VIRGINIA BEACH — Regionalism is the path to increasing tourism in Hampton Roads, industry leaders said Thursday during a discussion panel at the Coastal Virginia Hospitality Expo.
Bryan Stephens, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, moderated the panel, which included; developer Bruce Thompson; Mitchell Reiss, CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; and Barry Duval, president and CEO of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. Drew Lumpkin, a representative for Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, as well as Virginia Beach City Councilmember John Uhrin were in attendance.
The Virginia Beach Restaurant Association and Virginia Beach Hotel Association partnered with the local Chamber to host the expo at the Virginia Beach Convention Center, which also featured dozens of companies in the hospitality industry.
The panel discussion focused on how to increase tourism in Hampton Roads, and the panel’s consensus hinged on one word: regionalism.
Thompson, the CEO of Gold Key | PHR, cited a recent report from the GO Virginia Regional Council for Hampton Roads that says “the absence of a regional identity is the number one challenge facing tourism in Hampton Roads.”
GO Virginia is a group of academics, hospitality industry leaders, and government officials dedicated to economic collaboration and workforce development. It was created by the Virginia General Assembly in 2016. Thompson and Reiss both sit on GO Virginia’s governing board for the region.
That lack of regional cohesion is what inspired the creation of GO Virginia, says Thompson, who believes the disconnectedness among municipalities is partially due to the minimal collaboration between Hampton Roads cities. He also believes it has a lot to do with the name of the area itself.
New name for Hampton Roads is central to its future
Thompson, along with city officials and business leaders, have long discussed the need for a new name for the region.
“There is nothing evocative about the name ‘Hampton Roads’,” said Thompson, who thinks the region needs a new title that better reflects its location.
“Coastal Virginia” is a possible alternative to Hampton Roads, according to Thompson, which was a name also proposed by the Coastal Virginia Tourism Alliance in 2012. Thompson said that name “at least tells me that the area is probably, you know, somewhere in Virginia. At least there’d be that.”
Hampton Roads “needs to do a better job at telling our story,” according to Stephens, who believes part of that strategy should involve a new name for the region.
“The Name ‘Hampton Roads’ doesn’t tell anyone where we are or what we do.”
The panel also discussed sports tourism and why Hampton Roads does not have a professional sports team. Duval, of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, says it comes down to resources available to prospective teams.
“It’s pretty simple; there is no professional team in Hampton Roads because there are no professional facilities,” said Duval.
Reiss agreed with Duval’s assessment and said that he would support regional funding and revenue sharing to spur investment among the region’s municipalities for major sports facilities.
Other obstacles to increasing tourism in region
Two other significant challenges to bringing in more tourism dollars to Hampton Roads are a lack of transportation infrastructure and a qualified workforce for the tourism industry, according to members of the panel.
Stephens expressed optimism that President Donald Trump’s legislative push for an infrastructure overhaul in the country would lead to money for our region. The conversation soon turned to the region’s workforce.
“We need a hospitality school,” Thompson said while discussing solutions for the area’s workforce gaps. “There are chefs out there who know how to cook, they know how to run a kitchen, but they don’t have the tourism, hospitality, and marketing skills to capture the right markets,” Thompson said.
Reiss, who is spearheading a complete overhaul of Colonial Williamsburg and its associated hotels and restaurants, also views proper training as essential to the hospitality industry. Through a reorienting of its operations, he says that the foundation has placed an emphasis on human resources and professional development for staff.
That training, says Reiss, coupled with upgraded facilities and an increase in the foundation’s marketing budget, have started to produce results; notably, the recently-renovated Williamsburg Inn, which is part of Colonial Williamsburg, received a five-diamond rating from AAA for the first time in its history. Successes like that, Reiss says, is what will attract tourists.
“We are essentially in the customer attraction business,” Reiss said.
Region will grow together, or not at all
Duval, who was mayor of Newport News from 1990 to 1996, said that as mayor he “realized that political boundaries are restrictive and do not grow a region. The key to any region is that it grows along economic boundaries, together.”
R.J. Nutter, a Virginia Beach real estate lawyer who has represented numerous developers in the region’s hospitality industry, echoed the call for regional growth and collaboration in closing remarks to the panel.
Nutter highlighted his thoughts on regionalism in Hampton Roads, especially as it begins to produce a framework for collaboration between area cities.
“We have wanted a partnership with Colonial Williamsburg for years,” said Nutter, referring to his Virginia Beach clients. “We are excited about Mitchell Reiss, excited about regionalism, and excited about partnering in the future.”