|By Jon Cawley, Daily Press, Newport News,
Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 09, 2011--WILLIAMSBURG -- Last week in Williamsburg, a pair of hotel/motels -- with 72 and 92 rooms respectively -- straddling Capitol Landing Road were the subject of foreclosure auctions.
Over in Yorktown, at the same time, about 160 time share estates were scheduled for auction at the courthouse.
Those distressed sales, and an overall slump in Williamsburg-area lodging, appear to be symptomatic of a larger struggle taking place -- that of persistently declining attendance at marquee attractions like Busch Gardens/Water Country U.S.A, Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown and the Yorktown Victory Center.
While much of the nation's hotels, as well as those in the Hampton Roads region, have experienced a slow, but steady crawl back to pre-recession demand, Williamsburg's are lagging considerably behind, according to Smith Travel Research, Inc., an international consulting firm for the hotel industry.
In 2011, there were "positives across the board" nationally, according to a Smith Travel Research presentation Wednesday at the Hampton Roads Convention Center. In fact, this year saw the "strongest demand rebound ever," said Karrie Keen, of Smith Travel Research. She was referring to figures that showed room demand dropped about 8 percent between 2008 and 2009 before experiencing a 15 percent turnaround earlier this year.
Overall, room occupancy is up 4.5 percent nationally, as of August, with revenue up nearly 9 percent. At the same time, figures showed Hampton Roads occupancy is up 2.6 percent overall and room revenues 1.6 percent.
"It's not quite back to pre-recession numbers," Keen said, of the region's overall occupancy rates, "but it's slowly but surely making its way there every day of the week."
But Williamsburg is being outpaced by its neighbors, which have fewer tourist attractions.
Williamsburg's lodging slump
Since 2008, the city's hotel/motels have suffered double-digit occupancy losses annually, during the summer tourist season, with the exception of 2010 when the rate grew by 6.7 percent. Currently, Williamsburg is maintaining a 10.2 percent loss.
In comparison, Virginia Beach's yearly losses since 2008 have hovered between 0.4 percent and 4.7 percent with 4.9 percent growth in 2010. The Norfolk/Portsmouth market dove 10.8 percent in 2009 but had marginal growth in 2008 and an 8.8 percent gain in 2010. Currently, the market stands at a 3.4 percent loss.
Newport News/Hampton has maintained year-over-year losses between 1.1 percent and 3.5 percent with year-to-date occupancy gains of 0.5 percent for 2011. Numbers for Chesapeake/Suffolk included losses of 8.5 percent and 11.7 percent in 2008 and 2009 respectively, but saw occupancy shoot up 12.2 percent in 2010 before settling at 0.9 percent for 2011 to date.
"Statistically, the numbers are not where we need them to be," said Billy Scruggs, president of the Williamsburg Hotel/Motel Association. "I believe there are many causes for that. Certainly there are supply issues, demand issues; there are questions about the time shares, age of properties. Certainly all those things have an effect."
Scruggs said he believes all of the issues need to be examined further.
Former association president Chris Cavanos; however, sees a clearer picture.
"The situation in Williamsburg over the occupancy rate, on an annual basis, is a symptom," he said. "When you look at the overall destination attractions, they are not producing what they used to. Consequently, industries like the hotel industry, restaurant industry, retail industry show poor results.
"The town has a tremendous demand problem and the town needs to figure out a way to work through the problem," Cavanos said.
Cavanos' claim holds up when attendance figures for the area's major attractions are examined.
The attraction connection
Colonial Williamsburg attendance figures show visitation has slid pretty consistently between 2000 and 2010 when figures were at 895,000 and 686,000 respectively. The main exceptions came in 2005, 2006 and 2007 when figures climbed to a peak of 780,000 in 2007 in conjunction with significant worldwide attention on the Jamestown quadricentennial celebration. Figures for 2011 attendance were not available, but President Colin Campbell said demand was better through June before poor weather dampened attendance.
Paid attendance at Jamestown Settlement was marked at more than 512,600 in 2000 but dove to 428,868 in 2010. To date, 2011's paid attendance stands at more than 314,600. Yorktown Victory Center paid attendance slid from nearly 199,000 in 2000 to just over 166,000 in 2010. More than 134,000 paid customers have visited the park to date in 2011, according to Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation data.
In 2007, 3.15 million people visited Busch Gardens, but that number consistently slid to 2.8 million in 2010, according to data available in the Themed Entertainment Association's Global Attractions Attendance reports. At the same time, Water Country attendance dropped from 773,000 in 2007 to 758,000 in 2008 and 700,000, in 2009, before spiking to 784,000 in 2010. Previous year's reports were not available, and Busch Gardens officials declined to release their own numbers for this story.
Officials with the Williamsburg-area's main attractions acknowledge interest has waned in recent years, but say the trend is largely due to external factors, many of which are not easily influenced. The slide gained momentum with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and other factors including the persistently troublesome economy. But marketing an area, that is deeply rooted in history, is also a challenge in a highly-technical era where steep competition exists between destinations with wildly different offerings.
"Wiliamsburg has so many great assets which is wonderful," said Dan Dipiazzo, vice president of marketing for Busch Gardens/Water Country U.S.A. "But the dynamics have changed. It's not the destination it was 10 years ago. I don't know if it ever will go back to that.
"We need to focus on what today's consumers want and figure out how best to package that. It may be sobering to some, but in the end everyone stands to benefit if we can bring more people in."
How that is addressed will play a huge part in whether the Historic Trianble continues the downward spiral or is able to reverse its fortunes.
Hoteliers, officials with Busch Gardens, Colonial Williamsburg and the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and others discuss how a variety of factors have negatively impacted Williamsburg tourism over the past 10 years and steps that need to be taken, or are being taken, to counter the trend.
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