, however I would say we are not solely trying to make it more 'hip', rather we are making strides to increase awareness of the depth and variety of things to experience in the destination," said Corinna Ferguson, head of marketing for the Williamsburg Area Destination Marketing Committee, which bought the Buzzfeed ads. " Examples include content marketing efforts with a unique storytelling angle, seasonal-specific highlights, working to develop the new Williamsburg Tasting Trail and a definite stronger push towards our culinary offerings. With that broader focus, we also work towards that ever-important goal of driving both repeat visitation and extending length of stay."

The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation is also going with new advertising that pitches to a younger audience, unveiled at the foundation's board meeting last month. With the tagline "history is a verb," the campaign touts the immersive nature of the foundation's offerings.

Part of the hipness appeal is touting the area's growing craft beer industry.

"I think that definitely ties into it," said Robby Willey, co-founder and managing partner of Virginia Beer Company. "I think people are looking for something local and artisanal. We use local ingredients. I think it also taps into the excitement of a growing industry here, with Alewerks celebrating its tenth anniversary."

A beer festival, sponsored by DoG Street Pub — perhaps the city's hippest place — last year attracted more than 1,000 of the young, hip visitors the destination is aiming at.

"I think while that's true that the craft beer industry does attract that younger, hipper audience, those of us in the industry want to make the breweries and the beer gardens family-friendly too," Willey said. "We want to make it comfortable for those who may not be able to drink, who are too young to drink, who are there with people who are drinking."

Traditional players

Colonial Williamsburg also has made efforts to attract a younger, hipper crowd.

"Colonial Williamsburg always strives to attract new visitors and young adults are indeed a desirable audience," said spokesman Joe Straw. "Our efforts to attract additional guests include our historic craft beers brewed with Alewerks Brewing Co. and the 'Beers in the 'Burg' events at Chowning's Tavern, which is now themed as an alehouse."

In addition, the somewhat academic "Journal of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation" has been re-imagined as "Trend & Tradition," with a more modern layout and a less formal style.

"Other examples are our new educational Musket Range, expanded Halloween programming, the Escape the King puzzle-game evening program, and the new Sweet Tea & Barley at the Williamsburg Lodge, where guests can enjoy refined southern cuisine in a casual setting that includes patio seating around fire pits. Additional offerings appealing to broader clientele are on the way," Straw said.

Even the city of Williamsburg has been trying to boost the area's "hip" factor.

According to Economic Development Manager Michele DeWitt, the original impetus behind the Arts District, was to recreate the vibe of cities like Asheville and Savannah, which attract a younger, more couple-oriented crowd.

Scott Foster, at 25 the youngest member of the current City Council, pondered the question, "Is Williamsburg hip?"

"Well, I guess if you have to ask the question, then we've got some work to do," he said. " However, I think we are making advances in creating more amenities here for millennials and especially for young professionals."

Foster said the hippest place in Williamsburg is "downtown."

"That's combining what's going on in Merchant Square with what's happening at the college to what we're doing here in the municipal center," he said.

Variety of activities

Both the city and the surrounding counties are reaching out to more active tourists, emphasizing the area's numerous bike and walking trails, fishing and boating opportunities and other outside activities.

James City County features a number of bike paths, access to the Capital Trail, which runs from Jamestown to Richmond, and sports facilities that have helped the area attract more sports tourism. The county has also hosted triathlons, the kind of extreme sport that appeals to millennials.

Monday Williamsburg Planning Director Reed Nester told City Council that there are even tentative plans to extend the Capital Trail multi-use path to Yorktown and eventually down the Peninsula.

In reaching out for a new audience greater Williamsburg is being careful not to jeopardize its traditional appeal.

"We will always be a charming place, but yes, we want families and couples and young professionals to see that we are a hip place for them to visit, too," said Karen Riordan, president of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance. "That is why our strategy has us focusing not just on attractions and new products but also events that capture people's interest."

"The Williamsburg Tasting Trail is a major undertaking this year to highlight our breweries, winery, distilleries and meadery," Riordan said.

Busch Gardens is also trying to attract a hipper audience, in their case perhaps an audience somewhat older than thrill ride enthusiasts with its Wine and Food Festival.

Riordan also mentions another concert series at Jamestown Beach Park, the filming of "TURN: George Washington's Spies" in the Historic area, and the Harvest Celebration, with its emphasis on food, as other events that elevate the area's hip factor.

"Lastly, we are working on the completion of some very nice videos that feature a young couple doing a lot of fun things in the destination - dining, visiting the winery and a craft beer place, exploring the outdoors," Riordan said.

Vaughan can be reached at (757)345-2343..

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