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The Alexandria City Council, on Tuesday night, unanimously approved Visit Alexandria’s grant application request to secure nearly $1 million in federal tourism recovery aid.

Virginia Tourism Corporation received $50 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds last October, and $990,000 has been set aside for marketing to improve the city’s hospitality sector.

The funds will be spent over the course of the next two fiscal years (FY 2023 and FY 2024), since the city’s ARPA allocation to Visit Alexandria will dry up when the current fiscal year wraps up at the end of June.

The pandemic hit the city’s tourism industry hard, and it’s estimated that a full recovery for hotels and business travel is several years away.

“This will provide critical support to our small business sector and will help support increases to the City’s consumption tax revenues (lodging, meals and sales) by way of tourism marketing,” City staff reported to Council.

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As the war in Ukraine drags on, Visit Alexandria has put together a roundup of how locals can help contribute to the Ukrainian people.

In neighboring Arlington, the county has already donated ballistic vests and firefighting gear. In Alexandria, local businesses are hosting events to raise funds for non-profits assisting Ukraine.

Some of those include:

  • HomeGrown Restaurant Group (Pork Barrel BBQ, Sweet Fire Donna’s, Tequila & Taco, Holy Cow, Whiskey & Oyster) and Port City Brewing Company are supporting José Andrés World Central Kitchen with a new offer: the full $10 purchase of a Beach Drive beer from Port City at a HomeGrown Restaurant Group will go to World Central Kitchen. HomeGrown Restaurant Group has also donated $10,000 to World Central Kitchen.
  • Hooray for Books! (1555 King Street) is donating 20% of proceeds from the sale of “Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine” to the UN World Food Programme.
  • Shop Made in VA (1121 King Street) has a curated selection of goods with 100% of the proceeds donated to World Central Kitchen.
  • Kyo Gallery (111 S Patrick Street) announced that all gallery profits from any art sold will be donated to UNICEF Ukraine and Ada Foundation.

Additionally, Lorien Hotel and Spa (1600 King Street) is partnering with Made in ALX artists for an exhibition featuring a one-hour performance by cellist Andrew Savoia. The $20 entry fee and a portion of all art purchases will go to the Ukrainian Crisis Fund via Care.org. The exhibition is scheduled for Thursday, April 28, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Tickets are available online.

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Hyatt Centric Old Town now has an option to spoil your pooch with its “Bark, it’s your Birthday!” package (courtesy of Nano Betts)

(updated at 4:45 p.m.) While more than half the hotels in Alexandria are pet-friendly, one hotel has added a package to go above and beyond for your furry friend.

The “Bark, it’s your Birthday!” package from Hyatt Centric Old Town Alexandria figuratively rolls out the red carpet for your pooch.

The package that comes at a price of $250 ensures Fido’s favorites are awaiting him at your hotel stay. Ahead of check-in, the hotel will call the dog parents and ask about all the pet’s tail-wagging favorites from treats to toys, and deck out the room with the assistance from local “bonetique” The Dog Park. Also included in that additional fee is a pet-friendly itinerary created by the hotel.

Visit Alexandria says that there are more than 2,000 pet-friendly hotel rooms in the city. And there’s plenty for owners to do once they do get to Alexandria with their best furry friend from pet-friendly patios, dog happy hours, pet salons and doggie gyms.

Alexandria is known for its pet-friendly accommodations. U.S. News and World Report lists the top four hotels in Alexandria for Fido as The Lorien Hotel & Spa, The Alexandrian Old Town Alexandria, Morrison House Autograph Collection and the Westin Old Town Alexandria. Hyatt was not included — Perhaps next year.

The U.S. News list includes hotels where pets stay for free by taking into account “amenities, reputation among professional travel experts, guest reviews and hotel class ratings,” according to its website.

Hotels nationwide are embracing amenities that cater to dogs. During the Covid pandemic, many people stuck at home adopted pets and many in the travel industry, eager to capture an increased demand, have leaned into making it easier for people to travel with pets.

“The pandemic created just the right recipe for an uptick in pet-travel,” a spokesperson for the Hyatt stated. “Starting with the puppy adoption boom during the initial weeks of lockdowns and the stay-at-home orders that followed, parting with a pet seemed more dreadful than ever. On top of that, COVID led to a decline in air-travel, the most difficult type of pet-travel, and an increase of more accommodating modes of transportation such as road trips.”

Hilton’s CEO said on an earnings call last year that he hoped the surge in pet ownership would help the hotel chain appeal to those would be customers through a partnership it announced with Mars Petcare in an effort to make its hotels more pet friendly, according to the Washington Business Journal.

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The cherry blossoms are an annual regional highlight, and Visit Alexandria has announced a suite of new and returning events around the city to experience the season.

Guidance on exploring during cherry blossom season was a little more tepid last year owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, but such concerns were notably absent from the this year’s announcement and downward-trending case counts.

Visit Alexandria recommends biking or boating for seeing the cherry blossoms.

Unlimited Biking at 421 King Street has cherry blossom packages running from March 20 to April 12, with options for $15 rentals or to join a $44 guided tour.

“Pedal from Unlimited Biking: Old Town Alexandria along the Potomac River to the famous cherry blossoms of Washington DC with Unlimited Biking’s bike rental package that provides you with all that you need for your journey — maps, helmets, bike bags and locks. Hybrid bikes, road bikes, eBikes, kids bikes and kids attachments are available,” Visit Alexandria said.

The guided tours start and end at 998 Maine Avenue SW. Visit Alexandria said the tours are two hours long and run multiple times during the day.

Alternatively, Pedego Electric Bikes (210 North Lee Street) has tours from Old Town up into D.C.

The tour season runs from March 19-April 17, with tours leaving at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on weekends and tours only availably by appointment on weekdays. Tickets are $69 per bike.

“Join a three-hour guided tour from Old Town Alexandria to the cherry blossoms, including a ride through the blossoms around East Potomac Park,” Visit Alexandria said. The views of the blossoms from a Pedego are fantastic, and you don’t have to fight traffic or find a place to park downtown. Tours will run as long as there are blooms on the cherry blossom trees.”

The release said tours can be booked by calling 571-312-5168 or emailing [email protected]

By boat, Visit Alexandria said the best options are the Water Taxi or a monuments cruise.

The Water Taxi runs from the Wharf to Old Town — with other stops at National Harbor and Georgetown — with departures starting at noon and running about 25 minutes. Trips are $23 one-way or $39 round-trip. Trips depart from the Alexandria Marina at 1 Cameron Street.

“From the dock at The Wharf, it is a 10-minute walk to the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin,” the release said. “The water taxi docks at the Transit Pier, 950 Wharf Street SW, near the Tidal Basin, the National Mall, Hains Point and a Capital Bikeshare station.”

There is also the Washington Monuments Cruise to the Cherry Blossoms, which starts March 19. It also departs from the Alexandria Marina, with $26 one-way tickets and $42 round-trip tickets. The cruise is 45 minutes and ends in Georgetown.

The release also included information on some local food and drink offerings themed around cherry blossoms:

  • Common Plate Hospitality’s Cherry Blossom Cocktails and Murals at Augie’s Beer Garden (1106 King Street) and Mason Social (728 N. Henry Street) — Both restaurants have custom cherry blossom-themed items on the menu: a black cherry Bellini with gold glitter and a cherry pie old fashioned. Items are available through March 31.
  • Special cherry blossom blend at Turkish Coffee Lady (1001 King Street) — local coffee shop Turkish Coffee Lady has a special cherry blossom-themed coffee presentation available through April 30.
  • Winter in Tokyo menu at Captain Gregory’s (804 N. Henry Street) — The speakeasy will have Japanese gin, whiskey and vodka along with sake cocktails and menu items featuring Japanese-inspired dishes. The Winter in Tokyo menu is available through March 31.
  • “The Blossom” cocktail at Lena’s Wood-fired Pizza & Tap (401 E. Braddock Road) — The pizza restaurant will have a new cherry blossom themed cocktail that’s a mix of Rhum Barbancourt, plum-rose syrup, Luxardo, lemon juice and a floating edible blossom. The cocktail will be available from March 1 through April 17.
  • Cherry blossom cider from Lost Boy Cider (317 Hooffs Run Drive) — Starting March 2, Lost Boy Cider will be producing a cherry blossom cider available in-house or from a few local grocery chains like Whole Foods.
  • Cherry blossom sangria from Alexandria Restaurant Partners — From March 15-April 15, various Alexandria Restaurant Partners’ locations will have a seasonal sangria with brut rosé, Blanc Vermouth, cherry juice and orange flower water.
  • Cherry blossom gelato at Dolci Gelati (107 N. Fairfax Street) — Dolci Gelati is bringing back a cherry blossom gelato in limited supply from March 20-April 20. The gelato is available in-person, for pickup and delivery.

A full list of local cherry blossom experiences is available at the Visit Alexandria website.

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Morning Notes

Alexandria teen shot to death in D.C. — “According to a news release from D.C. police, officers responded to reports of a shooting in the unit block of Chesapeake Street in Southeast D.C. around 8:09 p.m., where they located Francis suffering from multiple gunshot wounds in a parked car.” [Alex Times]

Alexandria Schools start ‘Test to Stay’ program — “The new program will allow some students to return to school following five days of quarantine under a variety of conditions.” [Alexandria Living]

8 new and must-do black history experiences in Alexandria — “From a self-taught mathematician who mapped out the nation’s capital to abolitionist sisters who partnered with Frederick Douglass to the first Black player in the NBA, African American changemakers have shaped the history of Alexandria, VA and the United States.” [Visit Alexandria]

BoomChicky, ALX Pizza join Bee Street Eats — “The Beeliner Diner is open for take-out and delivery with a limited menu — but while eager diners await a full opening, there are more treats to try.” [Alexandria Living]

New job: Government relations manager — “The Vision Council (TVC) seeks an individual to lead the association’s advocacy to state and federal policymakers on issues importance to the optical industry and our members.” [Indeed]

Today’s weather: “Occasional light rain. High 64F. Winds S at 10 to 20 mph. Chance of rain 70%… Considerable cloudiness. Occasional rain showers later at night. Low 62F. Winds SSW at 10 to 20 mph. Chance of rain 40%.” [Weather.com]

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Alexandria hotels are still hurting, but there may be some signs of relief on the horizon.

The ongoing battering of the hotel industry by Covid has been one of the biggest talking points in the budget so far: particularly because city leaders say it could lead to more tax pressure on the city’s residents.

Visit Alexandria COO Tom Kaiden said while recovery has been slow, some aspects of the hospitality industry could return to nearly pre-pandemic levels this year, while others will take longer to recover.

“There’s no question that a whole host of issues have impacted the sector,” Kaiden said. “the ongoing nature of the pandemic, the recent spike of omicron, the reduction in business travel, the supply chain and labor challenges, inflation — all of those are headwinds the sector has faced.”

Pre-pandemic, Kaiden said the occupancy numbers were tracking at record levels. Trajectories charted in late 2019 and early 2020 projected hitting record occupancy in summer 2020 — but that obviously didn’t happen. That spring, hotel occupancy dropped to 8%.

Kaiden said while the city saw a dramatic reduction in occupancy rates early in the pandemic, there have been some signs of recovery over the last year. The occupancy rate is back up to 53% compared to 34% this time last year.

“There’s national data that looks at the composition and forecasting what they think will happen,” Kaiden said. “We’ve been looking at data from Oxford Economics [that says] leisure will be back to normal in 2022 but business travel won’t recover until 2024. Long term view is business travel will recover but we’re still a few years away from that. This year we’re expecting business travel to be down 24%.”

Kaiden said that while people are ready to travel again, companies tend to be more reticent.

“Individuals seem ready to travel again, we’re seeing that in consumer confidence in the desire to travel,” Kaiden said. “They might not be wanting to travel in January, but they were still dreaming to travel when the immediate variant subsided. Individuals make that choice for themselves more freely. Employers are more risk-averse, more reticent, and are using tools like Zoom and hybrid meetings.”

While Kaiden said those are useful short-term strategies, the city is banking on in-person business travel eventually coming back. While the long-term effects of COVID on office space usage are unknown, Kaiden said in-person meetings have a value that can’t be fully replicated online.

Beyond COVID, one of the other major shake-ups in hospitality has been the rise of alternative lodging like Airbnb. The city started authorizing and collecting taxes from transient lodging in 2018, though that kind of lodging also took a hit from the pandemic. In terms of impact on local hotels, Kaiden said transient lodging doesn’t have as much of an effect in Alexandria as it might in other tourist destinations.

“We’ve seen Airbnb rise nationally but it is more of a long-term stay alternative, so their prevalence in markets like the DC metro… the impact is not as great here as it is in traditional mountain and beach destinations,” Kaiden said. “So yes, Airbnb is a factor, but less so here and honestly hotels are adapting their offerings and are essentially more nimble.”

In response to both Covid and transient lodging options like Airbnb, Kaiden said hotels are shifting to focus around guiding visitors around the locality as much as providing a room.

“Our hotels are very good at working with guests to guide the guest experience and make sure they get the most out of their stay,” Kaiden said. “At Visit Alexandria we work with them on a key city attractions package, which encourages people to get out in the community and explore museums. That level of personal service and the added benefit of the inclusion of attractions gives visitors a deeper, richer experience and enables them to get out into neighborhoods and discover the city in the way an unguided experience — like staying in an Airbnb style property — just isn’t as rich.”

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Visit Alexandria has announced new details for the next Alexandria Restaurant Week, scheduled for Jan. 21-30.

The week (give or take three days) is a twice-annual event in Alexandria where around 70 restaurants across the city offer $35 per-person dinners.

“Special menus are available in-person at all participating restaurants, many with heated outdoor dining available,” Visit Alexandria said in a press release. “Fifty restaurants will also offer to-go options in addition to in-person meals. The online menu book makes it easy to browse delicious selections from dozens of Alexandria eateries and enjoy special menus at some of Alexandria’s winterized dining destinations or from the comfort of your own home.”

Visit Alexandria highlighted BARCA Pier and Wine Bar as a new participant. The riverside restaurant opened in March and features Mediterranean dishes and drinks. Other new restaurants include Thai Signature, The Rub Chicken and Beer and St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub.

“Alexandria Restaurant Week showcases the inventiveness of local chefs in neighborhoods throughout the city, including Old Town, Del Ray, Carlyle and Eisenhower, and the West End,” Visit Alexandria said. “Guests will savor the flavors of Alexandria’s distinctive collection of eateries, from casual neighborhood favorites to elevated date night destinations and beyond.”

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A series of daily events starting later this week will have the dual benefit of helping out local businesses and Alexandrians looking to get some Christmas shopping done.

The ‘Shop Small Week’ started as a mostly digital event last year to help local businesses slammed by the pandemic. The retail events, put together by Visit Alexandria, start on Friday, Nov. 26, with “Plaid Friday” followed by a Small Business Saturday event on Nov. 27.

“Alexandria Shop Small Week kicks off with Plaid Friday,” Visit Alexandria said in a press release. “Nearly 50 independent shops are touting one-of-a-kind deals on designer and coveted merchandise, including home décor, chic fashion, gourmet food, classic toys and gifts for pets.”

On Saturday, Visit Alexandria said there will be live music on KinG street and discounts at various local boutiques in Old Town and Del Ray.

For both events, parking at the following garages in Old Town will be free:

  • Courthouse Square Parking Garage — 111 S. Pitt Street
  • Market Square Parking Garage — 108 N. Fairfax Street
  • USP Parking Garage — 220 N. Union Street
  • Thompson’s Alley Parking Garage — 10 Thompsons Alley

Through the following Thursday, there are daily discounts and events planned:

  • Museum Store Sunday (Nov. 28) — Visit Alexandria said there will be 20% discounts at Alexandria museum stores, discounts on select merchandise, and stocking stuffers available at the Alexandria Visitor Center.
  • Cyber Monday (Nov. 29) — Roughly 40 Alexandria stores are offering discounts, free gifts with purchase, and free shipping on Monday.
  • Giving Tuesday (Nov. 30) — Some Alexandria shops and restaurants will donate a percentage of purchases to Alexandria non-profits in partnership with the Old Town Business Association.
  • Giveaway Wednesday (Dec. 1) — Visit Alexandria will be sharing giveaway information for hotel stays, massages, and gift cards.
  • Moonlight Merriment (Dec. 2) — Giving up slightly on the weekday theme, Visit Alexandria said carolers and musicians will be serenading at local shopping and dining establishments in Old Town from 5-8 p.m. that evening.
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Alexandria’s recovery from the pandemic is going faster than expected, according to Visit Alexandria.

Alexandria’s tourism bureau, in its annual meeting last week, reported that consumption-based tax revenue for fiscal year 2021 came in at $59 million. That’s $6 million more than the initial forecast of $53 million, but well below the all-time high of $66 million in fiscal year 2019.

“So far, leisure travel has been the backbone of our recovery,” said Patricia Washington, president and CEO of Visit Alexandria. “But as we move into fall and winter, some return of business travel will be critical.”

Washington said that a number of initiatives kept businesses afloat, including the ALX Promise health accreditation program, the opening of the 100 block of King Street to pedestrian-only traffic, and the gradual return of public events.

In the meantime, Visit Alexandria focused advertising on the city’s dining, waterfront and historic tour experiences.

It also helps that Conde’ Nast has chosen the city as one of the best small cities in the country several years in a row, Washington said.

As for hotel occupancy, the bottom fell out of the market in April 2020, and Alexandria’s recovery has been gradual. Now occupancy is back to just over 50% for the first time since the pandemic began — a far cry from more than 80% occupancy in 2019.

“Clearly we still have a long way to go,” Washington said.

Alexandria lost 4% of its businesses during the pandemic, which Washington said is a testimony to the resilience of businesses, loyal customers and the responsiveness of city agencies.

The Virginia Tourism Corporation is also expecting a gradual recovery, anticipating an improvement of more than 20% in tourism in fiscal year 2022, but still more than 20% down from 2019 levels.

Visit Alexandria’s blog also achieved record annual page views, with 785,000 digital marketing impressions in FY21, an increase of more than 110%.

Last year, the bureau also created Shop Small Week to expand the momentum of Black Friday and Small Business Saturday into a full week.

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Morning Notes

Alexandria appoints flood mitigation manager — “Effective Oct. 11, Daniel Medina will serve as the Flood Action Alexandria program manager. The new position will include coordination across city departments on the flood mitigation program and manage the city’s stormwater capital project lineup.” [Patch]

McAuliffe, Youngkin unload in feisty final Virginia debate — “Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin bickered their way through the second and final debate of Virginia’s competitive governor’s race on Tuesday, trading attacks and accusations from the start of the hourlong meeting.” [Politico]

Taste of Old Town North is Thursday — “Don’t miss The Taste of Old Town North, September 30 at 4p.m. Great food, music and more at this free event happening at Montgomery Park.” [Twitter]

Here’s a list of great walks in Alexandria — “Known for its walkable lifestyle, Alexandria is a city best experienced on foot.” [Visit Alexandria]

Today’s weather — “Mostly sunny. High 73F. Winds N at 5 to 10 mph… A mostly clear sky. Low 52F. Winds light and variable.” [Weather.com]

New job: Pet sitter and dog walker — “Alexandria Pet Care seeks an experienced career pet expert to work with animals in their homes.” [Indeed]

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