A PEER ELSEWHERE
How other resort destinations are strategizing/reacting to the pandemic
Navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and abiding government directives on gathering and staying at home runs counter to the goals of resort areas, like the Eastern Sierra, whose economies rely on bringing in visitors. With a lack of visitors, local businesses and marketing entities like Mammoth Lakes Tourism have had to reorient and rethink strategies going forward.
MLT has diverted staff time and funding away from marketing and used available resources to set up a food bank for community members, although it continue to build out reopening framework and messaging for when they are given the all-clear sign.
On a county level, an economic recovery group has been put together to gauge business owner needs ahead of a potential reopening but nothing can really go ahead without directives at the state level.
So what’s happening in other tourist hubs? How have they reacted to the abrupt shutoff of a key revenue stream?
Blaine County, Idaho, home to Sun Valley, was hard hit by the new coronavirus. The area received national media attention for its high number of cases both within the county and from tourists who had visited the region’s ski slopes.
Mike McKenna, executive director of the Wood River Valley Chamber of Commerce, reported that they had to “pull the plug fast” in terms of shutting down. McKenna said that the state of Idaho, the area’s largest source of advertising funding, asked that they hold off on marketing for the time being. He expressed optimism from survey results that indicated people were more interested in coming to small town areas, with a caveat of protecting the area from being hit hard again.
“The consumer is gonna decide what happens here,” McKenna said. “We’re really gonna find out what people want and what they’re looking for.”
Sun Valley’s tourism agency, Visit Sun Valley, has kept up some of its marketing efforts, albeit with a slightly different spin.
According to Scott Fortner, Executive Director at Visit Sun Valley, the non-profit was doing things to “keep people dreaming”, while simultaneously working with the community and government agencies to build towards a reopening.
“We’re there trying to provide things for them to be inspired [by],” Fortner said of
the marketing efforts.
Fortner described two timelines that the Sun Valley community is working within: 1. the ability of the local community to be ready to welcome visitors and 2. the willingness on the part of visitors to travel to the area.
“We’re trying to react to the momentum as it builds or doesn’t build,” he said, “and dial things accordingly.”
In terms of re-orienting efforts to something like a food bank, Fortner reported that while Visit Sun Valley has been involved in information distribution and filling in those gaps, he deferred other activities to “a lot of non-profits that have already been established … all those things that were in place prior to this.”
In Jackson Hole, similar to Mammoth Lakes in its accessibility to national parks and ski slopes, local officials have had to grapple with the juxtaposition between Wyoming’s relatively low case numbers and the fear that opening the town up too soon could quickly overwhelm it. Local Chamber of Commerce Director Anna Olson reported that when things do come back online, they will be markedly different.
Olson reported that, given social distancing guidelines, the parks and resorts may have to operate with a quarter of the employees they once had.
Bend, Oregon provides similar parallels to Mammoth: a tourism economy that relies on recreation in the summer and a quality ski season in the winter.
Kevney Dugan, CEO of Visit Bend, told The Sheet how the organization operated as the pandemic unfolded, “We were probably not far off from other tourism departments. We cut all paid advertising, cut two employees [out of seven] with the intent to bring them back on, and everyone took between a 10-20% pay cut.”
Visit Bend has an annual payroll of roughly $500,000 according to Dugan and that has been reduced by 25-30% during COVID-19.
“We cancelled all outbound spending and restricted everything to essential business functions. We acted early with the intent of saving as much cash as we could.”
Visit Bend is funded similarly to Mammoth Lakes Tourism. Bend has a Transient Rental Tax (Basically a TOT). Bend’s TRT draws in $10 million and Visit Bend is allocated 31% of this as part of their contractual agreement. That means Visit Bend has roughly $3 million of annual revenue. Bend’s population is about 100,000. “Right now we are just keeping the lights on per se,” said Dugan.
If things continue to flounder, Visit Bend does have a $300,000 rainy day fund. This fund was started in 2017 and allocated 5% of TRT revenue (roughly $100,000-150,000 a year) to this fund.
On what he learned, Dugan told The Sheet, “At first people thought we were overreacting. Being as conservative as we were served us well. It allowed us to save a little bit of cash.”
Post Covid-19, Visit Bend plans to roll out a marketing campaign aimed at stimulating local business, “We are going to try and encourage people to keep their spending local. A lot of locals haven’t tried all the amenities. We want to start an ‘economic community stabilization campaign,’” said Dugan.
Dugan finished off the conversation by telling The Sheet, “These are unprecedented times. We have a huge opportunity to help our community. Adaptability, in this environment, is key.”
Layoffs in the industry are widespread: In Spokane, Washington, the local tourism department has seen 70% of its employees laid off; Visit Portland saw a 40% staff reduction. Groups in California’s cities weren’t spared: the respective staffs at San Francisco Travel and Visit Anaheim were reduced by 60% via furloughs and layoffs with further pay cuts for remaining employees.
The effects of the Pandemic on tourism have been felt abroad as well. Tourism Whistler in Canada reported temporary staff reductions of 60%, with remaining funds from layoffs and budget cuts “invested into short-term necessary response efforts”, per CEO Barrett Fisher.
Said Travel Portland CEO Jeff Miller, “As we have watched the city we love and have the honor of promoting suffer the impacts of this pandemic, we have had to reevaluate how we do our work. The work we do now, both internally and externally, will define how Portland comes out of this when recovery begins. We are doing what we need to do now to ensure our ability to be poised and ready for this work.”