‘We Are Tourism’ drives Williamsburg’s economy

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WILLIAMSBURG, VA—With a constant stream of visitors, students, residents and retirees mingling amongst the living history implanted in Williamsburg, one does not have to think twice about how the city makes their money.

Colonial Williamsburg and William and Mary are the two big institutions in the city itself with other events including Williamsburg Live, Ampersand International Arts Festival, Grand Illumination and more big events like these that are large drivers of tourism in the City of Williamsburg, said Joanna Skrabala, tourism development director. 

“The best answer for [how tourism affects the local economy] and the simplest answer is tax dollars,” said Skrabala. “We are tourism.”

Sammy Pietrinferno

“Because tourism is such a big part of the community, we have a massive amount of jobs that are a part of the tourism industry,” said Skrabala. 

According to the Economic Development Department of the City of Williamsburg, “the majority of the 700 business establishments within the City either fall into the retail trade or accommodation/food services category, which cater to the 6-8 million annual area visitors.”

“We are neighbors to William and Mary so [the school] keeps us pretty steady throughout the year,” said Kelly Williams, front of house manager at DoG Street Pub. “… those short weekends during the holidays where it kind of quiets out gives us a moment to actually breathe because once school goes into full effect and the weekends and the weather gets even better…fall really just opens right up.”

Local events like parents weekend, homecoming, art festivals and Grand Illumination keep the visitors flowing into DoG.

 “We don’t get any lull from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve,” said Williams. 

“The busiest time, which surprised me, was the Thanksgiving-New Year’s holiday,” said Laura Osman, a Williamsburg resident of one year. “I found it much more crowded than I thought it was going to be, much earlier than I thought it was going to be.”

Being kitty-corner to Colonial Williamsburg is a huge drive to Merchant Square and why Williams thinks Colonial Williamsburg has such a big pull for business. 

Sammy Pietrinferno

“I’d say it’s a good 50/50 between tourists and locals, maybe 60/40,” said Williams, a Williamsburg resident since 2017.

The City of Williamsburg houses its own Economic Development Department in addition to a Tourism Development Department under its umbrella. 

“The Economic Development Department has two primary functions, one is just recruiting new business to the area and the other is business retention,” said Skrabala. “So, of course we want new business, but we want to make our current businesses happy…Tourism being the city’s primary industry it makes sense to put tourism under the economic development department and that’s how the two departments work together.”

The World Travel and Tourism Council’s Economic Impact 2023 report estimates that tourism and travel makes up 9.1% of the United States’ GDP as well as contributing to 11.3% of total U.S. employment, 26.2 million jobs. 

Visit Williamsburg Advertising Effectiveness & Return on Investment (ROI) Study of 2022 reports that, “The fall and holiday advertising influenced about 54,000 Williamsburg trips and about $75 million in visitor spending during November and December…From January to October 2022, [our advertising] influenced approximately 432,000 trips to the region, resulting in $832 million in visitor spending.”

“The local tax dollars which include dining, retail, lodging, all go back into the community,” said Skrabala. 

Williamsburg, James City County and York County began collecting a new 1% tax back in 2018 where half of it would go back to the collecting municipality and the other half would go towards the Williamsburg Tourism Council, said Skrabala.

“What the City of Williamsburg did, that I think is kinda cool, is they took their one half of the 1% and specifically put it back into a Tourism Development Fund,” said Skrabala. “That fund helps to give money to local agencies or events that pretty much puts it right back into tourism. The other part of that is the city created a Tourism Development Fund grant opportunity where folks can apply for funding for tourism products, new infrastructure, and renovation improvement, so I kind of take pride that the city took that tax and put it right back into tourism.”

The grant programs began its first cycle in 2019, but with 2020 the grant was paused, so 2023 marks the funds official second cycle, said Skrabala. 

“Comparing everything to those pre-pandemic numbers, we’re looking at 2019,” said Skrabala. “2020 and 2021 things were looking pretty bleak there for a while, so it’s exciting that we’re close to, if not back to those pre-2020 numbers, so now we’re finally able to compare this year’s numbers to last years.”

Sammy Pietrinferno

In 2022, the city started hosting “Future Festivals” featuring a fun, carnival-like atmosphere at different times throughout the year in which community input is collected, said Skrabla.

“First and foremost, we want to hear from our community and we want to do what’s best for our community,” said Skrabala. “We want their thoughts and their input and that really drives us to map out the future and I know tourism is just part of that, but it’s a big part because we want to make everyone happy.” 

Initiatives fueled by local government money like Prince George Street’s permanent outdoor seating areas are underway hoping to create a more attractive outdoor atmosphere, said Skrabala. 

Other initiatives include a project started from the 2019 cycle of the Tourism Development Fund, an indoor sports complex, approved then paused due to the pandemic, is now ready to break ground in partnership with James City County and York County in the site of the old Colonial Williamsburg Visiting Center. Additionally, the city itself is in the process of developing an African American heritage trail spanning a couple miles through the city, Colonial Williamsburg and William and Mary “highlighting important places and stories about African American culture in the area,” said Skrabala.

“I know that this year the [TDF] fund for new grant opportunities has about $1.8 million in it and that’s exciting for the city to have that kind of money to put directly back into the community,” said Skrabala.

Free past events like Colonial Williasmburg’s concert series and movie nights are back, Williams said and are a great way to keep up tourism throughout the summer season. 

“We’re just a very welcoming community to all people,” said Williams.

The impact of the draw to the birthplace of the colonies and one of the first colleges in the country is practically tangible entering Downtown Williamsburg. 

“Both the Williamsburg Foundation’s Colonial Williamsburg and the college, I don’t think there would be much of a town at all [without them] and I certainly don’t think there would be much of a draw to live here,” said Osman. “That’s what makes the town…If that went away, I think the town would just shrivel up.”

The pride in this town and the embrace of its history is evident in the care and dedication of the government putting funds right back into business, the constant flow of visitors and the exuberance of the locals who talk about their home. 

“I love that everyone seems to love to live here,” said Osman. “… I think that is very contagious.”

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