Visitors spend more in 2012

Posted: September 20, 2013

The Winchester Star

Karen Otico of Middleboro, Mass., and her husband, Doug, tour the garden at the Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown Thursday. It was their first time in the Shenandoah Valley. The 1797 Manor House is visible in the background. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)
Belle Grove Plantation docent John Clancey of Winchester leads a tour of the manor house as Steve Bennett of Darien Conn., listens Thursday.
Garold Johnson and his wife Alicia of Statesville, N.C., along with Steve Bennett of Darien, Conn., listen to Belle Grove Plantation docent John Clancey of Winchester. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — They came.

They saw.

And, in record amounts, they spent.

That was the story for tourism in Frederick County and Winchester in 2012, according to data recently released by the Virginia Tourism Corp. (VTC), the state’s tourism agency.

Sally Coates, executive director of the Winchester-Frederick County Convention and Visitors Bureau, told Tourism Board members at their meeting Thursday that an estimated $124.8 million was spent on industry-related activities in 2012. That was 5.3 percent more than visitors spent locally in 2011.

Coates said after the meeting that she thinks the bump may have come from an increase in both the number of tourists who came to the area and per capita spending by those visitors.

“People are letting go of their money a little more, I think,” she said. “People are tired of staycations.”

Both localities exceeded Virginia’s 4 percent growth in statewide tourism spending, which pushed revenues to $21.2 billion.

The VTC figures incorporate tourism spending from six categories: public transportation, auto transportation, entertainment and recreation, lodging, food service and general retail trade.

So in addition to people who come to the area and stay a night, the data also captures those passing through on Interstate 81 who get off the highway to gas up and grab a bite to eat.

Frederick County led the area with $118.5 million in receipts, a 6.2 percent increase. Tourism spending in Winchester was up 4.2 percent to $96.3 million.

That spending generated $3.4 million in taxes for the county and $3.2 million in Winchester, which has an admissions tax (Frederick County doesn’t) and has higher meals and lodging tax rates. The state collected $9 million in taxes from city and county tourists.

That spending in Winchester and Frederick County translated to an estimated 2,154 jobs and $21.8 million in payroll for employees.

Tourism spending in Clarke County increased to $17.7 million, up 2.4 percent, according to VTC data. Those expenditures created jobs for 181 people who were paid $3.4 million and generated $493,000 in local taxes and $738,000 in state taxes.

Coates, whose office receives $100,500 in operational funding from both Winchester and Frederick County, said she thinks tourism spending has grown and will continue to do so because there’s more to see and do.

“We offer more than what we used to,” she said, “and we continue to grow in terms of attractions and events. Just look downtown at all the energy we’re seeing there.”

Officials at several area attractions said they hosted more visitors in 2012 than they had the previous year.

Kristen Laise, executive director of the Belle Grove Historic Plantation, said increased money from admissions (up 4.9 percent) in 2012 more than offset a decline in spending in the gift shop (down 3 percent). That gave the attraction a 1 percent increase in revenue from operations, which reached $79,535.

So far this year, she said, the number of visitors is up a modest 1.1 percent, but gift shop sales have jumped 8.4 percent.

The museums operated by the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society also posted modest gains in 2012, executive director Cissy Shull said.

The number of people visiting George Washington’s Office, Stonewall Jackson’s Headquarters and the Abram’s Delight-Hollingsworth Mill-18th Century Valley Cabin complex rose 3 percent from 2011 to 2012, she said. Gift shop sales were up slightly and are rising again this year.

The future looks better for those attractions, Shull said, because the recent opening of the Downtown Welcome Center “should be really helpful to us.”

While the gains were modest at those historical attractions, an agri-tourism leader posted a sizeable jump.

John Marker, a partner in Marker-Miller Orchards Farm Market and Bakery, said the number of visitors to the farm grew in 2012 and tourism-related sales were up between 10 percent and 15 percent.

He said he couldn’t provide a reason for the increases.

While some attractions posted gains in 2012, visitation dropped 8 percent at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, but the decline was expected.

Julie Armel, the museum’s director of marketing and public relations, said the Glen Burnie House on the museum grounds was closed for renovations all year and the Changing Exhibitions Gallery closed in the fall of 2012 for renovations.

But the museum’s 2012 revenues were bolstered by increases in membership and donors, she said, and visitation records are being set in MSV’s two redesigned gallery spaces.

Given the lack of natural draws in Winchester and Frederick County, Coates said tourists must be lured by attractions offered mainly by the private sector.

“It’s primarily private partnerships,” she said, “that create our tourism product.

“It’s easy to look at what we have and don’t have. You see other places with huge resort areas, you see caverns — which are the No. 1 attraction in Virginia — and you see rivers. We don’t have those.”

The Tourism Board members also heard a presentation from Cassie Ward, director of public programs for Long Branch Plantation, about the attraction’s past and its recent increased focus on history and education.

Board member Bill Hottel also promoted the Apple Harvest Arts and Crafts Festival, a 39-year-old fundraiser for the Rotary Club of Winchester that’s scheduled for Saturday and Sunday at Jim Barnett Park.

Attending the meeting at the Winchester-Frederick County Convention and Visitors Center were Chairwoman Rebecca Ebert and board members Eric Campbell, Sharon Farinholt, Bill Hottel, Dan Martin and Rainee Simpson. Board members John Marker, Nancy “Tootie” Rinker and Sue Robinson were absent.

— Contact Vic Bradshaw at vbradshaw@winchesterstar.com