HISTORIC DESTINATIONS ACROSS THE U.S.
ARE DISCOVERING THAT TO KEEP UP IN THE TOURIST TRADE, THEY'VE
GOT TO PUT A NEW SPIN ON THE DAYS OF OLD.
On a frigid afternoon earlier this year, fiery Virginia legislator
Patrick Henry addresses his fellow colonists inside the Kimball
Theatre on Colonial Williamsburg's Merchants Square as if it's
still 1774. For 40 minutes, he rails against British taxation,
warning that there's trouble ahead if King George doesn't back
After he finishes, he takes questions from the audience. They're
not in period garb like Henry, but they play along, asking
questions about the recent tea uprising in Boston Harbor and
Benjamin Franklin's negotiations in London seeking a peaceful
resolution to the dispute.
On a typical summer day, Richard Schumann's performance as the
founding father who would later proclaim "Give me liberty or give
me death" will fill the 400-seat theater twice in an afternoon. On
this wintry afternoon, however, he faces only about 50 hard-core
history buffs. Weather gets the blame for the light attendance this
day, but it's also indicative of a long-term trend of declining
attendance at Colonial Williamsburg and other historic travel sites
across the country.
At Colonial Williamsburg, for instance, attendance dropped from
950,000 only a couple of years ago to 730,000 in 2003, contributing
to a bottom-line deficit of $30 million (covered by endowment
funds) on an operating budget of $200 million for the nonprofit
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. During the year, about 400
positions were eliminated, reducing the staff of historians,
fund-raisers, character actors, blacksmiths, service personnel, and
others to about 3,200. The poor economy, 9/11, and a spate of bad
weather, including a major ice storm and a hurricane, are partly to
blame. But competition has also increased as historic sites, large
and small, are jumping on the heritage travel bandwagon (coming
this fall, a "V-8 Vacation" for car buffs to historic Michigan
spots related to the auto industry).