In addition to stiffer competition, places like Colonial Williamsburg, which originated the concept of living history more than 75 years ago, are struggling to attract increasingly demanding travelers conditioned by high-tech, high-energy attractions and cushy resort complexes. Passively watching a blacksmith pound a rod of iron into nails can't compete with hopping on the 3-D Spider-Man ride and soaring over the city at Universal Studios Florida.
So to stay competitive, a quiet revolution is taking place at venerable historic destinations. They're adding amenities like spas, inns, restaurants, outdoor adventures typically associated with glitzier resorts, and hands-on exhibits favored by science and children's museums. They're combating the perception that they are one-visit sites by creating programs tied to holidays and the seasons to attract return visitors. And they're rethinking their offerings, often using their sites as giant audiovisual aids to transform spectators into participants in history.
Colin G. Campbell, president and chief executive officer of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, says that 20 years ago people were content to be observers. Now they want to talk to people from the 18th century and engage them, whether by helping to build bricks, questioning one of the founding fathers, or marching behind the town's popular Fifes and Drums.
"While cultural heritage sites have traditionally excelled in the areas of conservation and preservation, customer service and marketing are newer concepts for many of them," acknowledges Amy Jordan Webb, the heritage tourism director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "We have been working to bring this message to the managers of heritage sites to help them find creative ways to make their sites come alive, enhancing the experience and enabling them to compete for visitors' time."