Earlier this month the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported at length on that history site’s adjustment to a new director with new ideas:
For Halloween weekend last fall, Colonial Williamsburg rolled out “Blackbeard’s Revenge,” a slate of spooky events that included free trick-or-treating; costume contests; “pirate games”; pumpkin decorating; tours of the jail, where interpreters portrayed imprisoned “undead” buccaneers; and a grave digger who related “tales of burying Blackbeard’s crew.”I hadn’t realized till reading this article that Reiss isn’t a historian, though he has a doctorate (in international relations) and an academic background (as president of Washington College in Maryland). That might be why he’s so eager to win over a larger constituency, and comfortable with the term “accurate-ish.”
Mitchell Reiss, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s president and CEO and the architect of a series of overhauls since he took over in late 2014, said the weekend was an unqualified success, drawing 10,000 people over two nights.
Roughly 80 percent of first-time visitors surveyed said they would return.
“Unless you can get people to come, you can’t engage them. You can’t educate them, and you can’t inspire them,” Reiss said. “The Blackbeard story was fun, it was accurate-ish. But you know, it got people here and they had a great time.” . . .
Reiss also has presided over major changes to staffing and programs and green-lit the foundation’s first-ever Super Bowl ad, which featured footage of the Twin Towers during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and ignited a wave of social media backlash and negative news coverage. It was the first of a new three-part ad campaign.
The cumulative effect has some critics questioning whether the foundation is losing sight of its educational mission and historical focus in favor of chasing what may prove to be a more fickle type of tourist. Others see encouraging strides in a new direction. . . .
Visitation peaked at 1.2 million a year in the mid-1970s, partly the result of bicentennial fervor but also for less tangible reasons.
“It was a different America. We took more vacations. We taught more history in schools. We didn’t have iPads and iPhones to distract us and reduce our attention span to nanoseconds. We maybe even were more patriotic in a way and more aware of history,” Reiss said.
“All of these have combined to place some challenges in front of us and in front of other historic sites and museums across the country. We have to address them head-on. We can’t pretend that they don’t exist.”
Individual ticket sales, not including promotional tickets that were given to groups and counted in the past whether or not they were used, rose from 474,299 in 2014 to 480,007 in 2015, a modest increase but one that reverses a years-long downward trend, the foundation said. . . .
For 2015, expenses were down $300,000 compared with 2014, and revenue was up nearly $7 million in the same period, along with hotel occupancy, which increased by 7 percentage points, and meals served, up 4 percent.