Mount Vernon, George Washington’s historic estate, is banking on its newly renovated complex and tantalizing exhibits including the Founding Father’s dentures to draw more visitors this season.
The tourist destination along the Potomac River is trying to recover after being hit hard by the September 11 terrorist attacks, which resulted in canceled school trips and more travelers staying at home this season.
Mount Vernon, where out-of-state residents make up about 85 percent of the annual attendance, is now making a big push to attract visitors from the Washington region.
“We’ve redirected our efforts from a national to local audience,” said James Rees, executive director at Mount Vernon, which is owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
Last month, visitation was down by 41 percent, when 75,354 persons came to Mount Vernon, compared with 128,457 in October 2000. Officials estimate at that rate, Mount Vernon can expect to lose about $2 million in revenue by the end of the year.
Officials are hoping Mount Vernon’s $13 million renovation and the opening of new displays and exhibits will bring in a crowd of old and new visitors from the area.
Washington’s false teeth, carved from cow teeth and elephant ivory, went on display at the George Washington Museum for the first time beginning Nov. 1. They will be on view until Washington’s birthday, Feb. 22.
The former president’s house is open for tours as usual, but Mount Vernon is also allowing the public to visit the third floor. Usually the cramped third floor, which Martha Washington retired to after her husband’s death, is closed to visitors except in December.
After several construction delays, the Mount Vernon Inn Complex opened just a month after the terrorist attacks. It includes the expanded Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant, a 200-seat auditorium, a new food-court pavilion with indoor seating and an expanded gift shop.
The main gift shop has been expanded to more than twice its former size. The 6,600-square-foot store offers everything from postcards, Colonial-style toys and cider to books, Christmas tree ornaments and crystal.
Mount Vernon, which does not get any government funding, relies on admission fees and retail sales, including purchases from the gift shop, museum store and seasonal kiosks, for the bulk of its operating budget.
Retail sales have suffered because of the drop in visitors.
For instance, September retail sales at the gift shop and the museum store were down about 34 percent compared with sales in September 2000.
“When attendance is off, retail is off,” said Julia A. Mosley, director of retail at Mount Vernon.
Since 1997, Mount Vernon has had more than 1 million visitors each year peaking at a little more than 1.1 million in 1999. But this year, Mount Vernon may just barely hit the 1 million mark. Attendance through the end of October totaled 935,506.
Mount Vernon is among several tourist attractions in and around the city that are attempting to increase the number of visitors and reverse the drop in revenue.
The Smithsonian Institution, which includes several museums in the District, has had a steep drop in attendance since September 11. In October, attendance was down 44 percent and retail sales were down 36 percent.
But it’s not all bad news for tourist destinations.
Colonial Williamsburg, located about 150 miles from Washington, is back to the same number of visitors it had a year ago. Even in the two weeks immediately following the attacks, when Mount Vernon had a 52 percent decrease in visitors, Colonial Williamsburg had just a 25 percent drop in attendance.
“We are busy,” said Carol Godwin, public relations manager at Colonial Williamsburg, which consists of five hotels, 11 restaurants and three golf courses. “We are very pleased and fortunate to be able to say that.”
Despite the bleak attendance these past several weeks, Mount Vernon officials are optimistic.
Later this month, Mount Vernon is holding an event for local educators to reassure them that Mount Vernon is still a safe place to bring their classes for field trips. Officials, who expect as many as 500 people from the area, hope this event will help change their minds, especially by spring the busiest time of year for Mount Vernon.
“I have a sense of confidence that we will bounce back,” Mr. Rees said. “When people finally get cabin fever, we’re just the place people will want to go.”