Tourism, tech, and the race to brand Charlottesville

  • 1 COMMENTS
The “Aspen vs. Austin vs. Arlington” debate at the Tom Tom Founders Festival helped frame a big question: What does Charlottesville want to be? Photo: Gina Proulx The “Aspen vs. Austin vs. Arlington” debate at the Tom Tom Founders Festival helped frame a big question: What does Charlottesville want to be? Photo: Gina Proulx

At the start of the Tom Tom Founders Festival two weekends ago, a crowd filled The Haven on First and Market to rehash a question that Charlottesville loves to ask, but rarely manages to answer: Who are we?

The “Aspen vs. Austin vs. Arlington” debate pitted several concepts of place against one another. Should the region aim to be a destination for tourists and retirees? An innovation hub? NoVA’s little cousin? The discussion among the business leaders and policymakers played largely on questions of growth—how much is too much, and what kind is best. But there’s already more than one effort underway to define Charlottesville in the eyes of the outside world, and they look very different.

The most noticeable is the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau, which launched its new brand identity before a crowd of 200 people at the Paramount Theater in February.

The new brand, created for $35,000 by local PR firm Payne, Ross & Associates, is part of a larger plan to sell Charlottesville that calls for well over half a million dollars in marketing, advertising, and PR spending. It’s funded with accumulated surplus from the CACVB’s annual infusion of about $1 million in hotel and room tax revenues from the city and county—money the bureau was last year told to use or lose.*

And use it they did. The branding side of the big marketing push includes a new logo that features the requisite Jefferson-esque dome and columns, a website overhaul, a slew of promotional videos featuring historic sites and vineyards, and a new slogan: “Where tradition is always new.”

CACVB Executive Director Kurt Burkhart** said promoting the area’s strengths is vital to the economic health of the city and county. “We’ve got some 5,000 people employed here in the tourism and hospitality sector,” Burkhart said. The most recent reports show $430 million in direct visitor spending annually, and those dollars have to keep coming.

But that’s not the only Charlottesville story being told. Tom Tom also included the launch of Cville Made, a ground-up branding initiative conceived by the tech gurus at the startup incubator Hack Cville.

Cville Made is meant to be a rallying point for all things innovative in Charlottesville, and in many ways, it’s everything the CACVB’s brand concept isn’t. Open-sourced and undefined, it’s merely a text logo available free from a website where startups of all stripes are invited to add their names to a roster of cool companies. It isn’t the least bit Jeffersonian, and it hasn’t cost anyone anything, beyond their time and the cost to register a url.

But Hack Cville founder Spencer Ingram hopes the simple concept will foster a tribal identity among those in Charlottesville’s burgeoning entrepreneurial community, and paint the area as a place where innovators want to move—and stay.

“There are a lot of really awesome cities vying for our youth talent,” Ingram said, so it’s important to celebrate what the city is producing, whether it’s software or shoes. “Who are the people shaping this town and creating this economic force? That’s the basis for the narrative we want to create.”

It’s a tale of two approaches for two audiences, but can they coexist without confusion?

Tom Tom founder Paul Beyer thinks they can. The developer and former City Council candidate shortened and narrowed his festival in its second year and made it a celebration of the city’s tried-and-true strengths and its aspirations, from local food and homegrown music to high-stakes pitch competitions, and managed to draw more than 10,000 people and break even with a budget of $100,000.

As a branding effort in microcosm, it did well, perhaps because it embraced the area’s different identities. Wine country and tech hub—“they go hand in hand,” Beyer said. Look at northern California. Make a place appealing, and you can make it cool, and good things will follow. “The vibe of the place is what draws people, and it’s the same vibe that lets this startup culture emerge.”

*Initially, this story implied that the branding initiative cost more than half a million dollars, when in fact, it’s one $35,000 piece of a much larger marketing effort.

**The earlier version of this story identified the CACVB’s director incorrectly as Kurt Burkholt.

  • Bill

    Jefferson-esque? Whatever happened to Jeffersonian?

Comment Policy