Poplar Forest Builds on 200th Anniversary to Increase Visitation in a Challenging Economy

Strategy: Enhance Your Product, Focus on Customer Potential, Know Your Customer/Product, Leverage Anniversaries, Serve Local Community

Type of attraction: Museum/Historic Site

Summary: For the past 24 years, Poplar Forest has offered an opportunity to watch “preservation in progress.” Archeologists and restoration craftspeople have been working to restore the National Historic Landmark designed by Thomas Jefferson.

For the past 24 years, Poplar Forest has offered an opportunity to watch “preservation in progress.” Archeologists and restoration craftspeople have been working to restore the National Historic Landmark designed by Thomas Jefferson as his personal retreat in rural central Virginia.

 Despite the downturn in the economy, attendance at the historic presidential site showed a 50% increase in 2009 from the previous year, marking the highest annual visitation since the site opened to the public in 1986. Staff attributes the increase to several factors including special events and programs commemorating the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s first stay at Poplar Forest.

The anniversary offered public relations and programming opportunities that led to feature stories about Poplar Forest in the Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Southern Living, and in an Associated Press story.  In April 2009, the governor of Virginia was part of a ribbon cutting ceremony celebrating the completion of an extensive exterior restoration.  Other events included the annual July 4th celebration, an outdoor concert by the Richmond Symphony Orchestra and a new Thomas Jefferson Wine Festival.

The wine festival featured regional wines, local artists and food vendors and attracted 2,000 participants.  “The wine festival gave us an opportunity to create a new annual event to bring residents living within an hour’s drive back to Poplar Forest” explains Anna Bentson, director of public relations and marketing.  “People living in the region may have been to Poplar Forest 20 years ago when they came for a school tour, and we wanted to create something to bring them back. The wine festival was a fun event in a beautiful setting, but we still found ways to be true to our mission.  For example, we had an interpreter playing Thomas Jefferson talking to a modern wine maker.”

Bentson also credits a 2007 rebranding effort as helping the staff better understand who Poplar Forest’s audience is and what kinds of experiences would attract them to the site.   

For more information go to www.poplarforest.com.