When the Loudoun Tourism Council opened its doors in 1995, its goal was to boost the profile of one of Washington’s sleepier suburbs — a largely rural community dotted with farms and quaint historic towns, home to about 115,000 residents.
In the two decades since, Loudoun County’s tourism association, which was later re-branded as Visit Loudoun, has helped shape the profound transformation of one of the nation’s fastest-growing jurisdictions.
Dozens of wineries, breweries and tasting rooms have appeared throughout the county’s western region and downtown streets. A wealth of local farms and fine restaurants have fueled a soaring culinary tourism industry. Hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to Loudoun to eat, drink, shop — and live, as evidenced by a population that has more than tripled in 20 years, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Visit Loudoun commemorated the tourism industry’s role in Loudoun’s evolution with a 20th anniversary celebration and annual tourism awards ceremony Monday at Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg, where Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Maurice Jones hailed the state’s abundance of tourist attractions as a critical backbone of its economy.
In Loudoun, the tourism industry has grown exponentially in recent years. In 1998, the county was home to seven hotels, one brewery and five wineries. Now there are more than 35 hotels and 40 wineries, and nearly a dozen breweries, with several more expected to open in the coming months, tourism officials said.
The amount of traveler spending in the county surged from $618 million in 1997 to about $1.5 billion in 2013. As of that same year, there were more than 15,800 tourism-related jobs in Loudoun, officials said.
As the county’s tourism industry has evolved, so has the association at its helm. In its earliest years, Visit Loudoun received less than $155,000 in annual county funding. In the last fiscal year, that number was close to $2.5 million, funding that reflects rising revenue from hotel taxes, a portion of which is annually allocated to the organization.
Monday’s celebration was followed by a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Visit Loudoun’s new headquarters in downtown Leesburg. The office is on the ground floor of the same building it previously occupied on South Street SE.
The first-floor location will make it easier for the agency to attract and guide visitors, Visit Loudoun President Beth Erickson said. The larger space will host a gallery in which the works of local artists will be displayed, she said. As one of the “officially designated” visitor centers for the commonwealth, it will also promote attractions across the state.
“It’s important for us to guide visitors and provide services beyond Loudoun County,” she said.
The office will also showcase the county’s latest initiatives, including a forthcoming “Ale Trail,” which will offer visitors a brewery alternative to the county’s popular wine tours. Visit Loudoun is working with the county’s breweries to finalize plans, officials said. The Ale Trail is expected to debut in the coming weeks.
The association is also preparing for the third annual Epicurience Virginia food and wine festival over Labor Day weekend. Last year, the upscale, three-day event drew more than 2,000 visitors to its slate of activities, nearly doubling attendance over its inaugural year.
“Culinary tourism is huge,” Erickson said. “The commonwealth as a whole is being recognized for its culinary strength, and Loudoun is right up there as one of the leaders, so we’re excited to continue to foster and continue on that promise.”
A big step toward that goal is coming in November, with the arrival of the national Wine Tourism Conference in Leesburg, she said. Following previous events in California’s wine country and in Portland, Ore., the conference will make its East Coast debut in Loudoun — an achievement that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and local tourism officials have hailed as a testament to the rising prominence of Virginia’s wine industry.
Despite the runaway success of Loudoun’s wine and culinary industries, Erickson said, the county’s greatest asset is its diverse tourism options. For example, there’s “Shocktober,” an annual haunted mansion hosted at historic Paxton Manor, but there’s also the Middleburg Film Festival, a high-end event created by Sheila Johnson, billionaire co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and owner of the Salamander Resort and Spa.
“We have a range of key events, and they’re all really fun and really different. . . . You need to have a diverse event base to attract your largest audience,” Erickson said. “We’re going to keep doing everything we can to raise awareness of all aspects of Loudoun County.”