A lot of useful and generally encouraging information was shared at Visit Alexandria’s annual meeting last week. It’s affirming to know Alexandria is considered the third best small city in the U.S. by Conde Nast readers, behind Charleston, South Carolina and Santa Fe, New Mexico but ahead of destinations such as Savannah, Georgia and Santa Barbara, California.
Most helpful was the survey conducted by Destination Analysts, a tourism research and marketing company, in which they surveyed 3,000 travelers to capture a snapshot of impressions people have of Alexandria.
Reliable data is essential for constructive decision-making, and not just in the realm of tourism. Good data helps companies, individuals and cities understand where they are and whether their efforts are succeeding. The data from Destination Analysts was somewhat surprising, although perhaps it shouldn’t have been.
The main factor, by a lot, that people associate with Alexandria is history – no surprise there. History was the “top-of-mind” element that 56 percent of respondents cited, more than twice as many as chose ambiance/atmosphere, and historic charm was undoubtedly part of that choice as well.
But some of the demographic information about actual visitors was eye-opening. The average age of visitors to Alexandria is 53 years. More than 72 percent of Alexandria visitors are married or partnered. And more than 40 percent of visitors don’t work, even part-time. Conversely, citing national trends, Destination Analysts said travel by millennials is declining relative to that by other generations.
Our interpretation of these demographics is that people who travel to Alexandria do so primarily for our history; that people who travel to historic sites tend to be older than those who travel for other reasons, such as to beaches or resorts; and that a large number of visitors to Alexandria are retired.
This information is likely discouraging to scooter-loving vibrancy advocates who view luring younger visitors – and residents – to Alexandria as the holy grail. Perhaps it will lead them to double down on efforts that encourage people to bike and scooter in Old Town, while continuing to eliminate parking and erode the livability of residents.
That approach would be short-sighted.
As a marketing executive from the Washington Nationals said at an Alexandria Chamber event a few years ago, that team’s strategy was to focus on their strengths rather than futilely pour resources into weaknesses. In other words, they focus on selling out already strong games, such as a Saturday contest against a popular team like the Cubs or Dodgers rather than putting much effort into a Monday night game against a lowly foe.
Perhaps this data should drive city leaders to bifurcate their approach to tourism.
Clearly, the history and historic ambiance of Old Town is what fuels most of Alexandria’s tourism industry. Every decision city leaders make affecting Old Town should be viewed through the prism of whether it enhances or diminishes that neighborhood’s ambiance for both visitors and residents. City leaders should accept, rather than fight, the fact that visitors to and residents in Old Town are, well, older.
Conversely, it seems logical that a strategy of encouraging vibrancy should be aggressively pursued in Del Ray, a neighborhood of younger residents and visitors. Build more bike lanes there, possibly by implementing a road diet on Mount Vernon Avenue. Let bars and restaurants stay open later. Enhance that fun neighborhood’s already hip vibe.
We should double down on drawing younger, regional visitors to Del Ray and older, national tourists to Old Town. Focusing on our strengths is a winning strategy.