In 1991, I arrived for the first time into Virginia’s Blue Ridge. My father had been transferred to the Roanoke-Salem area, and once again my family packed everything up and moved. This time would be different though. I was entering my sophomore year in high school and this is where I would finish up my childhood years and, although I didn’t know it at the time, where I would also attend undergrad. Even after graduating from college, I remained nearby, living in adjacent Washington, DC. So, for a very significant portion of my life, the great Commonwealth of Virginia has played a starring role. Perhaps it’s this familiarity and proximity that explains why I very rarely visit the state as a tourist. In the last month I have explored various spots around Virginia through the eyes not of a local, but a tourist and for me the results have been eye opening. I was reacquainted with everything I love about Virginia and, more importantly, remembered why it’s been so important to me over the years. This is not a post about what to see and do, which restaurants to patronize or how to spend your time exploring the state. No, today instead I want to write about the state as a whole, what makes it so remarkable and the acceptance that I have almost always felt there.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the “Virginia is for Lovers” marketing campaign. What started innocently enough has become one of the most recognizable slogans in the country and, I think, defined how the state sees itself in many ways. A local ad agency in Richmond was tasked with putting together an ad for a bridal magazine. Originally, the idea was to have separate slogans like “Virginia is for history lovers,” and “Virginia is for mountain lovers,” but it wasn’t too long before everyone realized that dropping the qualifiers was key. Since then it has shaped much of how the state portrays itself to the world and I think that the effects have been astounding.
Just as no one is perfect, no state is perfect and of course Virginia has had its fair share of issues over the years. But I’m in the unique position of having lived in 12 states over the last 43 years and being able to compare and contrast what those experiences have been like. Virginia is also unique, for so many different reasons and it’s for those that I think it succeeds where others may fail. Virginia spans an incredible spanse of land, from the ocean to the mountains along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. To drive across its full length would take around nine hours or more and along the way you’d see everything from the first English settlement in the New World to incredible wine country and world class universities, vibrant cities, the Blue Ridge Mountains and spots so remote you’d question the logic of your GPS. It’s thanks to this incredible diversity that Love really is the perfect slogan for the state. It encapsulates the need to work together, to accept one another in order to succeed. That love is also felt by almost everyone who calls it home; a deep pride for the many divergent qualities that make it such an interesting place to live or visit.
The latest incarnation of this is seen almost everywhere you go in the state, the LOVEworks program. The LOVEworks project encourages local communities to come up with their own unique take on the LOVE sign and so far there are more than 160 around the state. I love this for so many different reasons but especially because in a time of increasing negativity it’s a good reminder that most people everywhere are basically good hearted folks. I had the opportunity to interview the CEO of Virginia Tourism for my podcast and she said that the project was meant to demonstrate the acceptance felt throughout the state, no matter who you are, where you come from or any other reason. Having had nearly 30 years of experience with the state, I know she’s right. I know I’ve never felt anything else but welcome in Virginia and it’s probably why I still consider it my de facto home, although I haven’t had an address in the state for many years. It was in Virginia where I morphed from a child to an adult, where I came out of the closet, where all of my dearest friends in the world live and, ultimately, where my heart lies. It’s an undeniably special place and these slogans and art projects are just the physical manifestations of its beautiful peculiarity.
Marketing a state to would-be tourists is a strange thing. Destinations have to convince tourists that they’re so unique and different that they warrant a trip above all other places in the world. If you stop and think about it, that’s a fairly daunting proposition, especially since most places really aren’t as special as they try to seem. What Virginia has done is different though, rather than tout a single beach or a single city, they instead share the general feeling one has when spending time in the Commonwealth. The peace, the ease, the warmth, the hospitality – these are all difficult to put into a flashy commercial, they’re ethereal constructs that one has to experience to understand. I think, ultimately, that’s why the “Virginia is for Lovers” campaign has persisted all of these years, through very bad as well as very good times. It references those feelings in a way that is unique, it strikes the chord that needs to be struck and in four simple words forcefully shares what the state is all about.
I realize that not many people spend as much time thinking about tourism marketing slogans as I do, but for me this was personal. This was about my hometown, my childhood, my college years, my young adulthood and my emergence into the man that I am today. Virginia was the bedrock for most of that, and spending time touring the state, exploring what has always made it great along with how it’s changed brought these emotions to the top in a way I never thought possible. This was so much more than an assignment for me, this was a transformative experience and one that I think I needed right now. So, yes, I think everyone should consider a trip to Virginia, but not for the reasons one might think. Yes, you can go and have an incredible trip, but it’s more than visiting a museum or going for a hike in the mountains. Go and feel for yourself what this love is all about, see if you think I’m right and whether or not you walk away with the same sense of welcome that I have. Or, just go and have a nice vacation, that’s a good reason too.
Check out this map of every LOVEworks installation so you can find them on your next trip and be sure to share photos of them with me!