The Northern Virginia tourism economy has always been a thriving one. From Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center to countless picturesque nature trails and the region’s very own wine country, the hospitality industry brings in billions in annual revenue and employs thousands of local workers.
When the pandemic hit, much of that disappeared overnight.
According to Barry Biggar, president and CEO of Visit Fairfax, the county’s official tourism marketing organization, between March and November 2020, hotel room revenue alone (not including meeting or food and beverage dollars) took a $400 million hit. During that time period in 2019, hotel revenue was nearly $545 million. Year-over-year, in 2020, it was down to just $146 million. And as of press time, 6 out of every 10 hotel employees in the Northern Virginia region were still furloughed, laid off or had lost their jobs completely.
In the wake of the pandemic, Visit Fairfax switched its marketing focus to put all its investments in promoting the region to local visitors with new initiatives like the Fairfax County Restaurant Trail to promote struggling restaurants and a recent Save the Date Night promo aimed at getting residents to support local restaurants, bars and other open attractions.
But the reality is, many attractions remain closed or with severely limited capacity (Udvar-Hazy, for example, closed last March, reopened after retrofitting the museum for COVID safety and then closed again in November after coronavirus cases started rising again), and there’s only so much marketing that can be done.
“No matter how much the travel industry puts out safeguards and sanitation to ensure absolute cleanliness, the general public is still not willing to travel just based on that.”
It all comes down to the vaccine, says Biggar.
“No. 1, the vaccine is absolutely critical in heightening consumer confidence,” he says. “No matter how much the travel industry puts out safeguards and sanitation to ensure absolute cleanliness, the general public is still not willing to travel just based on that.”
Buddy Rizer, executive director for Loudoun County economic development, concurs. Attractions, restaurants and retail that depend on human interaction will continue to struggle, no matter how many safety protocols they put in place. He says that Loudoun, like many places, is probably looking at another year before things get back to normal. “It has never been about opening businesses,” Rizer says. “It’s more about consumer confidence. People want to feel like it’s safe for them to go into the stores and restaurants and resume their normal life.”
Biggar notes that most forecasters say the tourism industry (both locally and nationwide) won’t return to pre-COVID levels until 2024. “From now until 2024, we’ll begin to see [travelers return] in waves. The leisure travelers will be the first to get back. We’re already beginning to see leisure travel pick up, but we’re seeing visitors from drive-in markets,” he says.
As for group travel, such as motor coach and student and youth travel, Biggar says that will be closer to 2022. “The confidence has to be there for a group of 40 people to sit in a motor coach together.”
International markets are dependent on the rebounding of air travel, he says.
And as for business travel?
“That is one market that probably has a ‘new normal,’” notes Biggar. “When virtual platforms came out 10 years ago, there was a lot of concern that corporations would pull a lot of travel, but that didn’t happen. But as a result of COVID, people are so used to it now. Why would you fly 20 people to meet when you can do a virtual meeting and still be productive?”
In the meantime, with his marketing hat fully on, Biggar says the best way to support the tourism industry is to vacation locally. “My hope is that all the major attractions will be open to full capacity as soon as possible,” he says. But “use this time, if you’re not sure yet about traveling far, to just travel here in our own backyard. And continue to support the restaurants and attractions.”
After the Pandemic
- What will change: Corporations will embrace virtual meetings; attractions will keep health protocols in place (think hand sanitizing stations and robust cleanings) post-pandemic.
- What will return to normal: Leisure travel is expected to return first; tourist attractions are expected to return to full capacity.