Shenandoah County leads area in tourism revenue

Comparison of economic travel impact in area localities.

In one of his final news releases, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that Virginia’s tourism industry had grown by $2.2 billion since he took office in 2014.

Shenandoah County, on its own, has reported growth. Jenna French, director of tourism and economic development, said the county brought in $213 million in visitor spending in 2016, a $10 million growth over the year prior.

Warren and Frederick counties brought in nearly $140 million each in 2016, and Winchester clocked in at $111 million.

“My team and I have traveled across the globe to promote Virginia as a premier destination, showcasing our beautiful scenery, rich history, and incredible culinary offerings, in addition to our outstanding oysters, wine, craft beer, cider, and distilled spirits,” McAuliffe stated in the news release. “I am proud of the continued growth we’ve seen in this important industry, which helps us spread the message that Virginia is for Lovers.”

Todd Haymore, secretary of commerce and trade, stated in the news release that the travel industry is Virginia’s fifth-largest private employer.

French said that, in Shenandoah County specifically, tourism isn’t limited to one geographic area.

“There isn’t one little pocket where we would say, ‘Yup, this is where we want to see tourism occur,'” French said. “The way that our county is laid out, I wouldn’t say that there is one area in particular that tourism is really focused around, and I think that’s part of what makes our locality so special.”

French said that Shenandoah County is unlike areas that operate under a “hub-and-spoke model,” with one dominant location acting as the “hub” for tourism and various attractions springing out from there, serving as the “spokes.” She cited Winchester as a prime example of this, with the city acting as the hub of Frederick County’s tourism.

But in Shenandoah County, French said, the attractions are more scattered. Bryce Resort draws in skiers in the winter, wineries are found out in the country, Edinburg Mill draws a crowd and the county’s many towns serve as escapes from mass commercialization.

French said that the Spirits Trail, a collection of wineries, breweries, distilleries and cideries that has grown into one of the Shenandoah Valley’s most vibrant tourism attractions, has generated several offshoot businesses.

“Shenandoah Wine Tours is a good example of that,” French said. “The growth that we’ve seen in the wine and beer industry locally, it also spawned the need for these supporting businesses that can therefore step in and help transfer visitors from business to business.”

Felicia Hart, director of tourism in Front Royal, said that tourism is more centralized in Warren County, focused on the county’s sole town.

“Shenandoah County actually has (six) towns. Each of those five towns has restaurants, has lodging, has plenty of visitor places … Warren County, we just have Front Royal,” Hart said. “You can’t just look at those bar charts … let’s understand how these numbers came to be, because it’s really not apples to apples.”

Despite that, Hart said the number of visitors to state and national parks locally has been rising, tourists from Japan, Germany and all over the world have been checking into the Front Royal Visitor Center, and the town’s meals and lodging tax revenues have been climbing.

To Hart, the new Marriott Hotel and Mountain Trails store coming to town come as no surprise.

“Clearly the numbers are there that justify opening these types of businesses in our area,” she said.

In Winchester and Frederick County, the tourism industry thrives off of the area’s hub-and-spoke model, according to Justin Kerns, executive director of Winchester-Frederick County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Under this model, visitor spending can be easily spread around and not concentrated in any one location, Kerns said.

“If a tourist comes here, they’re not going to just spend their money in Winchester or just spend their money in Frederick County,” he said. “They’re going to stay in a hotel in one of the two, and then they’re going to go to Old Town, buy something in Old Town, then go out to a farmer’s market, go to a winery.”

Kerns also said that McAuliffe’s emphasis on the industry trickled down to Winchester and Frederick County area.

“There’s something to be attributed to the governor’s office being so supportive of tourism,” he said. “If the governor’s office does support tourism at the state level, then yes, we can feel it at the locality level … And yes, we’ve definitely seen that the governor is supportive of tourism.”

French also highlighted McAuliffe’s emphasis on the tourism industry during his time in office.

“McAuliffe really touted tourism as economic development,” French said. “We in the industry often see that, and it’s very easy for us to make that connection. I think he really raised public awareness that tourism promotes development for our state and our local economy, and it drives taxes and helps fund other services.”

This notion parallels French’s own career history with the county. Originally she was Shenandoah County’s director of tourism, and in August, her title was expanded to director of tourism and economic development.

French said that this coupling of responsibilities is not uncommon in the state – the pairing is especially strategic in the area because tourism is the second-largest industry in Shenandoah County, coming just behind agriculture.

French also said that she hopes Gov. Ralph Northam will follow in McAuliffe’s footsteps.

“We certainly hope that (Northam) will continue to have the same attention to it (the tourism industry),” French said. “I think right now we’re all waiting to see what direction he takes things in, but just the fact that he has served under the previous administration and seen the successes that tourism has brought … I hope that that impression has been made upon Northam, and he’ll continue to carry that out and place the same emphasis on it.”