In the close-knit museum world, Pieter N. Roos is most known for his influence on Rhode Island's once quiet and unknown Newport Restoration Foundation. Over nearly two decades as executive director, he transformed the preservation group into a world-famous organization that draws scores of tourists to the picturesque city’s historic properties.
“When Pieter first took over, the public motivation to visit the mansions was very little,” said Evan Smith, president and CEO of Discover Newport. “Pieter changed the paradigm and turned it into one of the largest visitor sites in the country.”
The crown jewel of the Newport Restoration Foundation is tobacco heiress Doris Duke’s Rough Point mansion. Roos started the visitation program at Rough Point in 2000 and in 2016, said Smith, the site drew 22,000 visitors. As director on the board of Discover Newport for eight years, Roos also led the revitalization of Queen Anne Square, an urban green space in downtown Newport, complete with an installation by the celebrated artist Maya Lin.
But what most people wouldn’t know about Roos, 57, is that he’s keen on fencing.
“The sports people play tell you a lot about who they are, and fencing is a game of strategy,” said Smith. “And Pieter is a strategist—he parallels that to the sport. ‘How am I going to best make my approach?’ It’s very similar to how he thinks from a business standpoint.”
This July, after a 33-year-career in museums, Roos began his new job as executive director at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Conn., where Samuel Clemens lived and raised a family from 1874 to 1891, writing some of his most powerful works, including the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Preserving the legacy of a man who was a giant of writer, a humorist, a humanist, an inventor and a social commentator is a task that might have daunted even Colonel Sellers, the most optimistic among Twain’s characters. Then there's the fact that Roos’ predecessor, Cindy Lovell, also leaves behind a strong legacy. During her tenure, National Geographic named the house among the ten best historic homes in America.
To Roos, leading the museum, as he puts it delicately, “is a question of having somebody in charge who can bring a strategic finesse.”
Strategy is certainly going to be in demand, since the organization is preparing for potentially diminished federal and state grants and a changing philanthropic landscape. That won’t be the first of the museum’s financial challenges, however.
In June 2004, the museum assumed a mortgage note of $6.9 million in addition to construction lines of credit totaling $4 million to fund the construction of an $18.4 million, 33,000-square-foot visitors center that opened in 2003, according to Jennifer LaRue, the museum’s director of marketing. Around the same time, it faced a body blow from embezzlement.
“The embezzlement occurred from 2002 to 2010,” LaRue said. “The former employee was convicted in August 2011.”
But now, “the budget is balanced and we’re hitting our goals,” said Roos. “Most of those things are in the rearview mirror.”
Just a week into his job, Roos began exploring ways to collaborate with institutions in Hartford, including museums, universities and performing arts centers.
“Mark Twain’s life, his writing, and all of the things that were of interest to him were so rich and varied that we have great license to include many places of interest to potentially partner with,” he said.
Roos recalled visiting the Mark Twain house in the '70s with his mother and grandmother, whom he said claimed she had read all of Twain’s works in her teenage years.
“Like for so many other people, this house is a tiny part of my childhood,” he said. “It would have been funny if the tour guide had pointed at me and said, ‘One day you’re going to be executive director here!’”
According to the latest “Economic Impact of Travel in Connecticut” released March 2017 by the consulting firm Tourism Economics, travel generated $910 million in state and local taxes and $778 million in federal taxes in 2015. Traveler spending rose by $1.5 billion since the recession, 20 percent higher in 2015 compared to 2009.
The Mark Twain House & Museum is by far one of the biggest tourism draws in the state, with annual visitations for fiscal year 2016-2017 totaling 65,000. The travel website Trip Advisor ranks the Mark Twain Museum first on its list of things to do in Hartford, followed by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Elizabeth Park and Hartford Stage.
Statewide, shoreline activities and other traditional tourists draws are popular, “but we’re also seeing interest in under-the-radar towns and hidden gems,” said Randy Fiveash, director of Connecticut Office of Tourism. “More and more, consumers are looking for places new to them—and their social media followers—to share and enjoy.”
Connecticut’s statewide tourism marketing budget stands at $6.4 million for 2017, with paid media spend for the summer totaling approximately $1.5 million. Ninety percent of the target markets are out-of-state—New York, Boston, Springfield/Holyoke and Providence—with the remaining 10 percent in state, Fiveash said.
At least two measures show a boost in tourism. Hotel tax revenue rose from $104 million in 2013 to $117.8 million in 2016, Fiveash said, citing Connecticut Department of Revenue Services. And visits to the Connecticut Office of Tourism's website also climbed 64 percent from 2015 to 2016.
At the Mark Twain House & Museum, Roos is currently in the process of filling a new position in its marketing department that will focus on, among other initiatives, using social media to broaden its connection with people in-state and around the globe.
“International visitation is an important component of our overall attendance, and we attract visitors from more than 65 countries each year, in addition to drawing people from all fifty states,” he said. “That reach reflects Mark Twain’s continued relevance to people around the world and his long-standing appeal as one of the most recognizable, influential, and iconic Americans ever.”