NEWPORT — The tourism industry in the City-by-the-Sea is set to experience some of its darkest days since the start of the pandemic 10 months ago. But by May, signs of a lengthy recovery process will be apparent, according to the head of the area’s tourism bureau.
“From now to May is going to be incredibly difficult, but then we’re going to start our recovery,” said Evan Smith, president and CEO of Discover Newport. “We’re near the end of our suffering. We’ve got to make it through another five months and then we can start to celebrate the road to recovery.”
Smith estimated a two-year recovery process that will “escalate exponentially” during that time frame, but a number of variables must be factored into the equation: the speed of the vaccine distribution, the regulations set in place by local and state officials and the willingness of people to once again travel at the tail end of a worldwide pandemic.
In an interview with The Daily News, Smith touched on several aspects of the tourism industry in Newport.
This form of travel is what saved the summer season from being a complete bust in 2020. Similar to the months after the 9/11 attacks, Smith said, many travelers didn’t want to board a plane, nor stray far from home. And with 30 million people within a four-hour drive of Newport, the city became a desirable destination for a day trip or weekend getaway as the economy began to reopen.
Smith sees an even better summer season in 2021, citing figures from top research firms. “That’s where the recovery starts,” Smith said of domestic leisure travel.
According to the U.S. Travel Association, Americans will spend $541 million in leisure travel over the course of the year. While that number is down from the $681 million in 2019, it’s well above the $450 million from 2020.
Smith warned the price point of travel is as low as it’s been in decades, perhaps tempting people to board a plane for far-off places. He also said the radius in which people were willing to travel last summer could grow this year as pandemic fears dissipate. For example, instead of New Yorkers coming to Newport for a getaway, they might opt for Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, instead.
Before the pandemic, Newport played host to a number of business conferences that filled area hotels. But with Zoom meetings now a common part of our lives, some corporations could shy away from shuttling employees across the country for a one- or two-day conference.
While leisure travel is expected to meet its 2019 figures by 2022, business travel isn’t expected to fully recover until at least 2024, according to data provided by Smith.
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With restrictions still set in place, there likely won’t be any business gatherings in the city during 2021, though Smith says reductions in business travel, based on technology like Zoom, won’t be as big of a hurdle when the pandemic is over.
“One of the things people have learned is how much they miss face-to-face interaction. How many people are sick of Zoom?” Smith said, adding there could be a 10 or 20% reduction in business travel.
What draws people to Newport in the summertime are the events — the Folk and Jazz festivals, the International Tennis Hall of Fame induction ceremony, the Newport Flower Show and the Newport Kite Festival, just to name a few.
Nearly all large-scale events were canceled a year ago, and Smith said city leaders will have some tough decisions to make in the coming months. “The city is going to have to decide, ‘Are we ready?’”
He cited the annual Newport St. Patrick’s Day Parade held in March.
“I know the organizing body would like to have it on St. Patrick’s Day, but I also know they haven’t approached the City Council yet, they haven’t officially asked for it and my sense is both parties are going to have to come together and talk about it,” Smith said. “Maybe a date later this year might work.”
Smith said one of the determining factors city leaders might use is the vaccination numbers. If, under the worst-case scenario, all of the major events are wiped out again, Newport can operate at about 75% hotel capacity of what it would normally. But that also comes with a trickle-down effect that hurts locally owned restaurants and retail businesses, Smith said.
“It’s about the dollar being spent in the community,” he said.
In the same vein, there are currently no cruise ships lined up to visit Newport this year. In 2019, nearly 100 ocean liners made stops in the city, where thousands of passengers would depart the boat and spend their money to help fuel the local economy.
Smith said he was thumbing through a magazine recently and came across an advertisement for a cruise line that featured Newport. He found that odd, because those companies need local and state approval before they can dock here, and “there have been no formal requests for landing dates,” Smith said.
That industry will rebound eventually, he said, thanks to a loyal fan base, but it appears the city will lose out in 2021 on a great deal of money being spent at local businesses.
Because of restrictions on large gatherings, wedding professionals — caterers, venues, florists, disc jockeys, photographers and others — perhaps were hit hardest by the pandemic, especially in Newport, where nuptials is big business.
According to a recent Newport Life Magazine story, OceanCliff and Regatta Place host around 200 weddings between spring and fall, attracting 1,000 visitors per weekend. And that’s just two venues.
Smith said many couples with weddings scheduled in 2020 were postponed to 2021, but if the number of COVID cases doesn’t drop dramatically and restrictions on large gatherings remain in place, it could be another tough year for wedding professionals.
When asked if a wedding with 50 guests would be enough for most wedding professionals to make ends meet, Smith said it’s unlikely.
“Most weddings are 150 people. Could your business survive at 50% or 30%?” Smith said. “They need to get back to a higher capacity, frankly. Am I saying 200? No. But they need to get back to closer to 100 to reach that sustainable revenue.”
Not surprisingly, Discover Newport itself was hit hard by the pandemic. The company moved from the Gateway Visitors Center into a smaller office building at the Shops at Long Wharf. Smith said his staff has been trimmed to nine employees.
“For us, it’s about surviving and making sure we have a sustainable plan,” Smith said.
Discover Newport will continue to monitor traveler confidence, and as it continues to grow, the company will implement its marketing resources.
“We’re queued up, we’re ready and we think we can do better than last year,” Smith said.