In 1969, the Virginia Travel Corporation adopted the motto “Virginia is for Lovers” in a push to attract a new generation of visitors.

Then known as the Virginia State Travel Service, the Commonwealth’s tourism agency hoped the advertising slogan would appeal in particular to young consumers at a time when the peace-and-love mindset of the hippie movement was becoming integrated into mainstream culture, says Virginia’s official tourism website.

Induction into the Madison Avenue Hall of Fame a decade ago cemented the branding effort’s success.

Now, 50 years after its inception, the slogan is still proving versatile as it is repurposed for a new marketing campaign intended to promote Virginia’s restaurant industry.

In partnership with the Virginia Travel Corporation, the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association (VRLTA) launched its “Virginia is for Restaurant Lovers” campaign with a three-day, four-city rollout in early October that started in Richmond and included a stop at Glory Days Grill in Falls Church on Oct. 3.

“Really, it’s to celebrate the restaurant industry, so hopefully, that resonates with consumers,” VRLTA president Eric Terry said of the campaign. “We’ve got a lot of good materials and information on the restaurant industry, and so hopefully, that’s a lot of what people take away from it: celebrate restaurants.”

Restaurants are the ninth-largest industry in Virginia, which has over 15,000 eating and drinking establishments that collectively generate an estimated $18.1 billion in annual sales and employ over 378,000 people, according to the National Restaurant Association, a business organization that represents the industry countrywide.

Food service jobs account for 9 percent of Virginia’s total employment with the potential to expand to 10 percent by 2029, since the National Restaurant Association projects that the industry will bring an additional 38,000 jobs to the state over the next 10 years.

With its “Virginia is for Restaurant Lovers” campaign, the VRLTA wants to raise awareness of the critical role that restaurants play in the state’s economy and local communities, while also providing resources on workforce development, events, and legislation to industry members.

Founded in 1993, the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association serves as an umbrella trade organization for the Commonwealth’s restaurant, hotel and motel, and travel industries, offering networking and marketing support and promoting the interests of its 1,500 members in the hospitality and tourism fields.

The Virginia Tourism Corporation agreed to lend the marketing brand that it has managed for 50 years to the VRLTA in recognition of how integral a vibrant culinary scene is to making the state attractive to both residents and visitors.

“Virginia is a premier culinary destination, boasting award-winning chefs and restaurants from coast to cliff,” VTC president and CEO Rita McClenny said. “…Restaurants range from cozy bistros to sprawling food halls, and offer a variety of cuisines that satisfy every palate. We invite travelers to come to Virginia and experience all of our culinary delights.”

The restaurant industry is a major source of revenue for Virginia’s economy.

According to the National Restaurant Association, every dollar spent at table service businesses contributes $1.78 to the state economy, and every dollar spent at limited-service restaurants brings in $1.59.

On average in the U.S. as well as Virginia, about 30 percent of the money spent in restaurants comes from out-of-state visitors compared to 70 percent from residents, though the proportion can vary in tourism-heavy locations like Las Vegas, Nev., according to Visit Fairfax president and CEO Barry Biggar.

Funded by a portion of the county’s transient occupancy or hotel tax, Visit Fairfax was created in July 2004 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting tourism in Fairfax County.

In addition to listing eating and drinking establishments in the county, including wineries and breweries, Visit Fairfax provides recipes from local restauranteurs and information on special deals or promotions.

“From a tourism perspective, restaurants are so vital to the experience that visitors have,” Biggar said. “Whenever there’s an opportunity to tell visitors and residents about the amazing offers we have in dining and culinary expertise, we like to talk about it.”

While the campaign aims to encourage customers to frequent restaurants with special events that will be held throughout 2020, the initial phase of “Virginia is for Restaurant Lovers” is geared primarily toward members of the industry and media.

Along with background on state’s restaurant industry and the brand, the “Virginia is for Restaurant Lovers” campaign website at virginiaisforrestaurantlovers.com features information on workforce development, community engagement, and the VRLTA’s stance on relevant legislative issues, ranging from recycling and alcohol regulations to taxes and labor concerns.

“Even slight policy changes can have a big impact,” National Restaurant Association vice president of state and local affairs Mike Whatley said, noting that the average profit margin for restaurants across the country is 5 to 7 percent.

Whatley and Terry of the VRLTA see a bright future for the restaurant industry in Fairfax County, pointing to booming mixed-use development in areas like Tysons and the Mosaic District in Merrifield.

However, they argue that growth could be hampered by economic or legislative changes that can affect businesses on an individual level, such as rent increases, or industrywide, as with varying food prices caused by international trade conflicts.

The VRLTA opposes any state efforts to adopt a minimum wage higher than required by the federal government as well as proposals that eliminate tipping, though the association says tip credit should match any minimum wage increases.

Virginia has maintained a $7.25 minimum wage since the Congress set that as the federal rate in 2009. Two separate General Assembly bills that would have raised the state minimum wage to $11.25 by 2022 or $15 by 2021 both failed during the 2019 session.

In Virginia, tipped workers receive $2.13 an hour. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires that employers pay more only if tips do not make up the difference to the minimum wage.

About 70 percent of the employees in a full-service restaurant are paid through the tip credit system, according to Terry.

Whatley says restaurant worker wages generally range from $19 to $25 an hour when tips are combined with hourly pay.

“The tipping system, as it’s currently constructed, is a system that works really well. It works well for employees,” Whatley said. “…Customers like the tipping system, and it also works well for restaurant operators, because it allows us to keep labor costs in check.”

The anti-poverty nonprofit group Oxfam ranked Virginia as the worst state for workers in the U.S. in its Best States to Work Index published on Aug. 22, ranking the Commonwealth last for its wage policies, 49th for worker protections, and 48th for labor-organizing rights.

Advocates for eliminating tip credit argue that the existing system leaves employees susceptible to wage theft by employers who do not adequately compensate them when tips fall short, creates financial uncertainty as an individual’s income fluctuates depending on business and the whims of customers, and feeds an economic gap between front-line workers and those in the kitchen, who do not get tips to supplement their hourly pay.

That at least was the rationale behind Initiative 77, a Washington, D.C., ballot measure led by the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Center United last year, according to a June 16, 2018 report by The Washington Post.

Voters approved the initiative, which would have phased out sub-minimum wages and required all businesses to pay at least $15 an hour by July 2025, but the D.C. Council passed legislation repealing the initiative last October, just four months after residents voted.

UNITE HERE Local 25, which represents hotel and hospitality workers in the D.C. metropolitan area, has not adopted an official position on the “Virginia is for Restaurant Lovers” campaign yet, but political director Samuel Epps says the union would be concerned by any move that infringes on workers’ rights to fight for improved pay.

“We believe that workers should be paid a living wage, and we will support workers who look for an increase in wages and benefits,” Epps said. “…We’re tracking [the campaign] and working with some our allies on it, but today, we do not have a position on it.”

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