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Jack Berry reflects on 31 years leading Richmond Region Tourism

Jack Berry is shown speaking in 2006 at a conference.
Richmond Region Tourism
Jack Berry, as seen in 2006, speaking at a conference.

He has overseen the area’s explosive growth in hospitality.

Richmond Region Tourism President Jack Berry will retire later this year, after leading the organization for more than 30 years, overseeing record-setting growth.

VPM News Morning Edition Host Phil Liles recently spoke with Berry about his career and the transformation of Richmond’s tourism industry.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Phil Liles: Jack, you’ve been a champion of Richmond’s cultural and natural attractions for more than three decades. What was the state of tourism in the Richmond region earlier in your career, and how has it changed over the last three decades?

Jack Berry: You know, the No. 1 reason people travel is to see family and friends. Thirty years ago, our citizens were not very proud of the destination. Over the past 30 years, we’ve really just matured into a welcoming destination.

Back in ’88 … my job was conventions. The convention center was brand new with the Marriott that opened in 1984, and it was underperforming. My responsibility was to fill the convention center. And what happened was we sold out every single weekend at the old convention center, which justified the expansion of the Greater Richmond Convention Center — which was in 2003. Ever since then, we’ve become quite the destination.

Then Cleo Battle, who is the CEO of [Louisville Tourism in] Louisville, Kentucky — he was with me for 17 years. He started bringing in sporting groups. I may also give credit to the Strikers, because the Strikers have had the Jefferson Cup for over 40 years. And NASCAR has been here for over 70 years. So the original sports tourism — credit where it’s due — is NASCAR, Jeff Cup, as well as Frank Taylor, who used to bring in softball tournaments.

All that being said, it was meetings, conventions and sports tourism. That’s really what’s put us on the map, because we’re at record levels now. If anybody takes anything away from this conversation, we have 20,000 hotel rooms in the destination: Central Virginia. We sell out every weekend.

A headshot of Jack Berry
Richmond Regional Tourism
A headshot of Jack Berry

For the listening audience, if your child or grandchild gets engaged, book the rooms right away, because if you wait until two months out, you are not going to find the rooms. We are really on fire. But also what transformed the destination, too, of course, was the restaurants, and they’ve really put us on an international map.

What’s your favorite Richmond region tourist attraction?

We have over 80 attractions, from Kings Dominion down to the Tractor Museum down in Colonial Heights. So we’ve like, say, 80 children. So what would be your favorite child? I will never say which is my favorite child, because they’re all my favorite child.

I’m not going to point fingers, but if you think of other destinations, they do not have the quality of the museums, of the gardens, of the historical assets, the variety that we have and the accessibility and how easy it is to get to them. So we have a huge, wonderful product of 80 of these, and I don’t have a single one that’s my favorite.

Now that you’re retiring, what are your plans for your retirement days?

I’ve been outlining a book to write, and it’s just life lessons, and I’m going to just put them into a book for my kids. And then the other thing is I’ll still be involved because I oversee the contract of the management of the convention center and the food operations.

I’ll be still having my foot in the water for things like this, so I’m not going away.

The region sees close to 18 million visitors annually. Richmond Region Tourism EVP Katherine O’Donnell will succeed Berry beginning July 1.

Phil Liles is VPM's morning news host.
Kelley Libby is interim features editor at VPM News. She has worked in public radio in Virginia for more than a decade.