With increased marketing, slowly rising budgets and added attractions--historical and otherwise--Loudoun, Fauquier and Prince William counties are reporting steady increases in tourism.
The Loudoun Tourism Council, an independent nonprofit agency, cites its new World Wide Web site and events hot line as contributing to the rising tide of tourists. The number of people who stopped at the Loudoun Visitor Center in Leesburg in April was up 8 percent over last year. The number of June visitors rose 50 percent, 2,816 visitors compared with 1,878 in June 1998.
Cheryl Kilday, the council's executive director, said the numbers vary with particular events, such as last year's Loudoun-based Bike Virginia and this month's national PONY softball championships.
"Our events are such a big part of the attraction" to the county, Kilday said. And to generate more interest, the council has "done more direct marketing, done more advertising. We don't just wait for people to ask for a calendar of events."
But Kilday said the tourist center, which used to be "our biggest customer contact," doesn't reflect the number of people visiting the county or considering it as a vacation destination. Because of the Web site and other promotional efforts, she said, "our contacts number overall is up generally 100 percent."
The numbers are important because the average overnight visitor to Loudoun spends about $199 a day in the county; the day-trip tourist spends about $75. According to state figures, tourists spent $640 million in Loudoun in 1997, the last year for which figures were available, compared with $220 million in Prince William and $45 million in Fauquier.
Fauquier restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfasts and retail shops are reporting 1999 as their best year ever, said Angela Denson, executive director of the Fauquier Chamber of Commerce. Attendance at wine festivals and local wineries is up, and numbers at popular events such as the the annual series of steeplechase races are very strong as well.
And even though Business Route 29 in Warrenton has been under construction for much of the last year, the number of people passing through the visitors center there has remained steady--a good sign of tourism's strength in the county, Denson said. On average, about 12,000 people visit the center every year.
"So many people live in the Northern Virginia metropolitan area and want a quick getaway," Denson said. "They see this as a different world for them without being so far away. A lot of times, when you have everything at your fingertips, like the mall, what you seek is all the opposite. We have no malls out here."
In Manassas, Prince William's county seat, 4,853 people stopped by the Historic Manassas Visitor Center this year, compared with 3,072 last year. Many of those visitors came for the annual Railway Festival, according to the visitor center.
"We have been wildly aggressive with marketing Prince William as a vacation destination for the first time," said Sharon Cavileer, media relations manager of Prince William County-Manassas Conference & Visitors Bureau. "People are finding it to be a compelling and interesting place to spend three or four days."
The number of visitors to Prince William's Tourist Information Center in Occoquan continues to grow, with an increase of 13 percent, 14 percent and 11 percent respectively for April, May and June of this year over the same time in 1998. Tourism officials cite new attractions, such as the Freedom Museum in Manassas, and large tourist draws such as Potomac Mills mall.
Despite the fact that Prince William will have five new hotels in the next year or so, the county still does not have a conference center, as Loudoun does. The Leesburg-based Lansdowne Resort, a 305-room resort with conference center, golfing, spa and other facilities, opened in March 1990. The resort was fully occupied for 77 percent of 1998. Those visitors are good for the county's tourism trade overall.
"Plenty of people who come to Lansdowne do other things in the county," said Dianne Murphy, Lansdowne spokeswoman. "We have an active concierge that tells people about events in Loudoun." Many of the visitors, business groups included, go off the premises during the visits, she said.
"The meetings trade is huge and important," Cavileer said. "A lot of areas have added convention centers, and there's certainly a huge value in having them. We need meeting space here."
A new hotel may be in the works in Fauquier County to alleviate room shortages on peak weekends, Denson said. The county now has three major hotels, which often sell out during big events, festivals and weddings. But hotels in the county tend to operate at a "higher than average" vacancy rate on weekdays, Denson said.
A tourism advisory committee, made up of community leaders and representatives of the hospitality industry in Fauquier, hopes to persuade business owners to extend their Saturday hours and to open on Sundays, a day that an increasing number of tourists are using as a leisure and travel day, Denson said. The committee also suggests planning more smaller events to draw tourists more regularly.
In Loudoun and Prince William, tourism efforts are funded in part through a transient occupancy tax collected from guests at hotels and inns.
Prince William's tourism efforts receive 75 percent of the 5 percent transient tax, with a possibility of gaining the other 25 percent if that money is not used in some other way by the Board of Supervisors. According to Bentz, tourism will receive a projected $926,000 from the tax for fiscal 2000, which started July 1--$44,000 more than last year. The City of Manassas provides $35,000 and a grant of $24,800 was received from the Virginia Tourism Corp. for Prince William's new "Come for the history . . . Stay for the Fun" campaign.
Loudoun collected $1.7 million from the tax last year; the council's budget was $567,219, including $471,320 from the county and $40,000 from Leesburg. This year's budget is about $655,452, including $518,452 from the county, $50,000 from Leesburg and $5,000 from Middleburg.
In Loudoun, however, two-fifths of the 5 percent tax goes into the general fund, and nonprofit groups--the Tourism Council among them--compete for the remaining three-fifths with grant proposals for specific projects.
Fauquier's 2 percent lodging tax goes into the county's general fund. The tourism center receives $50,000 annually from the county and $40,000 from Warrenton--a substantially smaller budget than in neighboring counties, Denson said, because Fauquier's population is considerably smaller.
But that hasn't stopped tourism from growing in Fauquier, with help from the robust U.S. economy. "People have done their week at Disney World," she said. "Now, people have more money and are making time. . . . They're seeking out the little niche vacations."