When COVID-19 hit Idaho in March, every industry was affected, but few were harder hit than tourism. Air travel dwindled to a few half-empty planes; hotels were virtual ghost towns.
The story was the same across the country, and the economic impacts were dramatic. The U.S. economy is projected to lose 8 million jobs as a result of travel declines in 2020. Nationwide, the downturn in tourism will result in an $80 billion loss in taxes for 2020 and a GDP impact of $1.2 trillion, according to Oxford Economics. A decline of 45% for the entire year is expected; this includes continued losses over the rest of the year reaching $519 billion, the organization stated.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Now that the state is reopening, tourism businesses are looking to the future.
On June 2, the Idaho Business Review held a Breakfast Series panel — delivered over Zoom— that addressed coronavirus responses in tourism and the road to recovery. The panel featured Adam Altwies, general manager of the Inn at 500 Capitol; Matt Borud, marketing and innovation administrator for the Idaho Department of Commerce; Rebecca Hupp, director of the Boise Airport; Scott Turlington, president of Tamarack Resort and Carrie Westergard, executive director of the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Serving as moderator was Shelley Davis, an attorney with Hawley Troxell who has 14 years of experience in water, natural resource, construction, general litigation, administrative, local government, gaming and elections law.
The five expert panelists all acknowledged the struggles of the past few months, but they see reasons for hope.
Turlington noted that on Sunday, May 31, Tamarack had seen a record-high number of visits for the summer season. The resort had closed on March 17 in response to the pandemic and reopened in May, offering activities such as boat rentals, zipline, white water rafting and mountain biking. Social distancing is in place.
“What that (high number of guests) tells us is we have a lot of folks in the Treasure Valley and in Valley County who want to get out and do something different,” Turlington said. “All of our employees felt very comfortable with all the stuff we have done for employee safety and guest safety.”
Health and safety precautions have also been important at the Boise Airport, which saw a 95% drop in traffic during April, the first decrease for the airport in six years.
Hupp said some employees who work at the airport had been nervous about potential exposure to COVID-19 but felt reassured by measures such as the installation of sneeze guards at check-in counters and stickers on the floor to indicate proper social distancing.
“Our employees have all chipped in and gone above and beyond,” she said.
Boise is “rebounding on pace with the nation or slightly ahead,” she added. “Based on our prior growth, it is not surprising to me that people are returning to travel a little more quickly.”
Altwies has seen booking going up and his staff have put together a comprehensive COVID-19 response plan. Housekeeping staff are waiting 48 hours to enter a room after check-out. TV remotes, pens, ice tongs, wine bottle openers and notepads are sanitized and put in Ziplock bags. Hand sanitizer stations are located by elevators, meeting rooms and various other locations. Valet parking was suspended and the fitness center was open by appointment only. Conference rooms were closed. The Inn at 500 was also in negotiations with a concierge doctor in case any illness should arise.
Borud said his organization has been impressed by these sorts of innovations from the hotel industry and facilities like the Boise Centre.
“It has been incredible to see the industry step up these efforts in such a thoughtful way,” he said.
Idaho Department of Commerce figures indicate a 22% hotel occupancy rate in April statewide — ugly numbers, Borud said, but not as low as the national figures that show after an industry-wide occupancy rate of 5% for hotels in April.
“There are reasons to be optimistic as we look at May, June and July,” he said. “Drive markets will be the initial rebound. … We have a great product to sell right now. We’ll see how the 4th of July goes, and hopefully, we will stay on a good health trajectory.”
The Idaho Department of Commerce quickly retooled its tourism campaigns after the outbreak, Borud said, with messaging to stay home and stay safe. Gradually, as stay-at-home orders have expired, the organization has put out the message “we’re ready to welcome you when the time is right and you are comfortable.”
Westergard touted a “Boise is Back” campaign to revive tourism in the city, starting with staycation offers for residents. The campaign will highlight safety precautions in local hotels.
“People still want to travel,” she said. “They can do that right in their own home base.”
About 70% of conferences postponed to a future date, which saves the revenue, Westergard noted. Others are doing a hybrid event that uses virtual components. She applauded the Boise Centre for its measures to socially distance and sanitize.
“We will see everything coming back. It is just when. It might be later in the fall or next year,” she said.