Move over, Lincoln Memorial. The Dranesville Tavern just might be the region's next hot stop for tourists.
At least that's what the county's new tourism agency hopes visitors will conclude when they come to Washington's largest suburb, a diamond in the rough when it comes to attractions.
"The vast majority of people in our market area do know that Fairfax County exists," said C. Arnie Quirion, president and chief executive of Visit Fairfax, the county's year-old tourism agency. "They have some impressions about it. But they just don't know anything about what the experience is like to stay here, because no one's told them."
What they'll learn, following this week's launch of the county's biggest self-promotional campaign ever, is that "there's a very pronounced level of cultural activity," Quirion said.
Apparently, Fairfax lacks a there there. "Visitors do not know what is and what isn't in Fairfax County," says an extensive marketing survey conducted by Visit Fairfax. "With 399 square miles, the county's attractions are not easily identifiable."
But they are there, from standbys such as Wolf Trap and George Washington's home at Mount Vernon to lesser-known attractions such as Lake Accotink in Springfield, Colvin Run Mill in Great Falls and, believe it or not, Springfield Mall. Dining was the top activity for 44 percent of Northern Virginia tourists, the survey says, compared with shopping (29 percent) and visits to historical attractions (21 percent) and museums (10 percent). The recently released survey, which used rounded figures, cost $250,000.
It's hard to find a hotel room in Fairfax from Mondays through Thursdays, prime time for business travel. But unlike Washington, the recipient of 63 percent of the money spent by travelers to the region in 2003, according to another study provided by Visit Fairfax, people do not come to Fairfax just to visit Fairfax.
And they probably never will. But tourism officials figure they have a captive audience: people visiting family and friends, who represent 56 percent of the county's leisure travel market. They tend to live no more than 300 miles away, in New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland or North Carolina. Many stay in hotels instead of with those family and friends, and eight in 10 arrive in cars. If only Fairfax could get them to be tourists while they're in town.
Enter the campaign to market Fairfax, financed with a $1 million budget from the local hotel tax.
The first step is branding. In the marketing world, a brand is a recognizable image or logo -- in this case, one that makes visitors feel that they are in Fairfax and nowhere else.
On Monday, Quirion unveiled the logo, which includes the letters "fxva" and says "FX Marks the Spot."
"The brand becomes what it is that people envisage as their experience when they think of Fairfax County," Quirion said.
The county's nearly 15,000 hotel rooms are cheaper on average than those in the District. Fairfax offered a summer promotion that ended Labor Day called Passport to Adventure, in which visitors received discount hotel rooms and a chance to win a computer if they stayed in the county, visited three sites and had their mock "passports" stamped.
A marketing campaign is underway for fall and winter, with advertising, brochures and a heavy emphasis on attracting group business -- visitors who come for religious gatherings, family or military reunions, soccer tournaments, fast pitch softball tournaments and student tours. While they're in Fairfax, their itinerary could include a visit to the Gum Springs Historical Society's Museum & Cultural Center in the Alexandria section, for example.
Visit Fairfax formed a year ago, breaking off from the county's Economic Development Authority into a standalone agency with a staff of 11 and a $2 million budget, expanded from a budget and staff less than half that size. It is also called the Fairfax County Convention and Visitors Corp.
Fairfax as tourist destination is not a natural association for everyone.
"Here? There's nothing to see," said Corliss Sandridge, a driver for Staunton-based Quick's Bus Co., as she waited in a bus outside the Best Western Tysons Westpark hotel on a recent morning. The National Young Leaders Conference, a group of high school students, was in town for a 10-day tour of the nation's capital, but was staying in Fairfax to save money. Sandridge had driven the teenagers to Old Town Alexandria, the Iwo Jima memorial, the White House and Tysons Corner Center for lunch. As for any other sights in the county, she said, "as far as I'm concerned, the traffic is a nightmare."
Tourism officials also plan to beef up their online booking with an interactive Web site that will plot a visitor's itinerary, giving driving directions and mileage between tourist spots. Officials also have visions of chat rooms and blogs for tourists, hoteliers and restaurateurs to share information on what they call the Fairfax experience.
For now, though, Fairfax hotels appear to be good at promoting Washington instead of Fairfax. The elegant Hilton McLean Tysons Corner offers plenty of brochures for D.C.'s museums, monuments and restaurants, but almost no information on local sites.
"I think of [Fairfax] as just a suburb of D.C.," said hotel guest Carol Hooper as she collected her luggage after flying in from Atlanta for a recent swing dance weekend at the Hilton. "I've been seeing the signs for historic Herndon. It looks cute. But it just hasn't been on my radar screen."
Visit Fairfax officials said their goal is to encourage hotels to begin acting as liaisons to tourist sites. Hotel staff members, from front-desk clerks to chambermaids, will eventually function as county ambassadors, receiving training in the history and locations of local destinations that they can pass on to guests, Quirion said.
As it markets its tourist attractions, Visit Fairfax is setting aside an emergency reserve fund of $500,000 with an eye to protecting the industry in case of a terrorist attack. Tourism suffered here -- as it did everywhere -- after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Quirion said the industry needed to be ready for another possible hit.
All of this boosterism creates competition with Fairfax's neighbors, who are also working to draw tourists. Neighboring tourism leaders said they welcome the competition.
"We're quite frankly pleased that Fairfax is being more aggressive in the marketplace," said Cheryl Kilday, president and chief executive of Loudoun County's tourism agency. More visitors to Fairfax could benefit Loudoun, too, since the counties share a border, she said.
"We see it more like cooperation. Visitors don't understand borders. They could be in several jurisdictions in one day."