City reaps benefits of ‘Mercy Street’ success

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City reaps benefits of ‘Mercy Street’ success
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By Chris Teale (Photo/Misha Enriquez for Visit Alexandria)

Alexandria is set to return to the national spotlight in January with the premiere of the second season of “Mercy Street” on PBS, one year after the first installment gained immense traction in the city.

More than 5 million people watched the first episode when it was broadcast on PBS last January, while the series’ six episodes were streamed online more than 2 million times.

And away from the small screen, Alexandria has seen an uptick in visitor interest, led in large part by its exposure on the national stage.

According to figures provided by city tourism authority Visit Alexandria, visitation figures at both the Carlyle House and the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum increased dramatically — by 62 percent and 115 percent, respectively.

In a survey conducted by the organization, between 75 and 80 percent of visitors to Carlyle House in those months said “Mercy Street” influenced their decision to visit.

“We have found we are much busier now,” said Carlyle House manager Susan Hellman. “People have heard of the site now, whereas in the past a lot of people had not heard of Carlyle House. Now, because of that association, they have.”

The apothecary museum is significant in city history as it was an operating pharmacy during the Civil War and is still located in its original building on South Fairfax Street.

The drama series is set during the Civil War and follows two volunteer nurses, one Union and one Confederate, who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, on the grounds of the Carlyle House. The plot is inspired by the memoirs and letters of those who worked at the hospital.

Visitation was particularly high while the show was airing in January and February, something Visit Alexandria president and CEO Patricia Washington said helped drive interest during what is traditionally a quiet time of the year for tourism.

“During the wintertime, it’s kind of a shoulder season for us,” Washington said. “So it was such a great benefit for us to have a national TV show based on Alexandria’s history debuting in winter, when typically, people aren’t thinking about the Mid-Atlantic or the Northeast region in terms of visitation. But here we have the spotlight shining on Alexandria in January and February when the show debuted.”

In addition, Visit Alexandria saw a 266 percent increase in the number of requests for its visitor guide during the first season’s run. The visitor guide is a magazine available both in print and electronically that gives an overview of the attractions, restaurants and other amenities in the city. Washington said visitor guides are one of the organization’s top indicators of intent to visit.

Redemptions of the agency’s Key to the City museum pass that grants visitors access to nine historic sites also increased dramatically in January and February, by 457 percent and 1,240 percent, respectively.

The increased visitation to the city’s historic sites is also thanks to a concerted effort led by Visit Alexandria and the history community to leverage what is available. Washington said it was important to convene all stakeholders early on to discuss ideas on how to use the series to the city’s advantage and show tourists that they can visit some of the sites seen on television.

Officials developed 25 such experiences in conjunction with the first season, including lectures, walking tours, concerts and exhibits at a variety of the city’s historic sites.

And to coincide with the second season, there are 35 total experiences slated to roll out across the city next year, beginning early in 2017 and with some lasting into the spring. Of those 35 experiences, 25 are new for next year, with 10 returning from this year.

“The history community was incredible in terms of their own creativity in developing ‘Mercy Street’-related experiences,” Washington said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Yes, this story happened here.’ But when people actually come here, you have to connect the dots for them. People need to know where ‘Mercy Street’ happened.”

Alexandria Black History Museum director Audrey Davis, also a historical consultant on the series, said interest in the lives of contrabands has also piqued among visitors. Contrabands were slaves who escaped into Union territory and often joined the war effort, and their efforts in the city are commemorated at the museum as well as at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial on South Washington Street.

“We’re hoping to travel our contraband exhibit, and people are more aware of contrabands and their contribution to the war,” Davis said at a premiere screening of the first episode of season two on November 13, hosted by the Alexandria Film Festival. “It’s self-emancipation, they’re not waiting to be rescued, they’re taking freedom into their own hands at great risk and helping to build America.”

Visit Alexandria sponsored a five-second underwriting spot at the beginning and end of each episode in season one, helping the city reach a broader audience as a tourism destination. The organization will do the same again for season two, and continue to play up the city’s historic authenticity.

“You don’t often get an opportunity of a national television series done about your town, so we want to leverage it,” Washington said. “With a national series like ‘Mercy Street’ being aired across the country, it’s an unprecedented opportunity for us to leverage that and take advantage of the opportunity to increase awareness about Alexandria as an incredible destination with incredible historic authenticity.”

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