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Visit Fairfax President and CEO Barry Biggar talks outside George Washington’s Mount Vernon for a tourism event (staff photo by David Taube)

Visit Fairfax is exploring the idea of a tourism improvement district, which could mean an added fee to hotel stays and other amenities.

The tourism organization’s president and CEO, Barry Biggar, said the proposal could go to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors for a vote this September. The fee would go toward marketing the region, in accordance with a General Assembly law passed last year.

Biggar says southern Fairfax County will be targeted for the district, which would act on its own authority and set fees that could vary for different business types. It would mark a first for the county and could be a model for other areas, he said.

“That money then is collected, accumulated and used purely for the purpose of marketing, promoting the area…which collects the money, but also capital development and capital improvement,” Biggar told FFXnow.

The move could generate an estimated $1 million per year from hotels and restaurants, Biggar said.

It comes amid a county effort to revitalize and rebrand the Route 1 corridor. So far, that push has brought promises of bus rapid transit and a “Potomac Banks: Explore Fairfax South” tourism campaign with a discount pass for historic sites, partnering businesses and more.

“Only the hotels here in the area would be included, so that wouldn’t be added to a Tysons hotel,” Biggar said of the possible fee. “For a hotel, they may go, ‘We’ll do a dollar a room per night.’ For a restaurant, they may go…a half a percent of the total bill. For an attraction, you know, maybe 50 cents per admission.”

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Just in time for the summer tourist season, Fairfax County is stepping up its efforts to promote the amenities in its southeastern area, providing a discount pass for admissions and more.

County and tourism officials, along with staff of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, touted a new digital pass yesterday (Wednesday) that gives visitors at historic sites and other destinations 20% off admissions and other deals.

Launched last December, the branding campaign is called “Potomac Banks: Explore Fairfax South” and was developed by the digital marketing agency Streetsense. It was showcased during a media event outside the first president’s mansion overlooking the Potomac River.

“Fairfax South is the place to be,” said Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck, who started the Mount Vernon Tourism Task Force in 2019 that led to the branding.

Storck, who was a President Abe Lincoln re-enactor for 25 years, said his love of history was a driving force in showcasing the region’s amenities.

An original marketing push rolled out in February 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic soon took hold in the U.S., particularly damaging the hotel and restaurant industries, Storck said.

The effort also includes one year of marketing with a business development campaign, said Barry Biggar, president and CEO of Visit Fairfax, the area’s official tourism organization.

“Now the real work begins,” he said.

Savings pass launched to promote region

The pandemic-induced delay meant the marketing effort could include a new feature: the Potomac Banks Savings Pass, a $46 pass that gives discounted admission to partnering sites, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon, George Mason’s Gunston Hall and Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House.

The pass, which has a $25 version for kids ages 6 through 11, also provides deals on tours, gifts and activities at sites such as the National Museum of the U.S. Army, the Workhouse Arts Center, G34.3 Brewing Co., Woodlawn Press Winery and Historic Huntley.

The pass is valid for 90 days, but once it’s first redeemed at a site, it lasts for seven days.

While Washington’s historic property has weathered the pandemic and had buses of visitors there yesterday, other sites will be able to cross-promote.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said teachers and textbooks are amazing, but nothing can replace experiencing history in person, and there are historic assets right in people’s backyards to enjoy that people from across the world come to visit.

Biggar said there are plans to create the county’s first tourism improvement district in southern Fairfax County. He said it could be a model for the rest of the region.

According to Biggar, Fairfax County’s tourism dollars generate the most revenue for the Commonwealth of any jurisdiction. The county’s tourism industry generated more than $3 billion in 2019, and he projects it will reach $4.5 billion in five years.

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Residence Inn could shift into a multi-family housing project (via handout/Town of Herndon)

With two proposals to transform hotels into housing, local officials are exploring more creative ways to reach affordable housing goals.

In Herndon, a Residence Inn is slated to convert into a 17-unit affordable housing project spread across 11 buildings. Owners say the buildings are too difficult to maintain and industry demands haven’t kept with hotel brand standards.

“The physical layout of the various buildings on the property, the interior unit configuration, and the good condition of the underlying building structures, presents a unique opportunity with the Town of Herndon to repurpose the current building as multifamily units,” a March 2 application to the town says.

A similar tale is unfolding in Tysons, but without a major affordable housing component. Property owner JBG Smith wants to turn the 22-story Sheraton Tysons hotel into a 544-unit multifamily residential tower with ground-floor retail.

The building first opened in 1985. A legal representative for JBG Smith says the units will be small in size and “offer more affordable housing opportunity,” according to a rezoning application submitted to Fairfax County in February.

These transformative uses are consistent with what building official Jay Riat says is a “steady” increase in major hotels being built or renovated in the past few years.

Even so, county officials do not expect a negative impact on transit occupancy tax revenues — which are generated from hotel uses, according to the county’s Department of Tax Administration.

What is happening otherwise may be somewhat counterintuitive: transient occupancy tax revenues are projected to rise by 15% in fiscal year 2023, which starts July 1, compared to the last fiscal year.

“To the extent that any hotels convert to multifamily units, the county may see a net tax revenue increase, as real estate revenues increase after redevelopment,” the tax department said in a statement.

The department notes that hotels are still going up in the county, including the Watermark Hotel in Tysons, which has 300 suites.

Recovery still anticipated for hotel industry

County officials with Land Development Services say existing hotels are doing well, as the Fairfax County market is not yet saturated.

A spokesperson for Visit Fairfax, the county’s official tourism resource, says repurposing a hotel into residential units seems to be a “logical” reuse, but officials still expect traditional hotels to thrive in major business areas. Read More

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Fairfax County is looking to boost its tourism marketing efforts, which include destinations like Mount Vernon (courtesy Visit Fairfax/April Greer)

Fairfax County will apply for grant funding from the Virginia Tourism Corporation to help boost tourism in the area.

The Board of Supervisors approved a request yesterday (Tuesday) from the Department of Economic Initiatives for $4.17 million that will be used in conjunction with Visit Fairfax, the county’s travel marketing agency.

Virginia has allocated $50 million of its American Recovery Plan Act funds to the Tourism Recovery Program. The Virginia Tourism Corporation will award grants to all localities based on how much they contributed to total state tourism revenues in 2019.

Visit Fairfax President and CEO Barry Biggar told FFXnow that the organization is “tremendously grateful” for the ARPA grant’s approval.

“This allocation will assist us greatly and go a long way in our recovery efforts of rebuilding and revitalizing the tourism industry of Fairfax County, indeed helping it return to pre-pandemic levels and beyond,” Biggar said in a statement. “It also clearly underscores how significant Fairfax County is to the overall tourism economy of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

The county must submit a plan outlining how it will use the grant, which must go to marketing and promotional efforts. The funds must be spent by June 30, 2024.

According to a draft tourism recovery plan, Fairfax County lost $420 million in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on tourism. Tourism-related jobs accounted for at least 32% of all job losses in the Commonwealth, with 34% of hospitality job losses coming in Northern Virginia.

Job losses among hotel and restaurant workers were nearly twice as high as any other profession, according to data sourced from the Virginia Employment Commission. The document also notes that 63% of all job losses took place in industries with higher than average representation of people of color.

“The [grant] funds will be utilized to introduce new programs and projects of work that provide incremental economic impact to the county through avenues that Visit Fairfax hasn’t had the ability to previously explore,” Biggar said.

Strategic objectives listed in the county’s recovery plan include:

  • Increasing hotel occupancy and sales tax revenues by putting more group events and business travelers into Fairfax County hotels
  • Attracting and maximizing lucrative sporting tournaments for young and adult athletes
  • Increasing awareness of Fairfax County as a preferred destination for local and international tourist groups

Angela Woolsey contributed to this report.

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