Visitor count hard to nail down

Published 1:05 pm Wednesday, November 18, 2015

By Diana McFarland

News editor

The number of visitors to the Isle of Wight Visitor Center and the Arts Center in Smithfield is down so far this year, but tourism officials point to smart phones and Internet research as the reason. At the same time, Mondays are a top downtown shopping day in Smithfield, according to a Smithfield 2020 report.

Visitation to the Visitor Center is down 7 percent, followed by 9 percent for the Arts Center, which occupies the same building, as compared with 2014, according to an annual Smithfield 2020 report.

The Arts Center recorded the most visitors on Fridays and Saturdays so far this year, while retailers posted the most sales on Saturday (27 percent), followed by Monday at nearly 17 percent, according the 2020 report. The sales are based on sales tax collections so far this year. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

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Isle of Wight Director of Tourism Judy Winslow doesn’t believe the number of people visiting Smithfield has declined, but the number checking in at the visitor center are lower because “so many visitors carry their own visitor center in the palm of their hand via their smart phones,” she said.

Another reason for lower numbers is the new public restrooms that were opened on the other end of Main Street. Before they were constructed, the visitor center was the primary public restroom option, Winslow said.

Smithfield is also a very event-driven destination and many visitors talk to tourism docents on site and don’t come to the visitor center, and those numbers are not reported, Winslow said.

And while Monday sales are the second highest during the week, they could potentially be even better because many Main Street and downtown merchants are closed that day.

“We beg people to be open on Monday’s,” said tourism volunteer Kathy Montjoy, adding that the day appears to be popular with people staying in Williamsburg.

Winslow said Smithfield is a long weekend destination and that extra day is often a Monday.

“The public has grown accustomed to retailers being open seven days a week and are often disappointed when they can’t shop at the wonderful stores that they have seen touted in our visitor guide and online.  We encourage people to check store hours online prior to arriving to avoid disappointment,” Winslow said.

Christi Chatham, manager at Victoria’s Rose, said she’s gotten complaints from visitors about stores being closed.

Victoria’s Rose is one of 18 businesses and attractions open seven days a week in downtown Smithfield.

“I have gotten a few complaints from some very unhappy people about nothing being open. That is the perception,” she said.

“It’s not fair to us that are open, but that’s the perception,” she said, adding that she can diffuse an unhappy situation by giving visitors a brochure put out by the Visitor Center that lists the businesses and attractions that are open seven days a week.

Open seven days a week in downtown Smithfield are Wharf Hill Brewing Company, Pagan River Wine Merchants, Smithfield Station, the Arts Center @319, Cloud Nine, Isle of Wight County Museum, Mary Elizabeth, Smithfield Flags, Smithfield Gourmet Café and Bakery, Smithfield Ice Cream Parlor, Taste of Smithfield, The Christmas Store, Wharf Hill Antiques, Smithfield Inn, Victoria’s Rose, Anne of Smithfield, Color Scapes Fine Arts Gallery and When Pigs Fly … Magic Happens, while Imagine Art Studios is open on Sunday by appointment and is open the rest of the week, according to the Isle of Wight Tourism website.

The least busy day for visitors and sales is Wednesday, according to the report.

Chatham believes the other stores being closed offers her shop an advantage — but only if they’re already in town. For those deciding between visiting Smithfield and somewhere else, the idea that many shops could be closed may be a deterrent, she said.

Smithfield 2020 Project Manager Rick Bodson, who regularly prepares the visitation reports, said he didn’t do a yearly comparison of visitor data for the Isle of Wight Museum or St. Luke’s this year because those venues changed the way they count people. Also, the 1750 Courthouse was closed for several months for repairs, so those are off too, he said.

Bodson said that 12 years of compiling visitor data, it’s probably time to use another method — a topic that was discussed this month with Smithfield 2020. Ways to gauge economic activity was collecting data on meals, transient occupancy and sales taxes. Smithfield 2020 member and Isle of Wight Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Andy Cripps said that assessing trends would be a good tool to attract new business to the historic district.

Between January and August 2014, there were 5,441 visitors to the Visitor’s Center. This year for the same period it was 5,068 — a nearly 7 percent drop. {/mprestriction}