Move over, Lincoln Memorial. The Dranesville Tavern just might be the region's next hot stop for tourists.
At least that's what Fairfax County tourism officials hope 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, after 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 Colvin Run Mill in Great Falls.
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 the Loudoun County Convention and Visitors Association. More visitors to Fairfax could benefit Loudoun, too, since the counties share a border, she said.
"We see it more like cooperation," Kilday said. "Visitors don't understand borders. They could be in several jurisdictions in one day."
Dining was the top activity for 44 percent of Northern Virginia tourists, the Visit Fairfax survey says, compared with shopping (29 percent) and visits to historical attractions (21 percent) and museums (10 percent).
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. 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 the county, financed with a $1 million budget from the local hotel tax.
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.