Revolution museum draws summer tourism crowds

Jimmy LaRoue

New rang true for Historic Triangle attractions this summer.

Led by the renewed American Revolution Museum at Yorktown and Busch Gardens — with its new roller coaster InvadR and plenty of summer programming — Williamsburg area attractions saw modest to significant increases in attendance this summer.

And the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation — despite a restructuring initiative announced at the end of June that included layoffs and outsourcing some of its commercial endeavors — said it also saw gains. Colonial Williamsburg added an ax-throwing range, updated the Williamsburg Inn and Golden Horseshoe golf course and broke ground on a $40 million expansion to the art museums.

Not all indicators were positive though — Williamsburg room and meals tax receipts were mixed — and not everyone saw summer as an unqualified success.

In Yorktown, paid visitation at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation’s museum was up 32.5 percent in June, July and August over a year ago, with 65,902 people coming to visit.

Susan Bak, senior director of marketing and retail operations for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, said members of the foundation were excited by the resounding reception the museum received from its 13-day grand-opening celebration at the end of March and early April. That boost was enhanced by a $1 million commitment from the foundation’s board of trustees to advertise in East Coast markets all year long.

“That ad initiative continued and was designed to maximize the positioning of the museum for the summer traveler,” Bak said. “We had a commitment in our plan to do that.”

Combined visitation between the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown and Jamestown Settlement — both operated by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation — was up more than 10 percent this summer from 2016, with more than 185,000 people visiting the two historical sites.

Busch Gardens vice president for marketing Dan Dipiazzo said the park had a strong season, which kicked off with the opening of its new ride, InvadR. The park does not release attendance figures.

The ride’s opening combined with a series of special programming during the summer, including an expanded Summer Nights concert series, which Dipiazzo said were mostly sellouts in the 5,000-seat theater.

“Definitely, this was a strong summer for us,” Dipiazzo said. “We’re pleased with what we saw. Years fluctuate up and down a little bit, (but) this year was stronger than some in recent memory.”

Colonial Williamsburg executive director of marketing Andrea Sardone did not have summer attendance totals available, but said the summer was good for the foundation.

“Our strong spring gave us a good runway into summer,” Sardone said. “I think we definitely leveraged that.”

Sardone said Colonial Williamsburg focused on getting people out of the heat and into the art museums.

“I think the fact that we adjusted in many ways, that the customer didn’t even know about (the financial challenges) is a testament to the people who work here,” Sardone said. “We’re very customer focused. We want to make sure what’s going on doesn’t affect the customer.”

Karen Riordan, executive director of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance, was not as pumped up about the summer season as other marketing managers in the region.

“I would say I have a mixed view (of summer),” Riordan said. “In spring, we had come off a really strong spring break, and I was feeling very bullish about the year at that time.”

Riordan said the weather brought challenges to the region this summer.

“We know it’s hot and we’re built on a swamp,” Riordan said. “I think CW was brilliant to start some marketing messages. … You’re going to see us come up with new strategies to dial up the fun and get people some relief.”

Tax revenues for June and July in Williamsburg — the most recent data available — were up slightly over the same period in 2016. Room tax revenue in June ($356,161) was up 3.4 percent and down 2.2 percent in July ($404,495). Revenue from the $2 lodging tax was down less than 1 percent in June ($117,394) and down 3.5 percent ($130,296) in July. Meals tax revenue was down by 1.16 percent in June, with a total revenue of $639,943, and by 2.75 percent July, with a total revenue of $662,354.

In James City County, revenue from the rooms tax and the $2 lodging tax went up this summer over the same period in 2016, as did meals tax revenue for June and July.

Rooms tax revenue was up 5.7 percent in June ($358,453), 11.5 percent in July ($441,313) and 3.6 percent in August ($397,067). The $2 rooms tax revenue was up 5.1 percent in June ($92,494), 3 percent in July ($96,462) and 3.9 percent in August ($93,132). Revenue from the meals tax was up 2.6 percent in June ($763,675) and 4.7 percent in July ($782,454). In August, meals tax revenue dropped 1.9 percent to $726,841.

Leaders at area attractions say they plan to renew their focus on the summer months, while spring and fall seasons have been more of the focus in recent years.

“Summer is prime time for us,” Dipiazzo said. “There’s definitely an effort and a desire that, at the same time we’re building some of the other seasons of the year, the summer is the primary focus. We’re going to keep building that out and building out our events.”

At Colonial Williamsburg, Sardone said the foundations plans to build on the success of getting people off the streets and into its museums.

“We’re going to continue to be much more intentional about that,” Sardone said. “Even people in Williamsburg don’t know we have two museums. … It’s almost like the little hidden treasure of Colonial Williamsburg.”

Bak said she expects the visitation growth at Jamestown and Yorktown to slow this fall, but still go up overall for 2017.

“People are starting to feel better about the economy, and that’s going to help all destinations,” Bak said. “I think the levels of growth that we saw will be moderated in the fall by just the change in visitor demographics.”

The Greater Williamsburg area was once thought of as just a summer destination, Riordan said. But with the focus in recent years on the spring and fall seasons, she said it’s time to bring back a summer focus.

Riordan said Funhouse Fest, which attracted about 8,100 people during the three-day event, could continue to be a springboard to the summer, and that more music festivals could highlight the Williamsburg region’s summer calendar.

“We can’t take summer for granted,” Riordan said. “We have so much competition. Destinations out there — Michigan, Orlando, Charleston, Asheville, even Virginia Beach — they have a significantly larger tourism budget. We can never rest on our laurels. We need to keep upping our game, and we need to have enough money to have our message seen.”

Williamsburg tax revenue (August 2017 data not yet available)

Room taxes

June: $356,161 (up 3.43 percent from June 2016: $344,350)

July: $404,495 (down 2.16 percent from July 2016: $413,428)

$2 lodging taxes

June: $117,394 (down 0.77 percent from June 2016: $118,304)

July: $130,296 (down 3.45 percent from June 2016: $134,948)

Meals taxes

June: $639,943 (down 1.16 percent from June 2016: $638,352)

July: $662,354 (down 2.75 percent from June 2016: $697,301)

James City County tax revenue

Room taxes

June: $358,453.35 (up 5.7 percent from June 2016: $339,280.17)

July: $441,313.10 (up 11.5 percent from June 2016: $395,936.71)

August: $397,067.35 (up 3.6 percent from June 2016: $383,378.58)

$2 lodging taxes

June: $92,494 (up 5.1 percent from June 2016: $88,026)

July: $96,462 (up 3 percent from June 2016: $93,694)

August: $93,132 (up 3.9 percent from June 2016: $89,596)

Meals taxes

June: $763,675.01 (up 2.6 percent from June 2016: $744,381.89)

July: $782,453.98 (up 4.7 percent from June 2016: $747,143.15)

August: $726,840.65 (down 1.9 percent from June 2016: $740,985.29)

LaRoue can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342, by email at or on Twitter @jlaroue.

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