Starting a new revolution

‘People are going to see a difference’

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Photo by Mark Rhodes

When a group of Iraqi archaeologists and museum officials visited Colonial Williamsburg in early March,  videos of ISIS fighters destroying their country’s ancient cultural treasures were being broadcast all over the world.

Mitchell Reiss, the president and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, greeted the visitors with a surprise offer: Colonial Williamsburg would hold Iraqi artifacts for safekeeping.

Reiss, a former senior U.S. diplomat, called the offer a “gesture of solidarity at a time when these folks were in great pain. They’re seeing their cultural inheritance, our cultural inheritance, being destroyed.  We thought it’s the least we can do.”

A week later, ISIS tried to hack Colonial Williamsburg’s website, one of many U.S. targets hit by the group. Instead of creating a security breach, however, the attack caused a wave of publicity for Colonial Williamsburg at a time when it is trying to rebound from a drop in attendance last year.

“I have three pages with lists of websites that picked this thing up,” Reiss says. “Are people going to change their vacations? Not sure. But now we’re in the conversation in their heads in a way that we weren’t.”

Changing the conversation about Colonial Williamsburg has been a top goal for Reiss since he became president in October. That means, among other things, creating the IT infrastructure to allow millennials to tour the historic area using their mobile devices.

“We have to use 21st century technology to deliver authentic 18th-century experiences,” he says.  “We have to make it more engaging.  We have to make it more entertaining.”

Reiss wants to appeal to a new generation of visitors while creating new experiences for people who haven’t visited Colonial Williamsburg since they were children. He has developed a lengthy list of initiatives that will be implemented this year and next year.

Changes this year include: better lighting of the historic area; the transformation of Josiah Chowning’s Tavern into an alehouse offering Virginia micro-brews and beers from authentic period recipes; lowering prices for single-day tickets and multiday passes while adding a new “sampler” ticket for time-starved visitors; and paying $50 to frontline employees for every month that net revenue exceeds the same month last year. (Colonial Williamsburg has 1,700 full-time and 1,250 part-time employees.)

Changes next year could include: an archaeological dig for children; a paintball game for teenagers based on the Battle of Williamsburg; and fire pits and outdoor bars for adults at the Williamsburg Inn and the Williamsburg Lodge.

Meanwhile, Colonial Williamsburg is involved in a $600 million fundraising campaign, of which $330 million already has been raised.  About $40 million would be used to renovate the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, adding 8,000 square feet of gallery space to the building, which houses the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

Before becoming CEO at Colonial Williamsburg, Reiss was president of Washington College, a liberal arts school in Chestertown, Md., for four years.
Prior to that, he held several positions at the College of William & Mary, including diplomat-in-residence, vice provost for international affairs, dean of international affairs and director of the Reves Center for International Studies.

At the State Department, he was special envoy with the rank of ambassador for the Northern Ireland Peace Process that brought an end to sectional conflict and restored local government. Reiss also served as director of the office of policy planning, advising Secretary of State Colin Powell on U.S. policy toward Iraq, North Korea, China, Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Reiss holds a law degree from Columbia University, a doctorate in international studies from Oxford University, a master’s degree in law and diplomacy from Tufts University and a bachelor’s degree from Williams College. A native of Dayton, Ohio, he grew up in the Boston area. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have two grown children.

When ISIS hackers attacked Colonial Williamsburg’s website, they didn’t know that Reiss wrote the book on terrorists, literally. It is called “Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists.”
His take on turmoil in the Middle East? “There’s a larger threat than ISIS in the region, and that is the encroachment of Iranian influence,” he says.  “ISIS will burn itself out, will be dealt with.  Iran now, I think, believes that the wind is at its back, and it’s on the march.”

Virginia Business: In your prepared remarks to the editorial board at the Daily Press, you described Colonial Williamsburg as being “on the edge of transition but poised to take advantage of trends in leisure tourism demographics, economics and technology.”  How is Colonial Williamsburg planning to take advantage of those trends?
Reiss: We need to be more attractive to a new generation of Americans and not just Americans, by the way.  The average age of our visitors last year was 58, and we love all those visitors, but we need to find ways in which we can engage, entertain and inspire younger generations.  So it means we have to use technologies differently. 

There is social media; there are different platforms.  We have to make sure the people can use their mobile apps to buy tickets, to navigate around the historic area.  We have to make the experience here more interactive and more immersive for folks because that’s the type of learning that people do these days. 

In terms of the hospitality offerings, we need to make sure that the food is absolutely first rate; the golf and spa facilities and recreation facilities are first rate; and there are things to do for teenagers and preteens …

We have 42 initiatives already identified for this year.  We’re already prioritizing them.  We’re vetting them.  We’re implementing many of them already.

VB: One [initiative] that was interesting to me was the Josiah Chowning Ale House …  You’re coming up with a new approach there.
Reiss: We looked at the finances, and the taverns performed at different levels of efficiency and profitability.  Chowning’s was struggling.  I thought, well, why can’t we go back to the traditions and something that’s authentic? 

It was an ale house originally.  We have many of the stoneware and glassware and silverware from the original Josiah Chowing’s Ale House, so I thought let’s try and mix it up.  There was no place in the historic area where you could simply get a drink in the afternoon, a beer or a glass of wine, sit and relax, or have a light snack.  You had to make a reservation and sit at a table, and have a full meal. 

This was something we thought people would want.  We thought that it played really well in terms of the authenticity, in terms of the tradition.  [In April, the ale house added its fourth draft brew beer.]  We will be displaying a lot of the original artifacts from Josiah Chowning’s Ale House in the ale house ...  It seemed a way to do something that was fun for people that would engage them, that made sense from a business model perspective and was authentic. 

VB: One of the classic questions facing any historical landmark is: How do you compete with destinations like Disney World? … What kind of challenge does that present to you?
Reiss: I want us to sit here in a couple of years, and you to ask the question slightly differently: How is Disney going to be competing with us?

We offer a unique historical experience for folks.  I don’t think that we are competing with Disney except maybe in a sort of abstract way for people’s vacation time.  It’s a very different type of experience, and I think it appeals to lots of people.  But I think we have to adapt it to the 21st century.  One of the things I’ve been stressing is that we have to use 21st-century technology to deliver authentic 18th-century experiences.  We have to make it more engaging.  We have to make it more entertaining. 

We also realize that we have a world-class resort here.  If people aren’t interested in history … they can still have a fantastic time … We’ve got a world-class resort at the Inn.  We’ve got a fantastic facility at the Lodge.  We’ve got great dining.  We have taste traditions for foodies.  And if you get curious and you want to walk across the street, you can discover the history on your own terms in your own way.  That’s a slightly different concept. 

We’ve tried to conflate the two, and there just simply haven’t been enough people who love history to fill the hotels.  Now, we understand that there’s an overlap, but we’re going to be marketing to them separately as well.

VB: How did Colonial Williamsburg do financially in 2014? 
Reiss: [Overall ticketing for sites and events declined 2 percent to 637,100, and admissions revenue also was down 2 percent.]  It was a tough year.  It was a difficult year.  And again, the market is telling us that we need to change.  Visitation was down as it has been for all historic sites and historic homes in Virginia and across the country.  And we can sit here and we can bemoan the fact, or we can do something about it.  So I choose to do something about it.

When I first got here, the first thing I did was conduct an employee survey.  I wanted the employees to tell me, “What do you think needs changing?  What do I need to know?”  And also, “What should never change about this place?” 

That was the source of many of the new initiatives that we have going this year.  The idea is to try to meet the guests where he or she lives, to try to make it easy for them.  We’re having a new map.  We’re having a new day plan.  We’re going to have way-finding signs so it’s easy to find your way.  We’re putting down an IT platform so people will be able use their mobile apps the way a lot of younger folks do these days in other areas.  So all of this is coming. 

And again, we’re pivoting off of 2014.  We’re making investments in 2015.  People are going to see a difference this year, but next year is going to be really something special.

VB: With those employee surveys, what was the top thing that was mentioned that should change?
Reiss: Let me phrase it slightly differently.  The number one value that our employees listed was guest satisfaction way ahead of anything else.  This was the most important thing to them.  They wanted it to be the most important thing for the foundation.  You can’t buy that.  We are so fortunate that we have employees who are that dedicated despite all the difficulties and struggles financially; they’re still keeping their eye on the prize, “How do we satisfy the guests?”  So that was the positive take-away from that. 

They were upset about the bureaucracy, the slow decision making, some of the silos that a lot of organizations have to deal with.  So what we’ve tried to do this year is to flatten the organization, put processes and routines in place so that when somebody has a decision, they know where it goes to.  There’s a process for vetting it, seeing what the cost is, what the return is, how long it’s going to take to implement it, who does it benefit, making sure all the people are in the room who can make a decision on that.  That really was the foundation on which we tried to pivot for this year.

VB: Now what about your marketing strategy?  Are you adjusting your marketing strategy as well?
Reiss: Absolutely.  We’re still working with The Martin Agency.  I think they’ve done a good job for us, but I was able to hire a new vice president for strategic communications a couple of months ago, Michael Holtzman.  Michael is in charge of branding, marketing, and PR for us.  We’re going to be putting more emphasis on digital, especially social media.  And we’re going to try to take full advantage of free media. 
And so a case in point came up a few weeks ago; we submitted a story to Forbes magazine about John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s secret room in Colonial Williamsburg.  [The tiny, sound-proof room off the foundation’s boardroom allowed the Colonial Williamsburg benefactor to make stock trades by phone without being overheard.] 

So we did a story on this tiny little room … 3 million people on  It was about Rockefeller; it was about Colonial Williamsburg …

We are going to do a lot more targeted media.  We’re going to be measuring it as we go and adjusting.  And we’re going to be either sponsoring or piggybacking off special events.  And so we just did a special promotion with the da Vinci exhibition at W&M ... that exceeded our target by 32 percent. 

There’s going to be a Richmond road race, the cycling race.  We’re going to be all over that.  We’re looking at plans for Halloween.  I was just talking to the National Park Service — next year is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.  They’re going to be doing special events here.  We want to work with them. 

VB: [Talking about recent news stories about Colonial Williamsburg, you have offered to hold Iraqi  artifacts for safekeeping.] Have they taken you up on that?
Reiss: Not yet.  I think there are some logistical issues we’ve got to sort through.  But again, it was as much a gesture of solidarity with them at a time when these folks were in great pain.  And they’re watching thousands of miles away, and they’re seeing their cultural inheritance, our cultural inheritance, being destroyed.  So we thought it’s the least we can do.  And we have some capacity.  If they want to send us the stuff, we will welcome it.  We will keep it.  If we run out of space, we’ll find other people.  But this was too important to just let pass.

VB: And after that, your website was hacked by ISIS, correct?
Reiss: Yes.

VB: Was that a surprise? 
Reiss: You can’t be surprised these days, if you’re in business, about cybersecurity … Cybersecurity has got to be at the top of your agenda here along with physical security. 

Just as an aside, the director of National Intelligence testified last month about worldwide threats.  And for the third or fourth year in a row, cybersecurity is number one. 

We have put in place very, very strong, redundant procedures to safeguard our personal data, medical data, and customer credit card information.  These folks didn’t get anywhere near that.  This was sort of an outer bridge.  There was never any threat to the integrity of the system. 

But to answer your question, yes, I was a little surprised that they noticed what we did.  It suggests in a way how important it was to stand up for preserving these historical artifacts. 

And so I spoke to a couple of donor groups afterwards, and they were enthusiastically in support of doing this.  I said, “Of all the places in America, if we don’t stand up for this, what happened here, Colonial Williamsburg, the history we’re trying to preserve, the risk these folks took, where they risked everything, if we’re not going to stand up for that, then shame on us.” 

VB: Now you have written books about dealing with terrorists.  You have been involved in the negotiations in Northern Ireland as well.  Do you have any advice for the people who are dealing with terrorists such as ISIS?
Reiss: I don’t know if we want to get into politics right now.  I try to keep that separate from Colonial Williamsburg, but yes, this is a big threat to our friends and allies in the region.  There’s a larger threat, though, than ISIS in the region, and that is the encroachment of Iranian influence.  ISIS will burn itself out, will be dealt with.  Iran now, I think, believes that the wind is at its back, and it’s on the march.  They’ve been responsible for the recent unrest in Yemen.  According to all the press reports, we know that they’re all over Iraq.  They’re involved in Syria.  They’re involved in Lebanon.  They’re the largest state sponsor of terrorism, according to our government.  So this is a very, very serious threat.

VB: Let’s turn to different subject. What … perspective does Colonial Williamsburg give visitors  on today’s events as far as the polarized politics we see in Washington?
Reiss: First of all it tells you we have always argued and debated about big ideas.  I think one of the [important] things is not just that we’ve argued, but that there really are big ideas at stake.  Sometimes they’re not always framed that way in the media, but a lot of it has to do with the relationship between the citizens and the state; public good versus private preference.

There’s a book that we’ve put out called the “Idea of America,” which talks about these tensions and tradeoffs that are just part of our common inheritance.  I think Colonial Williamsburg  gives visitors a little bit more sensitivity to the fact that (1) the debate has been going on for a long time.  It started here, which is actually going to be one of our trademark taglines for our ad campaign, “It started here.”  And (2) that is it’s not trivial. 

Sometimes it’s seen as just a food fight in Congress, and maybe sometimes it is.  But here these were foundational ideas.  The Hamiltonians versus the Jeffersonians, whether we were going to be a rural agricultural society or an urban society, the financial system that we created, taxation, war, peace.  And you can discover or rediscover that here with the Nation Builders [a group of actors/interpreters depicting historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Washington] and some of the programming we have.

The other thing that I hope they will come away with is the sense that these folks risked everything.  To me what is one of the most interesting parts of Colonial Williamsburg is the whole question of how did we become America.  How did we go from subjects of the British king to citizens of a new country? It was a journey. 

Patrick Henry and Sam Adams, they got there very quickly.  George Washington took a longer time … We had an exhibition at the museum last year [that included] that wonderful [Charles Willson] Peale picture of George Washington as a victorious general after the battle at Yorktown.  There he is in his blue suit, his hands on the cannon.  It’s a very imperial pose.  Right next to it was a picture of him seven years earlier in the uniform of a British Army officer.  Six feet separating the two — seven years.  The world changed.  How did that happen?  How did he go from being a loyal British officer to being a leader of a revolutionary army? ...

I think you can come away with: How did we become America here?  And what did it mean to each individual?  I think we’re still becoming the best of America.  We’re trying to live up to the ideals of the Declaration, and the Constitution. We’re continually reinterpreting it.  So you can have that experience here — and play golf.

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