Deficits on DoG Street: Living museum lets go employees in early 2017

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February 14, 2017

2:25 AM

Due to financial difficulties caused by a decline in visitation, Colonial Williamsburg conducted organizational changes which resulted in laying off several employees in early January.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the second-largest employer in the City of Williamsburg, which makes up 11.38 percent of the City’s total employment and is also one of its principal taxpayers. However, Colonial Williamsburg is now dealing with financial difficulties and has tried layoffs as a means for restoring financial health.

As a private, nonprofit institution, Colonial Williamsburg receives relatively stable donations and funding. In 2015, Colonial Williamsburg received 1,546 gifts and grants — restricted, unrestricted and matching — from corporations, foundations, government agencies and other organizations for a total of $11,840,584, according to the 2015 Corporate and Foundation Donors report.

While Colonial Williamsburg is still processing the 2016 report, Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations Sophia Hart said in an email that she could tell the giving for 2016 was very similar to the giving in 2015.
The City of Williamsburg’s local government also gives funds to support Colonial Williamsburg. The adopted budget for fiscal-year 2016 shows that the government has been giving $1.3 million for advertising to Colonial Williamsburg for at least three years.

According to the 2003-2015 Tourism Economic Expenditures Report, the tourism expenditures of Williamsburg also show increasing trends. Consequently, Colonial Williamsburg representatives do not believe donations were the primary factor leading to financial difficulties.

Instead, representatives said that the primary factor in the financial difficulties is a decline in visitation. As stated in a press statement, Colonial Williamsburg’s living history museum and hospitality operations department have experienced declined visitation in recent decades, placing the foundation on an “unsustainable financial course.”

In recent years, Executive Director of Marketing for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Andrea Sardone acknowledged this declining trend.

Like historic sites around the country, Colonial Williamsburg has experienced an overall decline in visitation over the past several decades (though in recent years the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg have seen a consistent uptick),” Sardone said in an email.

“Like historic sites around the country, Colonial Williamsburg has experienced an overall decline in visitation over the past several decades (though in recent years the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg have seen a consistent uptick),” Sardone said in an email. “The primary area of admission declines over decades is general ticketed admission — sales of Colonial Williamsburg passes that provide guests admission to Historic Area sites, the Art Museums, and most of our scheduled dramatic programs and tours.”

Ticket sales in Colonial Williamsburg have experienced fluctuations over the last several years. As shown in the adopted budget for fiscal-year 2016, ticket sales have experienced an average 0.3 percent annual decrease since fiscal-year 2009.

Vice Mayor of the City of Williamsburg Scott Foster ’10 J.D. ’14 said that tourism in the neighboring areas has affected the visitation rates in Colonial Williamsburg.

“Historic Tourism isn’t as popular as it once was,” Foster said in an email. “There has also been a significant increase in competition for tourists. Areas like Asheville, Charlottesville, Nashville, even Charleston were not significant tourist destinations in years past. Today, those towns have a vibrant tourist economy and as a result, are competing with Williamsburg and other traditional tourist destinations.”

Sardone interpreted the decrease in visitation from a cultural and economic perspective.

“The era of the two-week car vacation is over, and we’re vying for guests’ scarce time in a more competitive recreational marketplace,” Sardone said. “There is also far less emphasis in our schools on history, civics and the nation’s founding era that we interpret.”

Frequent visitors of Williamsburg, Ellie Sanford and Dave Sanford, who traveled to Williamsburg from Baltimore, shared their plan for their trip and said that they no longer stay as long as they used to or spend as much money when they visit.

Foster said that the City of Williamsburg was considering additional funding for different initiatives in support of Colonial Williamsburg.

The City is considering a new funding model that is focused on tourism infrastructure in addition to tourism promotion,” Foster said.

“The City is considering a new funding model that is focused on tourism infrastructure in addition to tourism promotion,” Foster said. “It is our hope that this will lead to an increase to overall visitation to the destination in addition to paid visitation to Colonial Williamsburg.”

The Colonial Williamsburg foundation has been trying a number of new initiatives in an attempt to appeal to different audiences, including a new musket range, an ice skating rink in Merchants Square during the winter months and a new multi-day Halloween experience in the Historic Area.

2/16/2017 9:13 p.m. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said in its headline and lede that layoffs in Colonial Williamsburg were ongoing. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation does not have plans to lay off additional employees. Additionally, Executive Director of Marketing for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Andrea Sardone was misquoted as saying that a decline in ticket sales affected the financial status of Colonial Williamsburg.

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  • Yutong Zhan

(2) Readers Comments

  1. Taylor Stoermer
    February 17, 2017 at 11:23 AM

    This is a fantastic bit of reporting. Well done. The facts are solid and there is some nice, original information here that isn't reported elsewhere, such as the extensive support that CW receives from the city. There is an important misperception here, however, by CW's Marketing Exec: Historic sites across the country are *not*, in fact, declining in visitation. Places like Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts are actually seeing an increase or holding steady. An objective comparison reveals CW to be the exception to that rule. But it's terrific to count The Flat Hat's coverage among those in the Tidewater that more than the W&M community can turn for solid journalism.

  2. Jennifer Pearce
    June 29, 2017 at 11:38 AM

    re: "The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation does not have plans to lay off additional employees" Oh well, plans change eh? CW just needs to find more rich people in need of feeling good about themselves as the brilliant success of "we're an educational institution" streaks to its inevitable collision with reality. I'm sure the vast majority of wage-earning American tourists can;'t wait to enjoy the $40 million dollar museum expansion.

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