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Economic Recovery

Jack Berry column: Tourism's triumphant return

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The Richmond region is back to a familiar habit: breaking local tourism records.

Over the past nine months, we consistently surpassed prepandemic hotel occupancy rates, thanks to upticks in leisure travelers and sports tournaments. A mix of leisure and sports travel, family and friends’ visits, and events through the meetings and conventions sector buoyed this momentum. It’s been a welcome return because the health of our community’s economy depends on strong travel activity.

May 1-7 is National Travel and Tourism Week, a chance for hospitality professionals to unite and celebrate the value of travel for our economy, businesses, communities and personal well-being.

More than two years since the start of the pandemic, we’re not only celebrating. We’re sharing gratitude for the many people — the jurisdiction leaders, hospitality professionals, small businesses and residents — who worked together to welcome visitors back safely.

Virginia’s economy consistently ranks among the most robust in the country. The Richmond region — with its many assets, strong workforce and nationally recognized tourism industry — is key to the state’s ongoing success.

Part and parcel to that success has been our expanding reputation as an attractive and diverse destination. Broadening awareness about our region does not happen by accident. The Richmond Region Tourism team and its partners work year-round on elevating our visibility, particularly through the media.

Just look at the headlines. This year, we’ve been featured in publications like The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Southern Living and more. It’s important coverage that introduces our community to new travelers and keeps us top of mind among previous visitors.

It’s been exciting to again see the Greater Richmond Convention Center abuzz with activity. The facility recently hosted large events like the International Conference on Missions, USA Fencing and GalaxCon, which brought thousands of attendees and economic activity to the region.

Meanwhile, the sports tournament sector continues its winning streak. It represents 79% of Richmond Region Tourism’s booked business.

Our sports facilities have been full, thanks to events like the United States Collegiate Athletic Association Small College National Championships, and the USA Field Hockey National Indoor Tournament. May will be another busy month with the Atlantic 10 Conference’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship, and the Richmond Volleyball Club’s 2022 Boys East Coast Championship & Girls South Atlantic Championship.

As visitors continue to return to the region, they will have much to see, do and enjoy. In 2021, we celebrated the opening of the Hanover Museum of History & Culture, which features a community welcome center and four changing exhibit galleries.

Several exciting developments are underway that will help attract new events and travelers, and support quality of life for residents. In Henrico County, there are the GreenCity and Virginia Center Commons redevelopments. In Chesterfield County, there is the River City Sportsplex expansion, as well as the 250-room Embassy Suites hotel and conference center in the Stonebridge mixed-use development.

One project we’re particularly excited for is the City Center plan for downtown Richmond. This includes large public squares, linear parks, residential developments and a game-changing headquarters hotel near the GRCC. The new property could help the region compete for larger events and welcome tens of thousands of new visitors each year.

While we have much to celebrate, challenges remain. We’re keeping an eye on how gas prices could impact travel. According to the research firm Longwoods International, two-thirds of travelers say this factor will affect their decisions in the next six months.

Yet, thanks to pent-up demand, people are continuing to travel, with 92% reporting plans in the next six months. Longwoods analysts believe travelers are choosing destinations closer to home, which is an advantage for us.

The Richmond region is within a day’s drive of half the nation’s population and most of our target drive markets are only a gas tank away. To capitalize on this, we recently launched a digital campaign to remind visitors about the ease of traveling to and around the region.

We all can help welcome visitors back. If you’re able, continue to support local businesses and visit local attractions. Invite friends and family to visit. If you are looking for a new role, visit the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association’s hospitality- and tourism-specific job board. The industry has many flexible and well-paying opportunities to consider.

Richmond Region Tourism recently resumed in-person “I Am Tourism” classes. The free sessions give residents and tourism professionals the tools to become experts and represent the region at special events.

You also can partner with Richmond Region Tourism to invite groups or associations you’re involved with to the region.

By hosting events in the region, you support jobs and small businesses, create tax revenue and improve quality of life for residents.

More than ever, we know the power of travel and the joy it evokes. As the latest data indicates, the Richmond region is primed to welcome millions of visitors in the years to come. We can’t wait to introduce them to the place we love to call home.

Jack Berry is president and CEO of Richmond Region Tourism. Contact him at: jberry@visitrichmondva.com

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