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Catching the Inaugural Wave
Arlington and Alexandria Worked to Show Visitors That There Is Life (and Tourism) Beyond the District

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009

The kinds of travelers who typically visit Arlington County and Alexandria have a lot of work to do. They're convention-goers. Defense contractors. Businesspeople with places to go, meetings to attend and busy schedules.

Anticipating record crowds for President Obama's inauguration last month, Northern Virginia tourism officials saw an opportunity to draw a new kind of tourist: the sightseer, with lots of time and (usually) loads of discretionary income to spend at shops and restaurants.

Although firm numbers won't be in for a few weeks, the preliminary evidence is in: Arlington and Alexandria rocked.

With D.C. hotel rooms nearly solidly booked just after the November election and a record crowd turning out for the inauguration -- 1.8 million on the Mall, by official D.C. estimates -- nearly every one of Arlington's 10,000 hotel rooms was full, not only during inauguration week but also days before. Ditto Alexandria's 4,700 hotel rooms.

Arlington hotels had 80 to 90 tour buses every night at the height of the festivities, officials said.

"This exceeded our expectations," said Emily Cassell, director of Arlington's Convention and Visitor Service. "Most of the year, our primary business is corporate and government meetings. Our goal has been to very much increase leisure travel on weekends and slower periods, like late summer and the winter months. This was definitely a boon."

Cassell said her organization planned carefully, distributing extra copies of Arlington maps and restaurant guides at visitor centers and handing out fliers at heavily trafficked Metro stations on the Sunday of inauguration weekend, before the concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

"When the County Board, the county manager and emergency officials talked about the inauguration, they continually reminded us, 'We have an opportunity here. A lot of people are coming that may not have seen Arlington before. This is a great opportunity for us to put our best face forward,' " said Karen Vasquez, spokeswoman for the convention and visitor service. "We wanted to make a terrific first impression."

Tourism officials in Alexandria had the same goal.

"A lot of people who stayed in Alexandria hotels were unfamiliar with Alexandria before," said Stephanie Pace Brown, president and chief executive of the Alexandria Convention and Visitor Association. "I just got a note from someone who said: 'We've never been to Alexandria before. We just loved your trolley. It was so easy to get around. We'll definitely be back.' "

Brown said that more than 1,500 people watched the inauguration on a JumboTron in Old Town, despite the cold weather, and that 1,000 people used a water taxi service from the Alexandria waterfront to the District that the Coast Guard had approved days before the event.

Brown also timed Alexandria's first Restaurant Week to coincide with the inauguration. More than 30 restaurants offered three-course fixed-price meals for $35. January and February are typically among the slowest months for hotels and restaurants, Brown said. The idea for the specials was not only to capitalize on the unprecedented numbers of tourists in the area but also to draw out locals.

Kate Keyser, manager of Chadwick's on the waterfront in Old Town, said the restaurant was unusually busy Sunday and Monday nights and during Inauguration Day. Joe Chapman, manager of Overwood, said the restaurant served 500 dinners during Restaurant Week, about 50 percent more than usual for this time of year. "That was huge," he said. "It was a great week."

With record inauguration crowds and record Metro ridership, the weekend's main focus was downtown. But Mount Vernon, George Washington's historic home just down the parkway from Alexandria, had its own record during inauguration week: 15,046 people bought tickets to enter the estate Jan. 19, making it the biggest paid-entrance day ever.

"I've been here 25 years, and it's definitely the largest crowd, with the exception of the free days on the birthday holiday, that I've ever seen," said James Rees, Mount Vernon's executive director. "We were shocked. We looked back at the last three inaugurals. There was an impact, but it was usually going from four to five hundred people to four to five thousand. We never, ever expected this kind of attendance."

The estate was open extended hours, prepared for an onslaught of tour buses, beefed up staff and put more people in costume than usual. The gift shop did $75,000 in business that day.

"It was a great day for us," Rees said. "It was considered such an historic modern moment that I think history was on people's minds."

Jack Brown, who as head of emergency management services for Arlington had to plan for the crowds of Inauguration Day, was concerned about the possibility of historic gridlock. His worst nightmare was total traffic paralysis and emergency vehicles unable to get through.

Such a vision never came to pass. People took officials' advice and rode public transportation. The decision to close bridges into the District to personal cars from Virginia proved right, Brown said, as there was no gridlock. With no incidents of any magnitude, his emergency staff members peacefully watched the ceremony on TV from their command post.

"It was an uneventful event," he said. "Which is a good thing."

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