With a tough year for tourism in our rearview, the road ahead looks bright

With a tough year for tourism in our rearview, the road ahead looks bright

At the start of last summer, the local visitors bureau ran a TV commercial aimed at driving tourism to the Charlottesville area, but pulled the campaign, which showed a happy, lively and beautifully landscaped town to the tune of a Dave Matthews song, weeks before the Unite the Right rally.

Perhaps the lyrics, “Wasting time / let the hours roll by / doing nothing for the fun / a little taste of the good life / whether right or wrong, makes us want to stay, stay, stay for a while,” clashed with what some anticipated would be the largest gathering of white supremacists in recent history.

Bri Bélanger-Warner, interim executive director of the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau, says after the rally that left three dead and many injured, they gave the town, which National Geographic Travel recently named one of the best small cities in the U.S., some time to catch its breath before slowly reintroducing the commercial to local networks.

“We didn’t feel like coming out strong with a sales-y pitch about the destination was in good taste, so we preferred to just be quiet,” says Bélanger-Warner. Of course, after the tragic events, there was a new campaign.

Most residents will remember Cville Stands for Love—when the Virginia Tourism Corporation planted a giant LOVE statue in the middle of the Downtown Mall in an effort to repair the city’s image. Then-mayor Mike Signer posted to Facebook a photo of himself jumping for joy in front of the statue just five days after the rally.

“After a hard week, Cville is back on our feet, and we’ll be stronger than ever,” Signer’s Facebook post said at the time. “Love conquers hate!”

But some evidence shows that Charlottesville was not, in fact, back on its feet, and a number of local business owners are still trying to regain their footing.

“Our best indicator is our [hotel] occupancy,” says Bélanger-Warner, who pointed out a few figures on a proprietary visitors bureau chart, which showed that occupancy in Charlottesville and Albemarle County was slightly down in August and September, and had decreased as much as 5 percent by October of last year.

“Our occupancy was still 80 percent,” she says from her Downtown Mall office. “In the grand scheme of things it’s not alarming by any means, but it is a bit unusual to see a dip.”

By November, the percentages were back in the positives, and by December, January and February, they were up nearly 9 percent. But there was another issue at stake.

“Whereas our occupancy was way up, the amount of money that we got per room was way down,” she says.

Aside from November, average daily rates have steadily decreased since last October, and year-to-date they’re down 5 percent. Year-to-date lodging revenue is down 1.2 percent.

This could be attributed to the local hotel and inn market preparing for new competition, such as the Draftsman Hotel, which recently opened on West Main Street, and the Country Inn & Suites and the Residence Inn that both opened in 2016, according to Bélanger-Warner. Home2 Suites and the Fairfield Inn are scheduled to open this year.

Monticello, one of the top tourist destinations in the area, saw a decrease in visitors for the first few months of 2018, but its numbers were similar to 2014 and 2015. About 440,000 people visit Thomas Jefferson’s home annually. Photo by Jack Looney

The lodging industry wasn’t the only one hit. The number of tickets sold at Monticello, one of the biggest tourist attractions in town, was also down.

“Our visitation in the first few months of 2018 was not as strong as 2017, but is similar to what we saw in 2014 and 2015,” says spokesperson Mia Magruder Dammann. For the last 10 years, about 440,000 people have dropped by Thomas Jefferson’s home annually.

According to Magruder Dammann, several factors contribute to the number of visitors there, especially the weather. This weekend, Monticello will be debuting six new exhibits, and, based on past experience, it can “expect to see a bump in visitation this summer,” she says.

Though tourism can be hard to measure, another indicator is money spent at local restaurants. Last year, meals tax revenue was down nearly 3 percent from 2016, though, as the city’s Director of Economic Development Chris Engel points out, that was a record year for meals tax in Charlottesville. The meals tax total from 2017—$11,429,199—was a 16 percent increase from 2015.

However, downtown restaurant owner Will Richey, the man behind several eateries including The Whiskey Jar, The Alley Light, The Pie Chest and Revolutionary Soup, says the fourth quarter of 2017 was “just terrible” for Downtown Mall restaurants, “and it was all because of the July and August events distinctly.”

Things didn’t start turning around until March, he says, and March, April and May were much stronger than the fall. The business owner attributes that to the “wonderful” people of Charlottesville and Albemarle, who support local businesses in a way that Richey says isn’t often found elsewhere.

“I think we are back on track downtown, though I do think things would be slightly better without some of the downtown issues that have been accosting us over the last years, like hyped up parking issues that are not really issues, panhandling and, of course, last summer’s social unrest,” he adds.

Restaurateur Will Richey says the last quarter of 2017 was “just terrible” for Downtown Mall restaurants, but he reports a turnaround in March. He says downtown issues such as panhandling, “hyped up parking issues” and the events of August 12 all contributed to a decline in business. Photo by Robert Llewellyn

As for the local entertainment industry, Kirby Hutto, the general manager at the Sprint Pavilion, says it’s not a great indicator of tourism.

“Our patrons honestly are not true tourists,” he says. “They’re coming here to see the show. All of our performance metrics are based on how popular the artist is.”

And folks at the Paramount, the historic theater on the Downtown Mall, say they haven’t seen any decrease in sales: More than 113,000 people attended at least 300 events at the Paramount last year—one of them being a public funeral for Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old killed in the August 12 car attack—and director of marketing Maran Garland says recent events and attendees are consistent with their yearly projections.

The Paramount aims to benefit central Virginia artistically, educationally and charitably, says Garland, and to help drum up business by keeping local restaurants and hotels in mind when setting times for events.“When we can partner with our neighbors to achieve our mission, and support downtown, it is a win-win for all,” she says.

When asked about trends in the wedding industry, a slight disagreement exists between wedding professionals, but they can all agree on one thing: Last year wasn’t so hot.

Barb Lundgren has been planning local weddings for more than 20 years, and says that as the tourism industry has surged in recent years, “we’ve lost a little bit of our small-town charm.”

While her business, Barb Wired, is currently down about a third, she attributes it mostly to the stiff competition in one of the local area’s most competitive industries. Lundgren says it’s hard to estimate an accurate figure because couples are becoming more last-minute in their wedding planning.

In 2016, Borrowed & Blue co-founder and former CEO Adam Healy calculated that the wedding industry had a $158 million economic impact on Albemarle County. He said then that the local wedding market has been ranked as one of the top five for destination weddings on the East Coast. (Borrowed & Blue shut down in October 2017, and its online assets were bought earlier this year by weddings e-commerce startup Zola, based in New York City.)

“One of our challenges in the industry is that we don’t have enough hotels,” Lundgren says—a sentiment that Bélanger-Warner at the visitors bureau echoes.

Although some Charlottesville and Albemarle residents are opposed to new hotel development, Lundgren says many couples have to cancel or change their dates because there aren’t enough available rooms to host their guests.

Wedding photographer Jen Fariello echoes other industry players: Work slowed down last year, but she attributes it to the 2016 election more than anything. She says business is currently up 25 percent from last year. Photo by Ron Dressel

And the hardest part of Bélanger-Warner’s job, she says, is turning down wedding parties, sports teams or potential conference attendees who want to stay in town at a time when she can’t find a big enough block of rooms for them. Including the two hotels that are set to open this year, a little more than 4,000 rooms are available in the city and county in close to 60 lodging establishments including hotels, bed and breakfasts and inns.

“It happens regularly enough that, intuitively, we know that there would still be room for a few more hotels,” says Bélanger-Warner.

But despite the lack of places to stay, local wedding photographer Jen Fariello says business is booming.

“Last year was a weird year,” says Fariello, “but 2018 and 2019 have made a strong recovery.”

She says 2017 was pretty bad for everyone in the industry, but she doesn’t think it can be attributed to the August incident because, in the wedding world, generally a couple books services such as a photographer and venue for their big day between six months and a year out. “Nobody quite knows why, but that would really have to do with whatever was happening in 2016. I think a lot of people chalk it up to the election.”

Adam Donovan-Groves, another local wedding planner, says he sees that decline every election year, because people are concerned about the economy and their wedding budgets go down. By the second and third year after an election cycle, however, things are usually back to normal, he says.

“We’re right where we’re supposed to be,” says Donovan-Groves, who just booked a wedding for 2020. Fariello is fully booked for the year, and is currently booking for fall 2019. She says business is up by at least 25 percent from last year, and she hasn’t even hit fall, her busiest season.

“It’s really a thriving industry here,” she says, and, like Lundgren and Donovan-Groves, also attributes any overarching industry-wide decline to new competition and venues, since vendors have seen how well others have done in Charlottesville and Albemarle and set up shop. “There’s just lots more of everything now,” says Fariello.

While the nation watched last August, as brawls between neo-Nazis and their counterparts ensued in our streets, all eyes will be on Charlottesville again this summer. But it could be for good reason, according to Forbes, which, in May, named our Monticello region as the best 2018 summer wine trip.

King Family Vineyards, nestled on the Monticello Wine Trail in Crozet, didn’t see any disparity in sales last year, and actually saw a 4 percent overall increase.

James King says, historically speaking, the alcohol industry is one that fares well during economic depressions.

“When the economy’s bad, people want to forget their troubles,” he says. “Not to say that alcohol’s a recession-proof industry—it’s not—but we really didn’t see a difference [in 2017].”

A good indicator of a successful 2018 is that they’ve been busier earlier than usual this year in their tasting room, and every year has been a record year since his family first opened its doors in 2002, he adds.

“We’re on track to sell a bunch of wine and have the best year ever, and I hope that’s the case for everyone else,” says King.

A new radio ad from the visitors bureau encourages the community to stay local and play local this summer.

Bri Bélanger-Warner, interim executive director of the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the best indicator of tourism is hotel occupancy, which fell to 80 percent in October. Photo by Eze Amos

With an aggressive wedding industry, national accolades racked up by area wineries and breweries, increased hotel occupancy in the city and county, and the city’s sales tax revenue up 5.75 percent from the same months last year—after being down 3.34 percent in 2017, the first dip in four years—Bélanger-Warner says the bottom line is that “tourism is healthy.”

And that’s good, because the local area relies heavily on the industry that employs more than 5,000 people, and where domestic travelers spent more than $600 million in Charlottesville and Albemarle in 2016, according to the Virginia Tourism Corporation.

There would be severe repercussions if local tourism saw a sudden nosedive, says Bélanger-Warner.

“It would have a huge impact because all of those people who come here from out of town stay in our hotels, eat at our restaurants, shop in our stores, get gas in our gas stations, go to our wineries, go to our orchards and our historical attractions,” says Bélanger-Warner, and if all of those people stop coming, businesses would suffer and there’d be a loss of revenue. Or, put simply, she says, “We are in trouble.”

While filling the role as executive director of the visitors bureau, answering why people would want to come to Charlottesville and Albemarle is a big part of the job.

“Why wouldn’t they?” she says, laughing. “It’s the best of all worlds.”

It’s a beautiful city with a vibrant downtown, top-notch restaurants and the “fun vibe” of its many festivals, paired with a rural countryside that offers agritourism, historical attractions and, of course, wine, says Bélanger-Warner. And the area isn’t so large that it loses its authenticity.

“It’s not so big that you’re stuck in traffic 24/7, but you have all you need,” she adds. “In some of the bigger touristy cities or destinations, it’s geared at tourists so much that you get a gift shop every two seconds with the cookie cutter souvenirs and takeaways, where here, I feel people really want to share how they live and who they are in a very authentic kind of way.”

Those hit the hardest last year have high hopes for this summer, too.

Says restaurateur Richey: “I’m looking forward to a good summer—hopefully a regular C’ville summer without any crazy.”

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