Helayne Spivak makes it simple: “Richmond needs to toot its own horn a little more.”
A veteran advertising professional, Spivak was chief creative officer of Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness in New York before moving here last summer to become director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter.
So she has fresh eyes on her adopted home, and she is interested in the future of the region’s tourism. In her few months here, Spivak has been quite taken with the Richmond region’s charm, its “gentility and decency,” she said.
“The hidden Richmond has to be brought out more,” she said. “People who love Richmond really love Richmond. The word has to get around more.”
Getting the word out about tourism is exactly what the Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau is all about. The bureau serves the city of Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Henrico, Hanover and New Kent. In 2011, the tourism industry generated $54 million in tax revenue and supported about 20,500 jobs in the region.
On Friday, the bureau will announce a new name and logo and will unveil new incentives to encourage local participation in the bureau’s mission. President and CEO Jack Berry hinted that the new name will be less cumbersome. The incentives to be detailed Friday will further encourage the region’s residents to become convention recruiters.
Berry and company have been contemplating the future of the region’s tourism marketing. As the Civil War sesquicentennial plays out, which aspects of the region’s appeal merit increased emphasis?
Last week, Berry and bureau officers Katherine O’Donnell and Erin Bagnell talked about the full pallet of marketing opportunities for Richmond-area tourism. Bagnell cited Outside magazine’s October issue, which, in a survey of river cities, named Richmond the “Best River Town.”
“That’s huge,” she said. “We can play with that for years in our marketing.”
The wide-ranging active-lifestyle crowd isn’t the only target market. “Foodies,” O’Donnell said. “People travel for food.”
Chef Peter Chang, who has an almost cultlike national following, has opened Peter Chang China Café in Short Pump and is reportedly interested in a downtown Richmond location.
His arrival has raised the profile of the region’s already glittering roster of chefs and restaurants. The visitors bureau is seeing a spike in interest from food writers around the country. When they’re here, they’re almost certain to happen upon one of the region’s traditional food festivals.
Sporting events occupy a lofty position in tourism marketing strategy. The region has become a magnet for youth tournaments, drawing families who stay and spend money for days.
The annual Jefferson Cup youth soccer tournament is a prime example, accounting for an estimated 25,000 hotel room-nights and a $15 million economic impact over three weekends.
For one-night events, nothing matches Richmond International Raceway’s two annual Sprint Cup races. Even though the track hasn’t had a sellout since 2008, the races still draw the state’s biggest sports crowds.
At the track’s spring Sprint Cup race in April 2012, NASCAR estimated the crowd at 89,000. On a night when the visitors bureau took care not to schedule any other conventions or events, 88 percent of the area’s hotel rooms were occupied, according to a survey for the bureau.
“We want to be a tourism catalyst for the region,” said RIR President Dennis Bickmeier, “and we think we have proven we are. We’ve been racing for 60-plus years, driving tourism all that time.”
Bickmeier said he welcomes partnerships with other attractions — packages with race tickets and other cross promotions. For example, RIR has an exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Richmond that includes a station highlighting the childhood of NASCAR drivers.
“And we want other attractions to use our races as a chance to show the fans what else is available,” he said. “Fans will want to come earlier, stay later, come back every race weekend.”
In September 2015, just as the Civil War sesquicentennial recedes, the area will be poised to get another major sports tourism boost. That’s when bicycling’s UCI Road World Championships will be staged here. Organizers expect 450,000 spectators for the nine-day event.
In the region’s robust arts culture, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts stands out as a destination. The 2011 Picasso exhibition brought about 230,000 visitors to the museum, a record. The Chihuly exhibition that ended in February drew about 160,000.
“The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts routinely offers enticing reasons to travel to Richmond,” said Suzanne Hall, the museum’s chief communications officer. “We regularly work with tourism industry partners to create packages that combine tickets to memorable exhibitions … with hotels, restaurants, transportation partners and other attractions.”
The museum’s plans for 2014 include an exclusive exhibition, set to open that October, that is a reminder of the institution’s international reputation. “Forbidden City: Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing,” will be part of a multiyear collaboration between the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace Museum.
The eclectic music scene offers an endless stream of concerts and small-venue entertainment. And the region’s calendar is dotted with major events like the annual Richmond Folk Festival, the Richmond Jazz Festival at Maymont and Dominion Riverrock, a sports and music extravaganza.
Anedra Bourne, tourism coordinator for Richmond and formerly an official with the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, is inspired by the tapestry of attractions — and by the backdrop Richmond offers.
“Our access to the riverfront … is an amazing outdoor resource,” she said. “We have restaurants and parks, we have trails for hiking and cycling — all against the backdrop of the James River.”
Next month, Bourne said, a small cruise line — the ship carries about 250 passengers — will begin making stops at Richmond’s Intermediate Terminal. The stops, which originally had been scheduled to start last fall, give tourists another avenue into the region.
She noted, too, that Richmond’s complex, fascinating history is always there, a provocative intellectual context that enriches all the other experiences available.
For the VCU Brandcenter’s Spivak, there is another context that wins hearts, hers included, for the region — the people.
“My first experience in Richmond,” she recalls, “was a Brunswick stew festival. There were parents with their babies in carriages, and then there were young people so tattooed that all you could see was the tips of their noses.
The cosmetic differences, she said, didn’t impinge on anybody’s good time.
“Richmond has a mixture of country and city, of elegant sophisticates and what you might call down-home folks,” she says. “That mixture is what makes it fun to be here.”