ORANGE — The Montpelier Hunt Races have received $20,000 from the Virginia Tourism Corporation’s Recovery Marketing Leverage Program, designated to help local and regional tourism entities attract more visitors by leveraging limited local marketing dollars through a local match of the state grant funds.
According to Martha Strawther, executive director of the Montpelier Hunt Races, the race group will use the grant to introduce a series of partner events to create a festival weekend atmosphere in advance of next year’s races, scheduled Nov. 6.
“We are partnering with Orange County Tourism, The Inns at Montpelier, our local wineries, the Market at Grelen, Liberty Mills and the Gordonsville downtown to publicize events already in place on race weekend and creating new events,” Strawther said. “The goal is to initiate a weeklong festival around the races, so that out-of-town visitors will be encouraged to stay longer or come earlier.”
Preliminary plans include a number of special tasting events at local wineries, a concert in downtown Gordonsville the night before the races and promoting day-after events, such as a brunch at Grelen and the Liberty Mills corn maze.
“The Montpelier Hunt Races have been a beloved gathering for more than 85 years in Orange County that brings visitors from all over the United States to experience our history, heritage and hospitality,” said Orange County’s tourism manager, Lori Landes-Carter.
“This VTC Recovery grant will support the Steeplechase Foundation in new partnerships throughout the industry in our community to create a long weekend celebration. The Race Week Festival will showcase what makes Orange County an ideal road trip destination in Central Virginia and to encourage our visitors to stay some extra days to explore all that Orange County has to offer.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the tourism and hospitality industries in Virginia. As the commonwealth slowly reopens for business, VTC offered these grant funds as a first step to re-entry into the marketplace to spur economic activity and future travel across the state.
The Montpelier Hunt Races are the largest single-day event in Orange County and draw upwards of 18,000 visitors. Steeplechase horse races on the lawn of James Madison’s Montpelier are the main draw, complimented by tailgating, shopping, stick horse races, a hat contest and tours of the historic site. People come from all around Virginia and more than a dozen states to attend.
The coronavirus pandemic forced the Montpelier Steeplechase and Equestrian Foundation to cancel this year’s event for only the second time in its 86-year history. Since 1934, the only other time the races were canceled was in 1943, during World War II.
Tourism is one of the commonwealth’s largest economic engines, with visitors to Orange County spending more than $53 million in 2019, supporting 624 work opportunities and contributing $3.8 million in local and state tax revenue. The tourism and hospitality industries have been among the hardest-hit by the pandemic, experiencing decreased revenue and job loss, along with the temporary closure of many tourism-related businesses.
More than $1.9 million in matching grant funds were awarded to 161 local tourism initiatives through the VTC Recovery program. This funding cycle, local partners will provide more than $5.6 million in in-kind value to match the grants. The grants will ultimately impact 483 statewide tourism entities.
Virginia Tourism Corporation is the state agency charged with marketing the commonwealth as a premier travel and filmmaking destination. In 2019, visitors to Virginia spent $27 billion, which supported 237,000 work opportunities and contributed $1.8 billion in state and local taxes.