Tourism Alliance wants up to 90 percent more funds from York

jsomers@dailypress.com

The Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance has requested additional money from surrounding localities and up to a 90 percent increase in funding from York County.

York County currently contributes the least — approximately $342,447 — while James City County contributes about $775,000 and Williamsburg about $700,000, said Karen Riordan, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance.

The alliance requested $350,000 to $650,000 from York County and close to $900,000 from both James City County and Williamsburg so it can better market the Williamsburg region as a year-round travel destination, Riordan said.

"The plan is if they were able to invest more, we would spend more on marketing and drive more people to York County hotels, restaurants and overall events," Riordan said. The agency's 2015 strategies include bringing more sports groups to the area, expanding fall and spring arts programs and creating culinary and beverage events.

Some hotel and motel representatives, who are supposed to benefit from the marketing, say the county would be better off flat-funding the agency.

"I don't know why we would give more money to an organization that hasn't demonstrated it can improve occupancy of hotels," said Ron Kirkland, executive director the Williamsburg Hotel and Motel Association, which has 70 properties as members.

York County Supervisor Donald Wiggins agreed. "We can't give them any more money than we are giving them now because I don't see that there is enough benefit to York County from it," he said.

According to the alliance, between August 2013 and August 2014 hotel occupancy in the Williamsburg region, which included the three localities, had decreased by 2.9 percent and timeshare rental occupancy had increased by only 0.4 percent.

York County did better than James City County and Williamsburg. The county's hotel occupancy increased by 3.6 percent and its timeshare rental occupancy increased by 13.4 percent during that period, according to the alliance's data.

Riordan said York County was doing well in terms of room occupancy but there is more potential for the entire area. "We need to work together," she said. "We need to be united and need to take every dollar we can get and drive as many visitors to the area."

Chris Canavos, co-owner of Country Inn and Suites on Pocahontas Trail and a member of the Williamsburg Hotel and Motel Association, said the alliance's information doesn't tell the whole story. He said 2013 was a particularly slow year because of bad weather so room occupancy should have increased more than it did in 2014 compared to 2013. The Williamsburg area continues to perform worse than nearby destinations, he said.

The Williamsburg area's room occupancy was 43.4 percent during calendar year 2014; Virginia Beach's was 55.5 percent and Newport News-Hampton's was 58.3 percent, according to Smith Travel Research, a lodging research company. The data doesn't include timeshares and only about 72 percent of properties in the area submit data, according to the research agency.

The funds York and James City counties give to the tourism alliance come in part from a 5 percent lodging tax, according to their budgets. Canavos said he wants that tax eliminated because he doesn't have confidence in the agency's abilities.

Supervisor Walt Zaremba said he disagreed with the idea of getting rid of the lodging tax.

"You got to spend dollars to get dollars and make a profit," Zaremba said. "I think what is missing in the discussion with the hotel industry in the Historic Triangle is their own capital investment."

Older hotels could upgrade their facilities to better compete with new hotels and timeshares, he said.

Mark Duncan, a member of the tourism alliance's board and director of community and government relations for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which owns six hotels in Williamsburg, said the agency is "doing a wonderful job attracting guests to the destination."

He said if the additional money helped get more people to the area, he was in favor of it.

Keith Furnas, general manager of Great Wolf Lodge in York County, said he was sure one of their guests learned about Great Wolf Lodge from the tourism alliance but the majority visited as a result of the company's own marketing. Great Wolf Lodge, with its indoor water park, is a different product from traditional hotels, he said.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas Shepperd said whether the board invests more in the tourism alliance will have to be determined after the board further examines the results of the agency.

Somers can be reached by phone at 757-298-5176.

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