The outdoing executive director of the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau has a parting wish: That residents of Delaware come to appreciate and embrace all the things they can see, do and experience in the First State.
Sometimes, said Sarah Ridgway Willoughby, “It seems like our residents just did not love Wilmington, or New Castle County, even some parts of Delaware. I think that’s been my biggest frustration because there’s so much to offer and it seems like more Wilmingtonians and Delawareans think it’s greener in Philadelphia and greener in Baltimore., D.C., New York, and don’t have the love and compassion for their own area.”
It’s something she’s worked to change, and a mantle that her successor, Jennifer Boes, will take up when Willoughby officially leaves the job Wednesday, June 3o.
One way Boes, who was born in Georgetown and attended Sussex Central High School before becoming a University of Delaware Blue Hen, plans to tackle that is through collaboration.
“There are a lot of us here in the city working on the shared mission of economic development, because at the end of the day that’s the achievement of bringing in more tourists,” she said.
As she works to strengthen the bureau’s brand message, she hopes to help develop a strategic plan that would set the foundation for working together and combining resources with agencies such as the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, the State Chamber of Commerce, state tourism office and her counterparts in Kent and Sussex counties.
Willoughby, who led the bureau for 12 years and her husband, Gary, are moving to the Crystal Lake area of Florida, swapping four seasons of changing weather for the eternal summer in the Sunshine State.
He retired in July last year, and they started planning their next move. Once they found the spot, they put their Carpenter’s Row home on the market and sold in one day for a cash offer. They rented another spot until their move.
Among the achievements she’s proudest of ,Willoughby cites lobbying to get funding restored in the Grants-in-Aid bill in 2017 after it was wiped out for all three counties, meaning she and all her employees would be out of jobs.
“I lived in Dover, basically,” Willoughby said. “And, you know, I thought that was tough but COVID definitely was a lot tougher, mentally and physically.”
Pre-pandemic, the bureau had a budget of $1.8 million and a staff of nine full-time and one part-time workers, with a contracted accountant. Now the budget is $800,000 and the staff is 5 and the accountant.
One passion that Willoughby is passing on to Boes is the need for signage that directs people to entertainment venues, historic sites and even hotels and restaurants. She remains frustrated that regulations mean there is no opportunity for that on I95 as it passes through Delaware’s biggest city.
“We have hotel signs at most of the exits, but not going into Wilmington,” she said. “Nobody knows there’s a Hotel du Pont. Nobody knows that there are places to go and do anything in Wilmington, and part of that is all because you’ve got to have the hospital signs, which doesn’t leave that much square footage to put more signs if you really get down to it.”
She’s studied the handbooks regulating the signs and can’t find a way around them.
But, she said, she fears that for many people passing through Wilmington, not having the signs just reinforces that idea that Wilmington and Delaware don’t have anything to offer except a roadway to a bigger city.
Willoughby spearheaded the phase one creation of signs posted along Route 52 into Chateau Country, and hopes Boes will be able to “scrape two nickels together” to take care of phase two.
“It’s a joke that I have within the state that on my tombstone I’ll say ‘Signage,’” she said.
Overall, Willoughby said, “I’ve loved just selling the area.”
It’s been somewhat easier since Joe Biden accepted the Democratic nomination for president at the Wilmington Riverfront and then was elected. Scores of media and Democratic officials moved into downtown Wilmington for the campaign and then as Biden started having meetings to set up his administration.
“There’s no way our state and definitely not the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitor’s Bureau could ever afford that kind of attention, the media coverage,” Willoughby said.
Wilmington and the riverfront were the backdrop every night of news reports, she said.
The bureau set up a page devoted to Biden and his likes and haunts in Wilmington. Billing itself as the “Hometown of No. 45,” the page invites people to Eat Like Joe and lists some of his favorite restaurants, ranging from upscale to burger joints, among other things.
The bureau is planning itineraries for tour companies who want to offer a Biden event. The office recently had a couple come in and specifically ask to see Biden’s church, St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine, and its cemetery, where Biden’s son, Beau, is buried with other family members.
“People are searching for things to do,” Willoughby said. “I think the floodgates will be opening. We are seeing things like our website numbers going through the roof right now.” Hits are up 1,298%, she said.
Every time Biden comes back home, hotel rooms fill up with his support team, she said.
“And I’ll take Secret Service right now for visitors,” she said. “Our budget’s been hit so hard. We’re funded primarily by the lodging tax and we’ve already at least down a million dollars to date without corporate America. It’s good to see the courts are opening back up, but we’ve got to figure out the next phase of bringing business back.”
Boes was the bureau’s director of marketing communications before being tapped for her new role. A former public relations director of the Delaware Tourism Office, she previously worked in Philadelphia and Maine for Marshall Communications doing strategic marketing plans for travel, hotels, the cruise industry, restaurants, retail and international tourism marketing.
She’s just bought a townhome behind McKean High School, after fighting the real estate wars in Trolley Square. There, she found several places she liked and made an offer, only to have someone swoop in and offer more.
Boes thinks she couldn’t have come on the visitor and convention scene at a better time. In addition to Biden’s election, the Wilmington area has many other things on the move.
The Rodney Square splash fountains have just opened, she pointed out. Two new hotels are being built downtown. The Delaware Museum of Natural History is gong through a re-imagining and Hagley is revamping its visitors center to install a new exhibit, “Nation of Inventors.” Longwood is expanding its conservatory. Several restaurants are opening in Historic New Castle.
“We’re trying to drive awareness toward Historic New Castle, because I think that’s one of our many hidden gems that people don’t know about,” Boes said. “And all that’s just the beginning.”
With Wilmington and the Brandywine Valley within a day’s drive of half the U.S. population, the bureau has offers on hand that give people staying two nights at a hotel free admission to tour Hagley Museum and Library as well as Mt. Cuba Center, both former du Pont estates.
That started in April and they sold 85 within two weeks. Now it’s more than 200 a sign of popularity.
The bureau also pivoted its Passport Program and has introduced a Brandywine Valley Adventure Pass lets visitors build their own tour to Northern Delaware history, culture and garden attractions at costs below regular admission rates.
Visitors choose from a menu of 13 attractions. Some are also offering bonuses in addition to discounted pricing. For example, the Delaware Art Museum and the Delaware History Museum both are offering a 10% discount at their museum stores. Historic Houses of Odessa is offering a complimentary drink at Cantwell’s Tavern. Hagley is offering a complimentary watercolor print of Eleutherian Mills and the Hagley Barn, while supplies last.
The pass can be downloaded onto a smartphone, and the site visits can be spread out into the fall.
Participating attractions include Brandywine River Museum of Art, The Brandywine Zoo, the Delaware Contemporary, the Mitchell Center for African American Heritage, Marshall Steam Museum, Nemours Estate, Read House and Gardens, Rockwood Museum and Park, and Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library.
Boes notes that area hotels seem to have business on weekends than mid-week at the moment.
“So we want to work in the coming months to help bring visitors into those hotels during the week,” Boes said. “We’re going to be coming up with some creative ideas to help our hotels in that way.”
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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