Tourism is likely going to be one of the last sectors to recover from the economic downturn gripping the world because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A 25 percent decrease in year-over-year (numbers) is the new success benchmark for summer and fall business,” Bill Obreiter with ADARA said in a May 29 webinar. Those are predictions going forward. So many businesses already know all too well that April and May numbers (people walking through their doors and cash in their ledgers) was a fraction, if anything, compared to 2019 numbers. March was a crapshoot, with some businesses getting half the month on the books before things shutdown.

Mountain Travel Symposium hosted the talk that focused on using data to better understand what the mountain traveler will do next. Obreiter and Ted Sullivan, both with ADARA, were the speakers. ADARA uses “global proprietary travel data to deliver business performance through innovative platforms.”

Statistics about hotel bookings compared to 2019. (Graphic: ADARA)

“Travel will return. Summer and fall are not lost for good,” Sullivan said. “In the last six weeks the year-over-year decrease has subsided (for lodging bookings).”

What surprised data collectors was the strong last-minute demand for Memorial Day. Rarely does this happen at holidays because hotel rooms and other lodging is booked well in advance. This is why officials are optimistic Fourth of July and Labor Day won’t be abysmal. Just don’t expect those room nights to all be booked far in advance.

People searching travel destinations is one of the variables ADARA officials look at. This metric is important because it “shows consumers’ willingness to travel.” These aren’t Google searches, but instead its data collected from ADARA’s partners, so the person is on an actual business site and not a search engine. Data can show where people are searching, what they are searching for, and what they actually booked.

“Pent up demand is real,” Obreiter said. This is why both presenters said destinations should be focusing on their drive-up market because those people don’t have to even think about getting on a plane.

Lake Tahoe is in an interesting position because two states, five counties and one city comprise the basin. Political figures and public land owners are not acting in unison to distribute the same message to locals or visitors. Nevada is opening faster than California, with casinos unlocking doors June 4. South Lake Tahoe hotels remain shuttered, with no opening date. Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel is taking reservations starting June 15.

Making reservations is important, Obreiter said, even if it has to be canceled by either party. Relaxed cancellation policies will buy goodwill.

A new trend is people are booking longer stays. This in part has to do with being able to work remotely and kids going to school online. Time will tell if this is a temporary phenomenon. Hotels and short-term rentals that can promote having an office-type setting (providing Internet, workspace, a printer, even a quiet space) could find themselves occupied more often as people take working remotely a step further.

Lake Tahoe restaurants on both sides of the state line are starting to offer dining at the facility instead of just take-out or delivery. This is relevant as tourists start returning because they will want to eat out.

Vehicles line Highway 28 west of Incline Village on Memorial Day 2020, despite the travel ban to Tahoe that was in place. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Sullivan made a point visually that towns, resorts and the like are going to have to do a better job of distinguishing themselves going forward. He showed a variety of photos, removed the destination’s name and what the viewer was left with was an indistinguishable photo. That ski resort could be anywhere, the scenic background—who knows? It’s going to be even more critical for a destination to highlight what makes it unique. Sullivan was also critical of the current ad sentiment that “we are all in this together.” It’s getting old, having run its course, and now is unoriginal.

While it will still be necessary to be sensitive with messaging, it’s time to get back in the game, Sullivan aid.

One thing mountain destinations can promote is wide-open spaces. For people sheltering in place in denser locales, places like Tahoe-Truckee will inevitably be a welcome change.

Both ADARA reps said going forward the marketing message should also include what locals would want to hear; like not promoting dangerous behavior. Large gatherings, pool parties and the like would fall into that category. Telling tourists what to expect—being honest—about safety, social distancing, if masks are required, the need to sign waivers should be part of the safety messaging.

People still want to ski, especially considering chairlifts at most resorts in North America stopped spinning in mid-March. In Tahoe, this was when some of the best snow was on the runs and in the trees. Arapahoe Basin (aka A Basin) in Colorado reopened May 27 on a reservation basis. It will continue to operate three lifts as the snow lasts. Season pass holders must have a reservation as well.

A reservation system may be something resorts will implement for winter 2020-21 as a way to disperse skiers and limit the number of riders on the mountain. A Basin may become the test case for how resorts operate next season. So many unknowns exist about the deadly novel coronavirus that most health experts expect it to be part of our lives into the next year at a minimum.

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