By Bill Reagan
Alexandria recently received two very exciting announcements. First, PBS announced that “Mercy Street,” the carefully researched drama focused on Alexandria’s role during the Civil War, would be renewed for a second season.
Just a day later, Livability.com recognized Alexandria as the best downtown of any small to mid-sized U.S. city, a rating based on aspects like arts, nightlife, quality restaurants, walkability and new development. They found Alexandria “sophisticated yet comforting.”
Accolades like these certainly make us feel proud, but beyond bragging rights, they indicate to people in other regions that Alexandria is worth visiting. We should be excited to share our city with visitors of all kinds.
At a recent budget hearing, one of Alexandria’s most successful independent retailers told city council that local retailers and restaurants depend on the city being a destination for local and regional visitors. She noted that these visitors come when there are attractions, vitality and well cared-for streets.
Many Alexandrians do not realize that visitors sustain the shopping, dining and entertainment amenities that make our city so vibrant. Without the 3.5 million day and overnight visitors to Alexandria each year, those of us that call the city home would have far fewer of these types of establishments; our population alone simply can’t sustain such a vibrant and varied retail and restaurant scene.
“Mercy Street” is a prime example of how businesses, attractions and organizations across the city can come together to capitalize on the national spotlight currently focused on Alexandria. Visit Alexandria set out to leverage the anticipated popularity of the show to raise awareness about Alexandria and encourage people to visit.
Along with coordinating the development of new experiences related to the history behind the show, they sponsored a five-second spot at the beginning and end of each episode to promote Alexandria.
Alexandria’s “Mercy Street”-inspired experiences were promoted in travel magazines and by regional, national and international press. The results have been impressive: the city’s visitor center had a 27-percent increase in physical visitors in February, Carlyle House — the Green family mansion — attendance was up 158 percent, and “Mercy Street”-dedicated blog posts received 35,000 visits. All of this increase was during the winter months, which is typically an off season for tourism.
This all holds great promise for Alexandria to be on more visitors’ itineraries when they come to the D.C. area. Livibility.com’s ranking will move Alexandria up further as a must-see destination.
Our role as locals is to help visitors feel welcome so that they stay longer, return for future visits and recommend Alexandria to their friends. This equates to greater tax revenue for the city and allows our local small businesses to flourish.
To further these goals, Visit Alexandria and the Alexandria Small Business Development Center are hosting an Alexandria 101 tourism training in May to educate hospitality industry staff on all of Alexandria’s local sites and great experiences. We are fortunate that our hometown is something that others want to experience. Let’s make the most of it.
The writer is the executive director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center.