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Tourism Still Struggling to Overcome 9/11

To paraphrase an old English colloquialism from “Proverbs,” by John Haywood, "It's an ill wind that doesn't blow some good."

One of the positive things that rose from the ashes of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, was the creation of the Greater Washington Tourism Alliance (GWTA). Officially launched on April 17, at the headquarters of the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association (ACVA), it is designed to coordinate tourism promotion throughout the area.

"In November, we are now going to issue our first official publication titled ‘Holidays and Winter in Greater Washington, D.C.,’" said Jo Anne Mitchell, ACVA president/CEO and chair of GWTA. "This is one of the pluses to come out of Sept. 11."

On the flip side, tourism took a major hit by the terrorist attacks. Not only did the attacks throw a blanket of despair over the entire industry but they triggered the closing of airports, which had a strangling effect for several critical months in 2001. Alexandria, with its heavy reliance on tourism as an economic generator, was particularly impacted by the extended closing of Reagan National Airport, the last to reopen.

"This new publication will appear as an insert in USA Today for the mid-Atlantic region, and on a national scale in National Geographic Traveler and Travel Holiday. Two million copies will be printed and distributed," Mitchell announced.

DESIGNED AS A 24-page, four-color guide to places and events throughout the Greater Washington region, it is being produced in partnership with MasterCard. All expenses will be covered by advertising, according to Mitchell.

But 9/11 was not the sole causal factor for the sluggish tourist market. Things were slumping before the catastrophe, due to the economic reversal, and were exacerbated by the burst of the dot-com bubble.

"Even with recent improvements, we are still below 1996 economic figures," Mitchell verified. "The hotel industry is where we have seen the greatest impact."

Although the occupancy rate is holding, the income received by the city from hotel taxes is considerably lower. This impacts ACVA because its budget includes a portion of that tax revenue. The revenue is down due to the fact that government business is accounting for more room nights. The government does not pay the tax.

"The other primary factor affecting tourism here and nationally is that more people are taking shorter vacations closer to their homes. They are driving more than flying," Mitchell said. "However, from an international perspective, foreign travel is up."

PRAISING THE GWTA endeavor, Laura H. Overstreet, ACVA deputy director, noted, "This is the first time all these areas have gotten together for a common goal. We are sharing events and how we promote each other's events."

"The more people we get to come to the region, the better it is for all of us," Mitchell and Overstreet agreed. "Everybody has become aware that what works for one of us works for all of us."

Alexandria has been particularly aggressive in confronting the downturn this past year. Some of their endeavors have included the following:

* A revitalized marketing program both locally and for the distance traveler. ACVA’s recent computer-based promotion called "E-Blast" sells Alexandria to Alexandrians and their guests;

* A targeted marketing campaign to regain potentially lost meetings business. This generated 353 qualified leads, which translated to nearly $700,000 in meetings revenue;

* Launched multifaceted holiday marketing promotions in partnership with the city, which included free evening/weekend parking in Old Town, holiday discounts and special events;

* Initiating a number of promotional incentives to attract tourists not only to Alexandria but also to the surrounding area. An example of this was the Key Pass and Very Important Patriot Pass program, which linked Alexandria and Mount Vernon attractions.

BUT WITH ALL this effort, the economic indicators are still in negative territory. Comparing FY ‘01 and ‘02, the percentages per category are as follows: room tax collected —14 percent; $1 per room night —13; gross retail sales —1; and hotel occupancy —11.

The only category not registering a loss is food tax collected. It broke even between the two fiscal years.

On the plus side, Alexandria fared better than the region as a whole for the period July 2001 through June 2002, in both hotel categories of average daily rate (ADR) and revenue per room (RPR). ADR for the region showed a drop of 8 percent, while Alexandria came in at a minus 2 percent. As for RPR, locally it dropped 13 percent and regionally 16 percent. Occupancy was a minus 11 percent for both Alexandria and the region.

Traditionally, fall is a major tourist season. It was at this critical time last year that the terrorist attacks pushed the soft economy into a nose dive. It remains to be seen whether the new GWTA can reverse that trend in 2002.