Spring tourism gets boost from InvadR, Revolution museum

Jimmy LaRoue
Contact Reporterjlarouejr@vagazette.com

The crowds at the opening of American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, and the long lines at the opening of the InvadR roller coaster at Busch Gardens, were no aberration.

Those lines have remained, and along with renewed museum programing in Yorktown and initiatives at Colonial Williamsburg, Historic Triangle tourism has gone up this spring.

Though the SeaWorld Entertainment-run Busch Gardens does not report attendance figures as a publicly traded company, Karen Riordan, president of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance, said she has heard anecdotal evidence of regular long lines at InvadR since it opened in April. When she was there Memorial Day weekend, people remained in the lines for InvadR for more than an hour.

"In the business we're in, 'new' is a powerful word," Riordan said. "And particularly with the travel press. That's the first question they ask me. 'So Karen, what's new in Williamsburg?' And if you make the mistake of saying, 'Oh well, you know, same old, same old, or, we've still got a great theme park and we've got these great historical sites, they're going to go 'wah, wah, wah.'"

The renewed American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, with the momentum of its 13-day grand reopening and rebranding at the end of March and early April — brought in 77,914 visitors through the first five months of 2017, up nearly 32 percent from a year ago.

It, and Jamestown Settlement, are operated by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

Taken together, the attendance at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown and Jamestown Settlement was up by nearly 12 percent — from 214,657 visitors in 2016 to 240,016 visitors through May.

Susan Bak, senior director of marketing and retail operations for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, said seeing more than marginal growth is positive for the Greater Williamsburg community.

"We're very pleased with the process and progress, because one of the things that was important for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation was to utilize the grand opening of the new museum to generate interest in both of our museums," Bak said.

New initiatives

Colonial Williamsburg has also seen its initiatives pay dividends, with attendance up around 10 percent in the first five months of 2017 over the same period last year, to 230,000, according to its executive director of marketing Andrea Sardone.

Those initiatives have included increasing interaction at its historical sites by moving its interpreters into more of them, such as Raleigh Tavern, Wythe House and the Public Armoury, increasing the programming for children and revamping the menu in the taverns.

"We did a lot of things to make our programs more interactive, more engaging, more family friendly, and I think it's paying off," Sardone said.

Sardone said marketing efforts started earlier this year, beginning in mid-January, and concentrated heavily in the Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City markets. She also noted an increase in leisure and school groups coming to Colonial Williamsburg.

Colonial Williamsburg has tried several initiatives over the past few years in a bid to boost attendance, such as adding a skating rink and musket range. And, at various times, it has floated the idea of building a fence.

Besides attendance figures, other indicators show at least a modest increase in tourism this spring.

Room demand in the Williamsburg region is up 3 percent in May, according to Smith Travel Research, a lodging industry research company.

Though average room rates dropped slightly, from $113.17 to $112.75 from the same period in 2016, hotel occupancy rates are up 4.2 percent, with 42 percent of the Greater Williamsburg region's 8,800 hotel rooms occupied, up from 40.3 percent occupied a year ago. The Greater Williamsburg area encompasses Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown.

Smith Travel Research, however, does not take into account the region's 6,500 timeshare rooms and 100 rooms at bed and breakfasts, Riordan said.

In April, occupancy rates in area hotels shot up more than 15 percent from the same period a year ago, from 51.6 percent occupancy to to 59.5 percent occupancy, according to Smith Travel Research. Average room rates in April were up 8.8 percent from $115.94 to $126.12, and revenue per available room was up more than 25 percent, from $59.87 to $75.01.

"Those are really good numbers, and they really help us get some early spring momentum, which then helps propel us forward as we now go into the summer season, Riordan said.

Positive factors

Tourism officials noted the warmer spring weather and gas prices in the $2.00 per gallon range as positive factors in the visitor upswing.

Riordan also credited the spring uptick to the attractions working to promote themselves, as well as the new marketing campaign the chamber unveiled earlier this year to highlight the fun people can have in the greater Williamsburg area. Chamber officials have said the "fun" campaign came about after tourism officials received a report that put fun well down the list of things people get out of visiting the area.

Sardone said Colonial Williamsburg's marketing efforts have keyed in on the fun people can have there, but she noted its brand of fun may not be for everyone.

"That's the tension, right, that history is boring or that you've got to eat your spinach before you can have fun," Sardone said. "We have definitely worked on explaining and just being clearer about the kind of fun you're going to have here, and really showing it more than saying, ... so showing more of what you do when you're here. You're not just walking around and looking at things."

Summer plans

The region's attractions want to continue that momentum into the summer.

The Williamsburg Inn, commemorating its 80th anniversary this year, just completed the second phase of its remodeling, with upgraded and updated rooms and menus. The gold course of its Golden Horseshoe golf course has received a facelift and renovations are still ongoing at its spa. Colonial Williamsburg also has planned a robust July 4 program, and it has introduced an updated mobile app which allows users to buy tickets.

Busch Gardens, meanwhile, moves from the Food and Wine Festival, which began May 26 and ends July 2, to two nights of fireworks around the Fourth of July. It then will host national musical acts kicking off its series of summer concerts.

Jamestown Settlement will debut a temporary exhibit on July 15, Pocahontas Imagined, to run through Jan. 28, 2018, while the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown continues with the temporary exhibit, AfterWARd, and its own Independence Day programming.

"We can't ever underestimate the power of new and having some new products," Riordan said.

Still, Bak is preaching caution and says there is still hesitancy within the marketplace. She believes people are still concerned about the economy, and they have worries about taking care of debt and making bigger purchases rather than traveling. She said a key for Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown to continue its momentum will be the upcoming Independence Day holiday.

"Those are indicators that I'm going to be watching as I take the numbers that we have, and that momentum that has continued, and to try to project it over the summer travel season," Bak said.

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

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