Remarks given by Colonial Williamsburg President & CEO, Mitchell Reiss, at the Williamsburg Lodge on June 27, 2018.
Good morning, everyone. I want to welcome my colleagues at the Foundation, our wonderful volunteers, community members and donors, City Council officials, and a member of our Board of Trustees who is with us this morning, Joe Montgomery.
A year ago, I asked you to join me here, in this very room, so that I could share with you some important information about the serious state of the Foundation’s finances. I shared the threat they posed to our ability to continue operating as a business, and as the country’s biggest and best living history museum.
It wasn’t an easy message to deliver, or to hear. But I thought you deserved the facts. You needed them, if you were to understand what we were doing as an organization, and why.
Then I shared with you our restructuring plan. It was aggressive, and it included a lot of hard decisions, some of them painful. It was a difficult time. But this carefully considered plan, I knew, was our best chance to return to financial stability.
That’s essential, of course. But as I said then, financial stability was, and still is, only a means to a greater, more noble, end. Namely, ensuring that Colonial Williamsburg remains relevant, and can continue to share America’s enduring story.
Today I want to give you a progress report on where we stand. I will provide a copy of these remarks in an email to the Foundation after this meeting, and in the next few days and weeks I plan to meet with you in small groups for fuller discussions, and take any questions you may have then.
So … How are things going?
I am very pleased, and proud, to tell you that the restructuring plan is working. Thanks to your hard work and dedication, and the hard work and dedication of those across the Foundation who could not be here this morning, we are not only meeting our goals, we are actually starting to exceed them.
We are on the way to saving this Foundation.
Let me share with you just a bit of what we have accomplished over the last year. And I want to organize these accomplishments according to the four values that we adopted last year as an organization. Because these values are not just words. These are values that represent who we are as a Foundation, as well as who we want to be. And we’ve taken them to heart.
Our first value is courage. We had the courage, first and foremost, to change.
Change is always difficult – especially for a 90-year-old organization that exists to promote history and preserve an important legacy. But we had the courage to admit that we needed to make significant changes, and then to implement those changes. Without courage, none of what we’ve accomplished this past year would have been possible.
And it’s not only CW employees who have demonstrated courage. So have our passionate donors. Of all the uncertainties with the restructuring plan, the biggest one for me was whether our donors would continue to stand by us. They, too, have demonstrated a kind of courage by continuing to support us financially. Last year, we set fund-raising records in our annual Colonial Williamsburg Fund and in Planned Giving. We have the courage and conviction of our donors to thank for that – along with the hard work of our fundraising team, who boldly made our case for supporting this vital American institution.
We had the courage to break ground on the Art Museums expansion as well. At such an uncertain time, the easy thing would have been to shelve this audacious project for a while. But we believed that this is a smart investment that will not only enhance our two world class museums, but also attract more visitors to come and enjoy the museum experience. Our donors believed in it, too. Now, together, we are all looking forward to the grand opening of this new museum, which will do so much to expand our ability to share new American stories with our guests – and even make it possible, by the way, for them to find it.
Our second value is inclusion. Everyone is welcome at our table.
From our senior management, to our supervisors and directors and frontline staff – this is a more diverse Foundation today than at any time in our history. That goes for membership on our Board of Trustees, too.
We have welcomed new members to the Compass Team, which represents all divisions of the Foundation and reflects an even more representative mix of ages, genders and races.
Community partnerships and dialogues about diversity issues are under way, too, under the leadership of Sharon Dorsey in Human Resources and Stephen Seals in the Historic Area.
Diversity: it’s an issue where numbers matter. But it also transcends them – especially when it comes to the history and the programming we share with our guests.
At the Art Museums, for example, the recent exhibition, A Century of African American Quilts, was extremely popular, drawing an especially large numbers of guests from the African American community. An exhibition on Navajo Weaving opens this summer, and African American Folk Art is on the drawing board for a future installation.
Across the street in the Historic Area, guests encounter Native American delegations and culture as never before. They can experience the story Faith, Hope and Love, which invites guests to imagine what it costs to pursue love and freedom in a slave society.
And the cast of Resolved: An American Experiment, defies preconceptions by telling the stories of America’s Founders as well as its many disenfranchised – often, in the voices of unexpectedly diverse cast members.
We’ve brought the story and the Barber Shop of Caesar Hope to DoG Street, and we’re featuring candid conversations now between Young Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved manservant, Jupiter. Aggy of Turkey Island is now a Nation Builder – as are both the younger and elder versions of the Reverend Gowan Pamphlet.
These are just examples … Above all, we are committed to showcasing a diversity of American stories throughout the year, not just for one month. We’re reaching out to new audiences. That includes people of color, younger audiences, LGBT audiences, international audiences. And of course, the military. To date, more than 113,000 military and their families have visited the Liberty Lounge.
Our third value is relevance.
Relevance is a major reason why our year-over-year visitation numbers were up in 2016 and 2017.
I want to say that again. Visitation was up. For two years in a row – and it was up again in the first quarter of this year.
And you did it – contrary to declining visitation to historic sites in Virginia and across the Nation. All of you, in your daily work, are reaching out and connecting with new guests in meaningful ways, ways that delight. I want to give a special shout out here to the Foundation’s Marketing Team, who have helped increase our visitation numbers despite having fewer marketing dollars than in years past.
I spoke just a moment ago about the diversity of stories we are sharing – this, I believe, has everything to do with the relevance of our message, which is resonating with the audiences we want to reach.
Additionally, and more than ever, we’re focused on guest experiences that are more about doing, less about just talking:
Ax throwing. The Musket Range. Running the Fire Engine. Resolved. Patriots at Play. Escape the King. Halloween. Hospitality’s Kids Club, and this summer, our first Summer History Camps.
These are memories that will stay with our visitors for a lifetime. And, we hope and believe, will bring them back for more.
At the same time, we’ve expanded our commitment to the Teacher Institute, as promised last year. We are so grateful to the donors who make this possible every year – and we look forward to doing even more.
Our fourth and final value is craftsmanship. Over the last year or two we have focused on providing you with the support you need to flourish here professionally and hone your craft, whatever it may be.
For our coach and livestock team, this has included a broad range of formal trainings and certifications, from advanced carriage driving to animal breeding and horse riding instruction.
For the interpretive corps, it’s meant a dedicated effort in partnership with the National Association for Interpretation. As of May 9, 308 interpreters had completed their training and earned NAI certification.
There’s much to be said about craftsmanship in Hospitality as well – where, as you know, the Williamsburg Inn won five Diamonds from AAA this past year, and that coveted Fifth Star from Forbes. These are extraordinary accomplishments, based on improving our service and enhancing the guest experience.
We’ve gotten rave reviews for the renovation of the Golden Horseshoe golf courses. And our Weddings and Conference bookings are up, thanks to the tireless work of our Marketing team and those providing exceptional experiences to every group who comes here.
Our Human Resources team is also working hard to make sure that all of our employees have the support needed to succeed here.
This year – in response to your feedback – we added a Roth 401(k) to your benefits options, as well as a 529 plan so you can save for your children’s education. HR is also launching a “Spot Bonus” Program to recognize outstanding accomplishments.
They are providing leadership development training for team leaders, foremen, supervisors, managers and directors. An enhanced Employee Recognition Program is coming. And a third Employee Engagement Survey is in the works as well. Our last two employee surveys, in 2014 and 2016, provided a way for us to discover the culture you said you desired. This years’ survey will enable you to identify what further actions we must take to further develop the culture we all desire. Your participation will be enormously important.
So please — stay tuned for these initiatives, and more information about them, in the coming days and weeks.
Again, I believe we have enjoyed our recent success because we are living our values. It’s the best pathway to success for CW and all of us. The last twelve months have proven that.
Colonial Williamsburg is still a work in progress. For an organization this complex – culturally, financially, and otherwise – there isn’t an easy fix. But we’re starting to make it work. And people are coming. The word is getting out. You are making a real difference.
So what comes next? Let me state first what is not going to happen.
There are no plans for layoffs or reductions in force.
I said this time last year that we intended to restructure the Foundation one time, and one time only. And I am very happy today to say, again, that there are no plans for layoffs or reductions in force.
But like I said– we are a work in progress. All this good news does not mean that we can relax or become complacent. While we have made progress in the last twelve months, we still have a ways to go to reach financial stability.
The largest challenge remains the debt – the hundreds of millions of dollars we borrowed from lenders years ago, and is coming due soon.
You may recall, this was the slide I showed you last year.
Members of our Board with expertise in this area have been working diligently over the past few months to renegotiate the terms of the debt so that it is less of an annual burden on the Foundation — in much the same way that you might renegotiate your home mortgage to reduce your monthly payments.
Paying down our debt remains one of our biggest challenges – but once we refinance, this becomes more manageable, because our annual payments will be substantially lower.
When I explained all this to a colleague recently, they said, “Wow, this is a working Board.” That is exactly right. And it’s worth noting that every one of our Trustees is a volunteer. These leaders in their fields serve on our Board, and do this work for free, on their own time and at their own expense, because they care so much about this Foundation, its mission, and you.
The Board’s goal, and ours, is to operate Colonial Williamsburg’s commercial businesses profitably – our hotels, restaurants, golf and the spa – so that revenue from these sources can pay their operating expenses and our debt to the lenders.
Our business partnerships with our four outside vendors are bringing us closer to this goal.
Ultimately, we need to run all of our businesses profitably so that they support our core mission – and so that we no longer must take money from our endowment to subsidize them.
We want to start re-growing our endowment, and ensure that it only supports our history and educational programming.
Can we do this? The answer is “Yes.” As of today, we are on track to make significant progress towards this goal.
In 2014, the year I started here, we withdrew $94M from our endowment to pay our debt and all of our annual bills. $94M — that amounted to more than 12% of our endowment.
To put this in perspective, standard practice among healthy nonprofits, like the College of William & Mary, is to take just 5% from their endowments every year.
But over the years at Colonial Williamsburg, we had lived well beyond our means and borrowed far more money from the endowment than was healthy. As we all know, it was also unsustainable. Absent a serious course correction, we were headed for mission failure. Not in a few decades, but within the next 4-5 years.
Last year, however – thanks to the changes we made together, as an organization — we were able to take out far less than in years past. In 2017 we withdrew a total of $68M from the endowment.
And this year, 2018, we are on track to withdraw even less — $58M — from the endowment. Or approximately 8%.
$94M down to $58M — in the span of just four years, we’ll have reduced what we’re taking from the endowment by $36M.
This is a remarkable accomplishment, and remarkable progress.
But our destination is even more ambitious. We need to get our annual withdrawal from the endowment all the way down to 5%. Because 5% would allow us to support all of our history and educational programming, while allowing the endowment to grow at the same time.
That goal still lies ahead of us. We still have a ways to go.
But today, I wanted to share with you this encouraging news. I know you may not see or feel the evidence of this difference in your work every day. But I believe we have started to turn a corner and, in the near distance, we can see a better future.
I also wanted to take a moment to say how much I appreciate the exceptional work you are all doing, despite the challenges I know you have faced. And that goes not only for those working on the front lines with our guests, but for the hundreds of dedicated people working behind the scenes each day.
I’d like to end this morning by sharing two stories with you. The first one is a collective story of resilience. This past year in the Historic Area, a year of stress and some uncertainty, the team there achieved an overall guest satisfaction rating of 94%. A remarkable testament to their professionalism and dedication to our mission. Congratulations.
The second story comes from Hospitality.
After we won the Fifth Star at the Inn, we held a party with the team there who had worked so hard to earn this honor. At the end of the celebration, one of our housekeepers approached me and unwrapped her Forbes Fifth Star lapel pin. It did not look like the ones we had just handed out to everyone. She told me that this was the original Forbes Fifth Star lapel pin she had been given over 20 years ago. And she had been saving it ever since, hoping — that one day — she could proudly wear it again. And now she could.
She had faith in us. I have faith in her, and in all of you.
And so I want to thank you, on behalf of Elisabeth and myself, the Board, our donors, and all those across our Nation who care about this special place and what it means for America. Thank you for all that you have done, and continue to do, as one Foundation, for Colonial Williamsburg.
And thank you for coming this morning; I look forward to meeting with you in the days and weeks ahead. For now – please have a great day.