A Year of Transition
Mitchell Reiss and his wife, Elisabeth, helped raise the frame of the Market House that will be a hub of commerce activity.
In the early months of his tenure, Dr. Reiss made a point of spending as much time as he could out of his office — as he describes it, “walking the battlefield” with employees at all levels, in every division, in order to best understand the intricate workings of the Foundation.
What he found, he says, was a wealth of talented professionals who love Colonial Williamsburg and its history, who believe in its mission — and who put a high premium on the satisfaction of its guests. This, paired with the unstinting generosity of our donors, has fueled his confidence that the Foundation has the necessary tools to meet the challenges it now faces.
Dr. Reiss spoke recently about the difficulties and opportunities he has identified over the last nine months, and how the organization is actively responding to both.
What kind of year was 2014 for Colonial Williamsburg?
It was a great year in many respects. We publicly launched the Campaign for History and Citizenship with just over half of the $600 million goal already in hand. The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg enjoyed increases in attendance, thanks to superb exhibitions like “A Rich and Varied Culture,” a groundbreaking exhibition of the arts and antiques of the early American South. We celebrated the 25th anniversary of our outstanding Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute, to which we added new programming with the generous support of Abby O'Neill, a senior trustee.
We hosted great speaking engagements by presidential historian Michael Beschloss and also retired Marine Corp Gen.
Anthony Zinni, now an author and Colonial Williamsburg trustee. We awarded our prestigious Churchill Bell to Nancy and Colin Campbell, honoring their many years of devoted service to the Foundation. And we began work on our Market House, a reconstructed site of commerce and community life for the residents of 18th-century Williamsburg, which we owe to the extraordinary generosity of trustee Forrest E. Mars Jr.
Along with the successes of 2014, though, came disappointments. Bottom line, admissions and hotel and restaurant revenues fell short of our goals — a reality that reflected visitation trends at museums and other historical sites throughout the country. The declining emphasis on history in American schools is making all of our jobs especially difficult — and at the same time, all the more important. Simply put, we must reimagine Colonial Williamsburg in the 21st century to reach a broader audience. We need to attract more people here, to educate and entertain them even more than we already do, and to persuade them to return again and again.
Here's the good news: we're already on our way. We have initiated changes and new programs throughout the organization, and we are starting to see results. In the first quarter of this year, net revenues were $2.7 million better than they were in the first quarter of 2014. One of the many things we've done is put in place an employee incentive program, which I believe is having a significant impact — on staff morale and on our performance. This was an important first step toward rewarding front-line employees who interact the most with our guests.
As I have told many people this year, financial stability is of paramount importance, but it is not our ultimate goal. Financial stability is the means to preserving this national treasure for future generations, so that we may continue to inspire them with the stories of our country's Founders.
How are we going to do that?
The stories we tell are among the best, and most important, in the world. Lucky for us, we are awash in gifted narrators. So we must make the most of what we do best and find ways to do other things much better. And, frankly, to dare to try some things we've never tried here before, to make this special place even better and more appealing.
Over the coming year, you'll see some changes in our approach to marketing, which we are concentrating in fewer markets now to pack a bigger punch where it's likeliest to be most effective. You'll discover some new features at the hotels and restaurants. You may also notice us paying more attention to first-time visitors who are less familiar with us. And to families, who have wisely chosen to invest their hard-earned vacation dollars in a trip to Colonial Williamsburg instead of, say, the Magic Kingdom.
We're rethinking how we spread the word through the media about Colonial Williamsburg — its history, its educational mission, and its many attractions. We're emphasizing social media much more now and merging our various websites into a single, robust web presence. The goal is to give all of our online users — high-school students, visiting honeymooners, loyal retirees and everyone in between — much easier access to both our history and travel content.
How are you reimagining the Historic Area?
I think it's critical for us to look to our roots — and by that, I mean we must look to the things that draw people most to this special place, that bring them back, and that make Colonial Williamsburg and its stories relevant in the modern era. Foreign policy, gun rights, social inequality, the size and scope of government — these are not debates that fell into our laps last week or last year. We are wrestling today with so many issues that faced our Founding Fathers; their insights and their decisions — good and bad — have reverberated through the centuries and continue to hold meaning for us today.
We also want to do more to immerse people in the details of 18th-century daily life. At a time when digital communication and virtual experiences dominate our daily lives, we have a tremendous opportunity to offer people something “authentic” — meaning the kinds of sensory, hands-on experiences that previous generations knew much better.
Modern generations are revealing a hunger for that knowledge, and for more hands-on experiences. The farm-to-table movement is one example. It has present-day relevance that can be traced to our nation's beginning. We are re-creating that at Great Hopes Plantation, where younger visitors in particular can begin to understand the meaning of labor and the sources of the necessities that most of us take for granted today.
We're so delighted that the city has approved our plan to up-light some of our historic buildings. Tastefully illuminating some of our most iconic structures — the Palace, for example, and the Capitol — will make the Historic Area a far more inviting and enjoyable place to spend time in the evenings. It's symbolic of bringing this place to life in a delicate, nuanced way that also allows us to rethink our evening programming.
We have officially re-opened Chowning's Tavern as an ale house — one with expanded evening hours — that features our 18th-century-inspired craft beers. We looked at the finances and found that the taverns performed at different levels of efficiency and profitability. Chowning's was not reaching its potential. I thought, why can't we return to the roots of this establishment and offer guests a more authentic experience? It was an ale house originally. We have much of the stoneware and glassware and silverware from the original Josiah Chowning's ale house. So I thought, let's try it.
Tickets are another area we have revamped in response to feedback from our guests. As they have told us — most families simply have less time and fewer dollars to spend on vacations today. This is a key issue that we know has affected our revenues. So we have revised and expanded our menu of ticket prices, adding a new “sampler” option which allows access to four Historic Area sites. This new ticket responds to a specific need — but we have also designed it to tempt those who can to upgrade to a more comprehensive package. So far, the response from the buying public has been strong.
And when our guests do get here, we want them to be able to find their way around. So we have launched a comprehensive “way-finding” project to enhance, expand and clarify our signage including all points of entry into Williamsburg and the Visitors Center, and throughout the Historic Area.
Bring us up to date on the Campaign for History and Citizenship.
We set the bar high, as I mentioned earlier, at $600 million. It's a number that ensures the continuing development of essential programs across the Foundation, from archaeology and historical preservation to teacher training and the Nation Builders. Our campaign total now exceeds $340 million — an increase of $40 million just since we announced the campaign last November.
The campaign is the cornerstone to enriching and expanding our programming — so we can bring our 18th-century history alive and show how lessons of the past can guide our future. It's both exciting and gratifying that our donors see the same potential in Colonial Williamsburg that I do and are joining us on a journey of positive change for the Foundation.