Outlook 2021: ‘Cautious optimism’ abounds for region’s tourism venues (Guest viewpoint)

What a difference a year makes. In December 2019, the Western Massachusetts tourism industry appeared to be in its strongest position in decades. And, it was. We were enjoying a continued strong economy, stable gasoline prices and our solid inventory of one-of-a-kind attractions had been enhanced by key new investments.

Fueled by newly planned and classic events like MGM Springfield’s Red Sox Winter Weekend and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s Hoophall Classic, we enjoyed the most vigorous first quarter in recent memory. Those in our industry had every reason to believe we would continue to roll into an equally-robust spring, with a vigorous summer and fall coming right behind. Hospitality leaders across the region were feeling bullish.

And then, COVID-19 struck.

Over night, events everywhere were canceled, hotels and attractions shut down. Restaurants were open for take-out only. Only essential retail and offices remained open.

Most of our tourism community began working from home. Many were furloughed. Some were laid off permanently.

No industry has been as hard hit as travel. The U.S. economy lost more jobs in leisure and hospitality than any other industry.

By year’s end, Hampden County tourism had lost over 5,300 jobs and was experiencing a 21% unemployment rate, leading all other business sectors. Massachusetts remains on the list of top 10 states impacted the most by the pandemic.

The Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau suffered as well. Right away, we had to make some very difficult tactical decisions, closing down the Visitor Information Center with the Business Improvement District on Main Street in Springfield and cutting four staff positions.

The spring surge of the virus slowly abated, and our region managed to welcome a significantly reduced number of visitors through the late summer. However, cooler autumn weather forced most Americans indoors, leading to the feared “second wave” that plagues us still. Countless prognosticators predicted that these first months of 2021 will represent the darkest days of the pandemic.

However challenging the months ahead may be, we still look forward to later this year with a guarded measure of cautious optimism.

The first reason is our own reorganization. During the very difficult past months, the convention and visitors bureau has been steadily reinventing itself into a “Bureau 2.0” that is best able to properly serve our members and aggressively promote our region’s attributes to key audiences in a still-unfolding new normal. We were not alone in having to make this strategic pivot. Destination-marketing organizations around the world have had to re-evaluate, re-assess and re-invent.

Another major reason for our cautious optimism is, of course, dependent upon the arrival of a long-term solution to COVID-19. With the highly encouraging news about effective vaccines and the distribution plans for them dominating the recent headlines, we currently have more reason for optimism than at any time since the pandemic began

And, so, an inevitable recovery of our economy (and therefore, the tourism sector) seems to be slowly coming into focus on the horizon.

In early December, I participated in US Travel’s “Looking Ahead to 2021 Travel Forecast” webinar. A few important points of that webinar bear paraphrasing here:

  • Leisure travel will lead recovery, followed by business travel;
  • Leisure travel will be back to 2019 levels in 2022, and business travel will be close to those levels by 2024;
  • We have gotten half of the jobs that were lost at the start of the pandemic back, but the remaining half of the jobs lost will be very slow to come back;
  • 80% of travelers indicate they expect to return to normal movement patterns within six months of the virus’ containment; and
  • Travel and tourism recovery must be our focus for an overall economic recovery.
  • Put more simply, a general economic recovery for the nation cannot and will not occur until there is also a recovery of the U.S. travel industry. They are closely linked.
  • Nobody can yet say for certain where the pandemic will take us in the months ahead, but we have every reason to believe that both as an agency and one of Western Massachusetts’ most essential regional industries, we’re better-positioned to handle whatever may come.
  • As the president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, I can tell you with great certainty that the bureau’s commitment to our members remains unwavering. The bureau will do everything possible to lead the Western Massachusetts tourism industry through our biggest challenge ever.
  • Mary Kay Wydra is president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau; to learn more about the bureau, go online to explorewesternmass.com.