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Films, sports and social media

Tourism industry grows by moving in new directions

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Print this page by Martha Steger

Virginia’s tourism industry has bounced back from the Great Recession with flair: filmmaking, sports events and new technologies, including social media, are bringing growth. Plus, it’s reaching out to an international market ― the Republic of China ― with a new visa-waiver program. 

In 2011, the Virginia Tourism Corp. reported record high traveler spending, with tourism generating $20.4 million in revenue. That represented an increase of 8 percent compared with 2010 and was a much brighter picture than in 2009. That year, the state saw a 7.9 percent decline in travelers’ spending to $17.7 million.

Since the 2007-09 recession, much of the growth in tourism has been based on new direction, often from hard lessons learned. The filmmaking industry has definitely been a star. Virginia expects to reap a bonus from the Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln,” especially as it ties in with the Civil War Sesquicentennial. 

Andy Edmunds, director of the Virginia Film Office, says, “The film’s total impact [complete with the new “Lincoln” Trail of movie-related sites] might end up exceeding the $66 million economic impact of the physical production of the movie.” The “Lincoln” Movie Trail includes film locations in the Richmond-Petersburg area used by Spielberg in making the film, plus restaurants and stores that the cast and crew visited during filming.

For smaller tourism entities, the recession forced them to change. Smithfield Station, a family-owned lodging facility, doubled its 22 rooms on Smithfield’s Pagan River to 44 rooms in 2007. It took a beating in occupancy during the recession, with its rate at 57 percent in 2009. “The recession made us totally rethink the way we do tourism in Smithfield/Surry County,” says Randy Pack, the property’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We’re a community of roughly 6,500 people with seven major events, and we’ve learned the importance of event-based tourism to generate greater visitation.”

Landon Howard, who had 29 years of tourism experience in Mobile, Ala., and in Tennessee before becoming director of the Roanoke Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau (RVCVB) in 2010, thinks the solid underpinning of events ― particularly sporting events ― has aided tourism in the Roanoke Valley. In fact, he says sports events were one reason the city didn’t have problems with an oversupply of rooms during the downturn. “Our CVB supports sporting events in the counties and cities encompassed by us.  We sit around the table and make those decisions jointly.”

In November, The RVCVB got an early holiday gift, when local governments passed a 1 percent increase in room-occupancy tax dedicated solely to the tourism marketing of the three counties (Botetourt, Franklin and Roanoke) and two cities (Roanoke and Salem) represented by the organization.

In Richmond, sporting events also have provided a boost. Jack Berry, president and CEO of Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, credits sports events and facilities ― as well as strong room occupancy with the expansion of Fort Lee in Petersburg ― for increasing room demand in the capital city.

According to Smith Travel Research, the Richmond Region surpassed by almost 4 percent the national growth in room-occupancy for 2010-11, even though local occupancy was 51.3 percent compared with 55.4 percent nationally. (Growth depends on room rate plus room supply, and the Richmond Region had less rate change in its room supply.)

“We’ve added sports product to our inventory with the addition of the Natatorium in Chesterfield County and more soccer fields for tournaments here,” Berry says. The Inquiry Conversion & Visitor Profile Study of the Richmond region by TopLine Branding in February 2009, which examined demographic behavior and attitudes, showed a growing awareness of the area nationally. “That helps our entire program,” Berry says, “from conventions to attractions such as the Children’s Museum — which has expanded its presence from downtown to the West End and Chesterfield County — and major exhibitions at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, such as the current Chihuly show.”

Business travel still down
Nationwide, one aspect of tourism that hasn’t regained ground since before 9/11 is business travel. Ron Kuhlman, vice president of tourism marketing and sales for the Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the resort city is feeling a cutback in federal government meetings and is looking to boost other types of meetings, such as reunions and state-association conferences.

Asked about a drop in government meetings for Hampton Roads as well as Northern Virginia, Rita McClenny ― the longtime director of the Virginia Film Office who was named president and CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corp. in November ― says technology has played a role by providing more electronic meetings as a substitute for face-to-face ones. “It’s not that we’re losing our share of these meetings,” she says. “They’re just not happening to the extent they were.”

Yet technology, especially social media, is helping some localities boost their number of visitors. Arlington County — the No. 1 locality in Virginia in generating tourism dollars in 2011 ($2.7 billion) — has embraced new technologies to “connect with existing events such as the Marine Corps Marathon,” says Emily Cassell, director of Arlington Convention & Visitors Service (ACVS). “We’ve always supported our events, but messaging on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Foursquare was an entirely new strategy.  We multiplied our fan base exponentially within weeks.”

The county won two major tourism awards in 2011: the Virginia Association of Convention & Visitors’ Bureaus’ Visitor Center of the Year Award and the Southeast Tourism Society’s Shining Example Award.

The county’s loss of transient-occupancy tax — which the 50-member Arlington Tourism Coalition hopes the 2013 General Assembly session will reinstate — closed the visitors’ center as part of a 50 percent cut in the ACVS’ budget. As a result, the staff looked to innovative tactics such as rolling concierges on Segways, mobile visitor centers at Metro stops and on-site convention services during peak check-in times at some hotels.

Smaller attractions might not be able to afford Arlington’s tactics of a mobile-optimized version of its website, but they can ramp up their digital presence.  John Shaffer, the longtime director of marketing at Luray Caverns, points out that it “now spends close to 15 percent of its budget on electronic marketing.  That gives us a presence on the top 200 websites that statistics show are the most visited.”  He adds that the overseas market contributes as much as six percent of the Caverns’ business.

Two C-words: China and culinary tourism

Barry Biggar, president/CEO of the No. 2 generator of Virginia’s tourism expenditures, the Fairfax County Convention & Visitors Corp., addresses the importance of both electronic media and international marketing. He says his “Visit Fairfax” brand spent $450,000 in 2011 on interactive marketing. “Two years ago the amount was little more than half that. We’re learning to market not by demographics but by psychographics, as we have to understand visitors’ motivations to offer them a total experience.”

He says Fairfax also has learned to connect directly with international tourism.  The county supported the VTC’s international marketing with Maryland and D.C., through the Capital Region USA (CRUSA) tourism-marketing consortium. According to Biggar, “D.C. gets about 70 percent of the international business among the three jurisdictions in CRUSA.  In the past 2½ years we’ve met directly four or five times annually with major inbound operators in important overseas markets to extol our product — ranging from George Washington’s Mount Vernon to the Udvar-Hazy Center [at the National Air and Space Museum] and Tysons Corner, the sixth- or seventh-largest retail shopping area in the nation.”

He also extols the importance of Asian markets — specifically the Republic of China, a marketing effort McClenny says the VTC fully supports:  “It’s Virginia’s new number one international market. With the visa-waiver for Chinese visitors, we’re benefitting from pent-up demand.”

Another C-word — culinary tourism — is popping up more in the state’s tourism marketing, particularly given the growth and success of Virginia’s wine industry.  Branching out from vineyards, localities as far-flung as Alexandria, Rappahannock County and Norfolk/Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore see farm and food tours as a growth area.  Public funding on a two-to-one matching basis has been available from the VTC, enabling urban areas to put in place tours ranging from regular, food-themed neighborhood walks to five-day epicurean immersions.

“One-third of Virginia Beach is still under agriculture —- which visitors begin to realize when they see our farmers’ markets,” Kuhlman says.  “With ever-growing interest in the farm-to-table movement, we’re also seeing large corporations such as Sysco willing to bring in foods from within a 100-mile radius for our restaurants.  The VTC supports the marketing of Virginia’s indigenous foods, such as the nine varieties of oysters growing in our waters, through food-writers tours and other initiatives.”

Virginia ranks eighth among the 50 states in travelers’ spending.  Perhaps electronically targeting Chinese visitors to enjoy Virginia’s sustainable seafood will be the magic formula for moving the state farther up the list.

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