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Russell Named Partner of Year

Tourism held up as critical economic engine.

Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association chair Mary Anne Russell was named the organization's 2005 Tourism Partner of the Year during ACVA's Annual Meeting last Friday at the Hilton Alexandria Old Town.

"Whenever you need someone to work on a project, Mary Anne is always there. She is one of those people that makes all the various programs work," said former City Councilman David G. Speck in presenting the award to Russell. As the first named Tourism Partner of the Year, the annual award is named for Speck, a strong advocate of Alexandria tourism.

"Mary Anne Russell devoted so much of her time, her talent as a leader, and her professional expertise to Alexandria's tourism industry during the past year, that she is the obvious choice for this award. She has never faltered in placing the city's tourism industry above her own personal and professional interests," said ACVA's Governor Emeritus Speck.

"It is a true pleasure to receive this award. But, I'm completely caught off guard and at a loss for words which is out of character for me," Russell said.

AS THE GENERAL manager of Embassy Suites Alexandria, Russell is involved in the city's tourism industry on a daily basis. She also serves as the chair of the Motorcoach Task Force as well as performing all the tasks associated with being ACVA chair.

"Tourism will always be an important part of my daily life as long as I'm in Alexandria. And, I hope to retire here," Russell said.

She is also active within Alexandria's non-profit community, currently serving on the Board for First Night Alexandria, and as immediate past chair of both Be Safe Coalition and the Alexandria Hotel Association. Her term as ACVA chair continues through June 2006.

Prior to presenting the award to Russell, Speck warned the overflow crowd that, "Alexandria is in a very precarious position. Throughout the state our cities are constrained in raising revenue. Our single most important revenue source is real estate."

"This is a serious concern. We face the same financial demands year after year. What ACVA does is so crucial to enable us to meet our demands and services. Imagine what we would be faced with if we hadn't been so successful in tourism promotion. We need to ensure that tourism continues to grow and succeed," Speck said.

DELIVERING the keynote address was Cal Simmons, chair, Virginia Tourism Corporation and founder of Cal Simmons Travel in Alexandria. He grew the firm to be one of the top 100 agencies in the nation, prior to selling it in 1997 to publicly traded Navigant, the second largest travel company in America.

An Alexandria resident, he was appointed to a six-year term on the State Tourism Commission by Gov. Mark Warner. In keeping with the meeting's theme that ACVA "Juggles Bold Initiatives," Simmons kicked off his remarks by demonstrating his prowess as a juggler while donning a cap promoting Virginia tourism.

"Tourism in Virginia is growing because we have a great product in Virginia. It has beaches, mountains and history as well as being it near the nation's capital," he said.

"We also have a great opportunity coming in 2007 with the state's 400th anniversary. But, we also face a lot of challenges. And, a lot of those are in budgeting," Simmons said.

"VTC serves the broader economy of Virginia by increasing all elements of tourism. We are doing this with a $14 million budget, which is the same amount we operated with in 1990," he said.

He complimented Alexandria's City Council and ACVA for raising the budgetary commitment to promoting the city as a tourist destination. He pointed out that 181,000 Virginians are employed in the tourism industry.

"But, we need to expand the hospitality industry workforce by training more students and encouraging them to study and enter this industry. The number of students in this curriculum is declining," Simmons said.

"We need more people, staying longer, and spending more money. We need to promote meetings and conventions as well as market Virginia to the film industry," he said. Movie production has pumped nearly $200 million into Virginia's coffers, according to Simmons.

IN SELLING the state as a tourist destination, Simmons praised the state slogan "Virginia Is For Lovers." He pointed out that it was the second most recognized and successful slogan in the nation, only slightly behind New York's "Big Apple."

"But, we have also been extending our slogan to promote various venues within the state. These include Virginia Is For Lovers of mountains, of beaches, of history and so on," he said.

"The economic engine fueled by tourism is tremendous. Few other industries generate the same revenue," Simmons stated.

Russell reviewed the revenue generated in the city by tourism for fiscal year 2004. Every category, from room and food taxes collected to hotel occupancy, was up between six and 15 percent for the period.

Based on all categories including public transit, general retail sales, and entertainment, total dollars generated topped $557 million with total tax revenue received at $13 million plus, according to ACVA.

Jo Anne Mitchell, president and CEO, ACVA noted that 2006 will mark ACVA's 10th Anniversary. Established as a non-profit organization in 1996 it commenced with a $300,000 budget. This budget cycle appropriated $1 million to its continued operation.

"New initiatives are planned for the year ahead. Our summer program will rely heavily on the state's 400th Anniversary and we will be placing specific trip ads on cable television in the regions of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Northern Virginia," Mitchell said.

ACVA plans to integrate its online interactive map into all its major marketing and the Official Visitors Guide will go online with MapAlexandriaVA.com. Printed versions of the map, which will include ACVA member listings, will be offered at the Visitors Center beginning in January 2006, according to Mitchell.

The map will be linked into USA Today's online travel page through the Map Network. ACVA announced the launching of two research studies "that will be instrumental in developing future marketing programs."