Tourists still flock to Richmond to visit the Capitol building designed by Thomas Jefferson or to see a re-enactment of Patrick Henry’s passionate “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech at St. John’s Church.
But a lot of folks also are coming primarily to sip locally brewed craft beer and eat at the area’s collection of restaurants, tourism officials say.
“It used to be history” was the main tourism draw, said Jack Berry, president and CEO of Richmond Region Tourism.
“But now we have become the millennial mecca from Washington, D.C. The millennials are flocking to us to have a weekend getaway where the hotel is affordable, attractions are plentiful — we have 30 breweries — shopping is easy and the restaurants, not only are they fabulous but they are affordable,” he said.
“So all of a sudden we are not known for history anymore. We are known for our culinary and our craft beer. It’s been a huge transition.”
Memorial Day kicked off the summer travel season. And just as Richmonders are itching to hit the road to go elsewhere, others are itching to come here.
More than 7 million people visit the area annually, according to Richmond Region Tourism.
The region is a destination year-round. There are more visitors from April to August, but the rest of the year is fairly busy, too, with meetings and convention travelers.
Such breweries as Hardywood Park Craft Brewery on Ownby Lane, The Veil Brewing Co. in Scott’s Addition, and Stone Brewing Co. with its tasting room and retail store adjoining its production plant on Williamsburg Avenue are drawing out-of-towners to taste their brews and for special releases.
Eric McKay, co-founder of Hardywood, first saw the impact tourism plays on the local craft scene when the brewery released its Gingerbread Stout in 2012 and drew about 2,000 people — about 60 percent of them came from out of town, and about 25 percent of the out-of-town visitors were from out of state.
“We had a huge amount of beer tourism, with regard to people coming to the area from out of the area. That has continued for several of our other releases,” McKay said.
“Of those people coming in, a lot of them are staying at local hotels, a lot of them are eating at local restaurants,” McKay said.
Hardywood’s beer releases have become so popular that the brewery has created “beer clubs” for people who can’t get to them, McKay said.
Berry said the growing beer tourism in Richmond exists almost under the radar for many local residents — a sentiment he found recently at a Rotary meeting where he talked about the trends.
“I have seen this place transform tremendously,” Berry said. “The locals don’t see the change. ... We are setting travel records for 2015, 2016 and 2017” based on hotel occupancy and hotel tax collections.
The high hotel occupancy numbers also are being driven by the growing sports tourism in the region, which is helping to pack hotels on weekends, Berry said. Volleyball, soccer, softball and lacrosse tournaments and events this summer will draw thousands of visitors.
“Wednesday night used to be the high occupancy night of the week driven by business travelers,” Berry said. “Now in the Richmond region, Saturday night is the highest occupancy.”
The Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, which represents the interests of the approximately 191 craft breweries in the state, is trying to more systemically gauge the impact of breweries on tourism, said Brett Vassey, the guild’s president and CEO.
Earlier this year, the organization asked breweries statewide to track the percentage of tasting room and tap room customers who were from outside the area. Vassey said more than a third of breweries reported that 25 percent or more of those patrons were out-of-towners.
“That’s a pretty big number,” Vassey said. “We are trying to get a little more sophisticated with this and are going to be doing an annual sample by region and trying to extrapolate our direct impact.”
Virginia Tourism Corp. has put together a list of “craft beer trails” pinpointing breweries near one another, while Richmond Breweries United, composed of 19 local craft breweries, is partnering with Richmond Region Tourism to promote brewery tourism.
“People don’t often think of craft breweries and tourism in the same thought process, but we consider ourselves to be in the tourism industry as much as anybody else,” Vassey said.
Some of the local breweries are even mixing history with their beers.
Ardent Craft Ales and Hardywood collaborated with Stone Brewing to create the “Give Me IPA or Give Me Death” beer this year.
San Diego-based Stone opened its brewery operations in 2016 in the East End of Richmond — its first brewery on the East Coast.
That limited-release Imperial Pale Ale was a follow-up to Stone’s release in December of its “Give Me Stout or Give Me Death” stout beer, also a tribute to Richmond history.
Staff writer John Reid Blackwell contributed to this report.