Episode Topic: Prepare to be enthralled as we embark on a fascinating journey in this episode of TravelPreneur. Join us as we unravel the captivating narrative of Kurt Krause, the President and CEO of VisitNorfolk. Explore the alchemy that has transformed Norfolk tourism, Virginia, into a vibrant and sought-after travel destination and the visionary strategies behind VisitNorfolk’s remarkable success.
Lessons You’ll Learn: Kurt’s extensive experience unfolds a treasure trove of insights. Discover the enchanting essence of Norfolk tourism, the unique experiences, and the art of effectively conveying them to a diverse audience. Kurt’s strategic brilliance reveals the tailored marketing approaches that cater to a spectrum of travelers, from leisure seekers to business aficionados, and get to know how VisitNorfolk became the forefront of such transformative endeavors.
About Our Guest: Our guest, Kurt Krause, is a dynamic figure who wears the hats of President and CEO of VisitNorfolk with unmatched zeal. His journey is a testament to visionary leadership, drawing inspiration from a diverse background encompassing government and education. With a unique perspective, Kurt has etched his mark on destination marketing.
Topics Covered: As we explore Norfolk’s unique attractions and VisitNorfolk’s effective communication strategies, find a profound appreciation for the city’s five essential experiences, tailored for solo adventurers. We’ll also unravel the intricacies of corporate social responsibility initiatives that elevate Norfolk’s reputation and the innovative ways VisitNorfolk weathered the challenges of the pandemic. Additionally, learn how collaboration with neighboring cities breathes life into a cohesive, attractive destination. His insights offer a compass for destination marketing organizations worldwide, making this episode a must-listen for all travel enthusiasts.
Our Guest: Kurt Krause: A Visionary Leader in Norfolk
Kurt Krause boasts a remarkable 40-year career in the hospitality industry, marked by his diverse expertise in marketing, government relations, and higher education. Serving as the President and CEO of VisitNorfolk, he has been instrumental in showcasing Norfolk, Virginia, as a vibrant city of unique experiences and amenities. Under his guidance, Norfolk has become a prime destination for studying, working, meeting, and leisure.
Kurt’s crowning achievements include launching iconic hotels like the Hilton Norfolk The Main, The Cavalier Hotel, and the Cavalier Beach Club, transforming Norfolk into a hub of luxury and sophistication.
Kurt’s leadership prowess and knack for cultivating lasting relationships shine through, as does his ability to manage large-scale projects and mentor others. His dedication to sustainable, profitable growth is evident in his roles as a board member of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, and an executive committee member of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, actively contributing to the industry’s development.
Kurt Krause: I would encourage cities to advocate for what you do. Recognize that there’s information that you can share. And then how do we get people to come live in our cities? At the end of the day, we want our schools to be successful. We want people to live in our environments that they are enjoying. And for the residents to understand the value of the visitor economy, I don’t want us to get into a situation of over-tourism that’s happening around the world. So how do we manage it with our current residents?
Megha McSwain: Welcome to TravelPreneur, the weekly business show for the travel industry. I’m your host, Houston-based travel journalist Megha McSwain. Each episode, we’ll be exploring what it takes to thrive as a business owner in the travel industry. From conversations with leading travel business executives and industry-focused venture capitalists to exploring the innovations that are shaping the next generation of travel business, if it impacts the travel industry, we cover it here on TravelPreneur.
Greetings, travel enthusiasts, and welcome back to another exciting episode of the TravelPreneur podcast. I’m your host, Megha McSwain. Today we are joined with a distinguished guest, Kurt Krause, the President and CEO of VisitNorfolk. Welcome, Kurt. How are you today?
Kurt Krause: I’m honored to be with you today.
Megha McSwain: Well thank you. So let’s get into the Norfolk and your involvement in it. You’ve played a pivotal role in promoting Norfolk, Virginia as a top US destination. What unique experiences and amenities does Norfolk offer, and how does VisitNorfolk communicate this to residents and visitors?
Kurt Krause: It’s a great question, and I’d like to preface it just a bit by saying, and I know you’ve been on our website, the one of the first screens that you see is what’s your purpose for coming to our city? And everybody’s different. So to say that the Chrysler Museum and the Chrysler Glass Studio, where you can actually go in and spin glass, they’ll teach you how to do that, is an extraordinary experience. But if you’re not into museums, maybe a bike ride on the Elizabeth River trail would be more suitable for what you want to do. But our museums are great, our music is great, our food is great. So it’s hard to say what’s appealing to some and not to others.
Although music and culinary experiences are always at the top of the list. But every city could have that. So how does that differentiate us? We are only 250,000 people and we have 600 restaurants, and two-thirds of those are chef-owned. So it’s not the big boxes it’s, you know, more cultural and more experiential to that community. And I know that one of your other questions is, what have we done over certain timeframes? And we have a campaign called City with Bite. We’re now in our third season, and it’s highlighting those chef-owned restaurants. Could be a sandwich shop or it could be a white tablecloth restaurant. But these 4 or 5 minute little vignettes and we produce them as if it was Netflix. So you can binge on all of them. But there are eight restaurants a year that we highlight, and we talk to the restaurant chef-owner. Typically, they pull somebody from one of their best customers in to talk about their experiences, and it really goes over extremely well.
Megha McSwain: So are these highlighted on social media or on TV?
Kurt Krause: No. Well, our budget is not as big as Dallas’ unfortunately, or some of the other bigger cities. We are all social. We are all digital. So we’ve had some really good success with that. We can get into those numbers if you wish later. But the Botanical Gardens, you know, it was created in 1935 to compete with Charleston’s Azalea Festivals. So our roses and our azaleas are going back almost a hundred years when this wonderful botanical gardens. And they’ve just broken ground for the botanical gardens of the future. And what does that look like? And what is the interaction with the guests that come in? They have about 400 500 guests, visitors, every year that come in.
So while that’s not important for some, it is important to a lot of people, and their Christmas journey through the botanical gardens, whether you walk it the first week or it’s a drive-through after that is spectacular. With the Christmas music or the holiday music, it’s not necessarily Christmas, it’s holiday focused and it’s absolutely wonderful. The breweries is another one that doesn’t meet everybody’s, and we have 12 breweries in town that you could go on a brewery crawl, if you will, and there are touring companies that will take you on all of those. So if I had to pick five, I would probably go with our museums. I would go with the music. The Church Street Jazz Festival is fabulous if you’re a smooth jazz aficionado. But then we have some of our older theaters that have been turned into music venues. So if you’re a hard rocker or if you’re a folk music person, your artist would be coming through there as well. So small venues. And if you’re a baseball fan, our baseball team, which is the Triple-A team to the Orioles, won the championship. So of all the Triple-A teams throughout the country, our team is champions and they have 75 games, I think 430,000 435,000 visitors that have come through. We all agree that most of it, 80% of it is local, but 20% coming from out of town is an economic impact.
Megha McSwain: Sure. Well, you mentioned there’s everyone’s different. People have different interests and VisitNorfolk serves such a diverse range of travelers, from leisure tourists to business professionals. And you mentioned the initiative that you started with highlighting chef-led restaurants. But some of these other sort of marketing strategies, how do you create those or develop those? Is it by looking in the surrounding regions, like you mentioned, the Charleston festivals, mimicking that and seeing okay, they’re getting a lot of tourism from this maybe this is something we can highlight in this area.
Kurt Krause: So water is huge, obviously. History is also huge. African American history, this is where the first African Americans landed in our region back in the 1600s. So that history exists and in the future, we’re going to do more with a regional collaboration on that. But the history, the water, recreation, water is always something that people want to participate in. And I don’t know if your questions asked about Covid. But during COVID, we took those locations and attractions that were outside that were just natural to be separated. And because people wanted to travel and we knew that we are one gas tank away from 72 million people in the Mid-Atlantic, so we don’t have to advertise far. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Raleigh, Charlotte, that circle, if you will, allows us to target people that are looking for someplace to go even in the heat of Covid. While we did drop our occupancy. We were over the 25 markets reported by Smith Travel Research. We were the number one market for that whole summer of 2020 of the time. I mean, we’re we’re a relatively small market, Virginia Beach and Norfolk. But we were the number one. We were the only market that went over 60% occupancy. Everybody else dropped into the 20s and the 30s, so we survived a little bit better than most. Now. The hotels lost a lot of the workforce like everybody else.
But we did okay and it was the campaign was together at last. We partnered with Virginia Beach. And somebody who is staying here in Norfolk can go to the beach that’s 20 minutes away. They can go to the Chesapeake Bay, that’s 20 minutes away, or they can go to Williamsburg and Jamestown, the historic sites that are 45 minutes away, but then come back to our town and stay.
Megha McSwain: Right. Now Norfolk is part of the 757 region. Which 757 is the area code that encompasses eastern Virginia, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Suffolk, all of those counties or towns. Now, do you collaborate with those neighboring regions or neighboring cities to come up with a marketing plan for tourism?
Kurt Krause: Badly, no. We’re trying, I’m trying. The campaign that we did that was successful was with Virginia Beach. But everybody has their own budgets, and Virginia Beaches is huge and Portsmouth is small, and we’re kind of a mid-size. So I am trying to proposing a couple of ideas on the history side of things, the African American history that is starting to get some interest from people, and city council and mayors are interested in how do we do this. So more to come on that. But if we can do one and get it done, get it started and done well, I think we’ll have more and more that are joint campaigns. In fact, with the ARPA money coming from COVID, we were able to collect 5% of that money that everybody received. And it gave us, for the first time at least some money to promote ourselves, even if it was designing a website and keeping it current.
Megha McSwain: Yeah, I mean, that’s important. And you don’t realize how much of budget and everything goes into those things that are just as important as anything else.
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You’ve been involved in the launch of iconic hotels like the Cavalier Hotel. How do these types of accommodations contribute to the city’s appeal as a destination for business or for tourism?
Kurt Krause: The company that I worked for when I opened the main, the Hilton here in Norfolk in 2017, they then transferred me. Well, actually, before that they wanted to make sure that I could be a good general manager. So they had me working the Hilton at Virginia Beach. So I did that for a year, then opened the main, then went back to reopen the Cavalier. So but what that did was it allowed me to create some partnerships with Virginia Beach that would not have normally had. So the collaboration of that effort is there, and we’re getting closer all the time. And we’ll see how that goes. But having worked in both cities, it has been beneficial for everybody. Outside of that, we meet on a regular basis the tourism people. It’s the Coastal Virginia Tourism Alliance and we all work off the same airport. The Norfolk International Airport is ours as a region mid-size, very good airport. The new president, CEO of the airport has some fabulous ideas of how to make it more efficient and a greater experience. He has hired us visit Norfolk to be the information desk folks, so we’ll help him with those people that come in. It’s my staff that also goes out in a visitor mobile, if you will, a van. And we do 100 events a year throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia promoting Norfolk and the region. So we have some experience with information centers.
Megha McSwain: What trends do you see shaping the future of travel in Norfolk?
Kurt Krause: That’s also a great question because I really believe that the traveler in today’s data world can be easily divided by a solo traveler. It could be LGBTQ+, it could be not interested in one more than the other. But folks that are seeking destinations that have a sustainable philosophy, those destinations are going to be of more interest to the traveler what are they doing for recycling? What are they doing for air? What are they doing for clean water? And I really, truly believe that when we start promoting what we’re doing, and I’m looking forward to a meeting with our city manager. Because it wasn’t until this past week that it dawned on me that the city with the federal government, is putting in a $1.3 billion seawall. The only city that has flooding worse than us is New Orleans. Here we are putting up whatever that seawall design ends up being. It is to protect our waterfront off of the Elizabeth River. I think that we are starting to see traveler sentiment identify with at least an interest of what we’re doing with this seawall, with this sea level rise, if you will. Now, how do I spin that, too? Because it’s being a sought as a positive to our city, to our destination. Now, how do I market that, inform people of what we’re doing relative to all of the Lafayette River, the Elizabeth River, the Chesapeake Bay we touch all the time, the cruise lines that come in here. What are they doing to keep a more sustainable environment? And then the other thing that I’ve been working on in the future that I think is going to be important is accessibility.
Last week, we just clicked on a new landing page for those people that have some type of disability, even down to the language of the do’s and the don’ts, it’s not wheelchair bound, it’s somebody who that’s their mode of transportation or whatever their impairment would be. How do we just recognize it as that’s part of their personality? But they’re still a are a wonderful traveler. And typically people with accessible issues or challenges, they travel with 1 or 2 people. So imagine getting somebody to sail on the rover at sunset for the first time. And is that ship that tall ship relatively easy for somebody to get on? How do we get them into a kayak and have them paddle through some of our waters? Those are markets that are coming, have started. I’m just now recognizing it with our team. Now, how do we make it more informative for somebody to come and know what to do? How do we convince the hotels that when you put up your towel sign that says, if you want to use your towel again, hang it on the hook? If you don’t, put it on the ground, and no matter what we do, the housekeepers still replenish all your towel with fresh towels. Well, that doesn’t do much for the sustainability. I think in the future it’s going to be important to follow through on those services that you’re providing.
Megha McSwain: So as someone who’s been instrumental in making Norfolk a better place to live, work and visit, what message or advice do you have for other cities focused on destination marketing and organizations looking to follow in the footsteps of stuff that you have already done these last few years.
Kurt Krause: After which goes first. The advocacy work we’re doing and trying to convince your elected officials and the stakeholders that this is a much broader market of traveler than we’ve ever anticipated or expected. That is important, without a doubt. That’s important. And the sustainability is important as well. So how do we make sure that we are listening to those travelers, listening to that sentiment to do that? So to do that to other cities, I would encourage them to make sure that they’re collecting that data. What is your traveler looking for? And then how do you tell your city council that, yes, we’re all in favor of this sea wall going up, but so are the travelers in seeking to come here. And then from an economic standpoint, and this may be the more important of the two categories, is that traveler that’s coming here because it represents them, represents their values. Do they now live here? Do they say, hey, I really like visiting Norfolk, I’m going to come again and as I come again, meaning I’m going to come here to live, and then to employers seeing that that workforce is here, do they bring their businesses here? And it is a circle. Just keep going. You know, the circle of life if you will, that starts with the visit but ends with an investment in your city. So I would encourage the message to other cities to be look at this model. Funds will always get in the way. I can’t do it because I don’t have enough money, but there’s always a way to communicate to people.
We have four different emails that we send out to various groups. We’ve partnered with various software companies that allow us to create a dashboard, and the dashboard for this conversation could be different than the dashboard that I present to City Council or to my board, but it has those critical numbers or whatever, those key performance initiatives that those KPIs that we get judged on, how do we put those on the dashboard? And I would encourage cities to advocate for what you do. Recognize that there’s information that you can share. And then how do we get people to come live in our cities? At the end of the day, we want our schools to be successful. We want people to live in our environments that they are enjoying. And for the residents to understand the value of the visitor economy, I don’t want us to get into a situation of over-tourism that’s happening around the world. So how do we manage it with our current residents? In 2025, Carnival will be coming into Norfolk 52 weeks a year. So that’s 4000 3500 people on 35 people off every week. Think about the traffic. Think about the parking. Think about the restaurants. You know, I can’t get into my favorite restaurant anymore because of those travelers. We can show how those travelers create value for your own taxes. If every household saves $1,500 annually on the money that’s spent in our city, that’s a good thing, right?
Megha McSwain: It’s finding the balance of all of it and that’s a tough thing to do. You’ve definitely got your hands full with that. I have never been to Norfolk, but it sounds wonderful and you have definitely influenced me to get there as soon as possible to come and check it out.
Kurt Krause: Everything was talking about our festival which are the number one attribute that our travelers tell us about. And the number three right now is the airport. What traveler says the airport that’s why we got to go there.
Megha McSwain: That’s just icing on the cake that the airport is a bonus.
Kurt Krause: Isn’t it, though? It is very proud of it.
Megha McSwain: Well, thank you so much for sharing so much about your lovely area and how much there is to do there. And I would be very interested to talk again in the future and to see it sounds like a lot is changing rapidly, so I’d love to talk again and hear more about it in the future.
Kurt Krause: I’ve enjoyed episode 15. Let’s make it 20 and 25 and 30. And yeah, I am here for you.
Megha McSwain: Thank you so much, Kurt. To our listeners, please follow and subscribe to the TravelPreneur podcast. Stay tuned for future episodes and we appreciate reviews. Thanks so much, Kurt. Take care.
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