Travel industry looks to local markets to jump-start recovery

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge was one of many regional landmarks lit up in red on May 5 as Visit Tampa Bay and Visit St. Pete/Clearwater marked National Travel and Tourism Week.

In February, the travel industry celebrated 10 years of monthly positive growth and was looking ahead to continued success. Now, industry leaders are dealing with $519 billion in losses after the world shut down due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“This is nine-times worse than Sept. 11,” said U.S. Travel President and CEO Roger Dow during a May 7 webinar. “It’s a real challenge.”

The webinar, part of National Travel and Tourism Week 2020, included Dow and local experts talking about the latest information and plans for recovery.

The experts included Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young, Florida's Sports Coast Director of Tourism Adam Thomas, Visit Tampa Bay President and CEO Santiago Corrada, and Visit St. Pete/Clearwater President and CEO Steve Hayes.

Dow has been meeting with industry leaders for the past two months to assess the damage. He has met with government leaders looking for federal assistance to shore up the beleaguered industry that he says was disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

He talked about the importance of testing and the ability for people to feel safe, including travelers, guests and employees. He advocates having a common set of guidelines that everyone can follow to help alleviate some of the fear.

A set of guidelines was issued on May 4, Dow said, as all aspects of the industry began to work together on recovery.

“We have a job to do,” he said.

According to a recent survey, 23% of people say they would believe it is safe to travel if the message comes from the industry itself, 25% would believe if the message comes from the government and 34% would believe if the health care industry says it is safe. However, if all three say it is safe to travel, 60% say they would believe it is true.

The big questions are how and when to bring the industry back. A quicker recovery could save billions of dollars and get millions back to work faster.

Dow said all signs point to a recovery with leisure travel coming first, followed by business and then international travel. He said many corporations currently have no travel policies in place.

“Florida is the travel state,” he said. “It should do well.”

Young provided a hospitality and tourism update, which included a review of what Visit Florida has been doing and a preview of future marketing campaigns. She said Florida is “no stranger to crises,” citing hurricanes, red tide, and the BP oil spill as examples.

“But there’s never been anything of the magnitude of COVID-19,” she said.

She said recovery strategies are focused on delivering visitors to Florida at appropriate times, starting at home with a “drive market,” meaning Floridians driving to destinations in Florida. Then as health experts say it is safe, marketing will expand to out-of-state travelers. The last piece will be the return of international visitors.

She said everything would depend on people’s attitudes and when they are willing to get out of the house.

The vacation rental industry remains closed by the governor’s order, which is causing some heartburn due to hotels remaining open, she said. But, some people are saying they would like to be able to stay in private accommodations versus hotels. She said the governor had been asked to lift the restriction and a decision is expected soon.

Hayes asked about the future for conventions, conferences and other events that involve large numbers of people, which is a big part of the picture in Tampa.

Corrada agreed that Tampa’s tourism industry is highly dependent on conventions and large group events. He said venues such as the fairgrounds and Busch Gardens are making preparations so they’ll be ready when the timing is right. He said everything would depend on the governor’s phases for recovery and when groups of more than 10 would be allowed.

Dow said attitudes among those planning group events had been improving. He predicts that 2021 will bring a big recovery for that part of the industry.

He also suggested that the phrase “social distancing” be replaced by “physical distancing,” pointing out that people are all social.

Corrada said his agency would be marketing the old-fashioned road trip as a way for families to have fun on their way to a destination.

Thomas said his agency plans to focus on outdoors events, such as golf, hiking and camping. He said Pasco County’s new snow park would be opening soon. In addition, Sports Coast has started sending out invitations for group and sporting events.

The consensus was that attitude would be the deciding factor on when people would begin to travel again. And attitudes depend on good news, Dow said. He said as good news spreads, it would encourage people to get “outside their COVID wall.”

Hayes agreed. He said certain people would travel sooner than others, but the others would be watching to see what happens. If the outcome is good, then more will travel and the numbers will grow.

“It all depends on the individual traveler’s level of comfort,” he said.

Local tourism agency looks ahead to recovery

Despite current conditions, tourism agencies nationwide celebrated Travel and Tourism Week 2020, May 3-9, and used it as a time to look ahead to recovery. The week was created by Congress in 1993 to mark the economic contributions of the industries. This year’s theme was the Spirit of Travel.

In-person celebrations and rallies were not possible, still Visit St. Pete/Clearwater found ways to mark the occasion. The agency launched a video on May 4 called Faces of St. Pete/Clearwater, which celebrates and honors the more than 100,000 people employed in tourism in Pinellas.

On May 5, people may have noticed some of Tampa Bay’s landmarks and businesses lit in red, which is the color of hospitality. The event was intended to call attention to the county’s No. 1 employer, tourism, and the billions of dollars in revenue it brings to the region.

“There’s no doubt this has been an incredibly challenging time for St. Pete/Clearwater and entire Tampa Bay region, but we see National Travel and Tourism Week as an opportunity to remind our visitors and our residents of the incredible spirit and resiliency of the travel industry and our workforce,” Hayes said. “It’s only a matter of time before we all get moving again, and Visit St. Pete/Clearwater will be more ready than ever to welcome travelers with open arms.”

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.