After a webinar with the Destinations International tourism marketing organization, local tourism officials learned the current situation is still grim. Among the attendees was Karla Niedan-Streets, executive director of the Gering Visitors Bureau.
“The information presented was stark in reality,” Niedan-Streeks said. “But it did provide us with the tools we need of accurate and up-to-date information as it pertains to the effects of coronavirus on the travel, tourism and meetings industry.”
Among the many things the group learned is that the travel industry follows the hotel industry, so they can use hotel performance as a gauge for the industry as a whole.
Niedan-Streeks said the bottom of the coronavirus crisis is lower than everyone could have expected. Still, it’s estimated the impact on the tourism industry will be six times more negative than 9/11.
Also, group business is barely holding for June and industry officials think it will take 6-8 weeks after “shelter in place” for event size restrictions to start to lift.
Webinar presenters said tourism officials should plan for slowly increasing hotel occupancy: about 20% in July, 30% for August, 40% in September and 60% during October-December. Plus there are hopes for a solid fourth quarter in 2020.
Other tourism directors across the Panhandle are also feeling the effects of the nationwide lockdown.
Kevin Howard, formerly at Scottsbluff-Gering and Alliance, is now the tourism director for Cheyenne County in Sidney.
“Most of our traffic comes from I-80,” Howard said. “Right now the only thing running up and down the interstate are trucks. We see a car or a pickup occasionally but it’s usually a local person.”
Because of the traffic, truck stops are keeping busy but business at the area campgrounds and hotels is slow.
“We’ve just started coming out of quite a slump,” Howard said. “We were a bit ahead in 2019 coming out of 2018, but right now, it’s slow again.”
In Sidney, one business has temporarily closed and local restaurants have switched to drive-in, takeout or curbside service only. Restaurants are now permitted to sell their stock at retail, such as foodstuffs and paper products.
The City of Sidney is also implementing a program for offering low-interest to no-interest loans to companies that are economically strained because of the crisis.
“Most of these programs are geared toward employees,” Howard said. “Keeping people at work and on the payroll is hard to do right now. But we’re going to make it through this.”
Kerri Rempp, Northwest Nebraska tourism director, said their area will be heavily impacted at least until the end of May.
“Both Chadron State Park and Fort Robinson State Park are shut down,” Rempp said. “Those are two of our primary attractions for visitors every year.’
She said two hotels in Chadron have closed until further notice because their nightly occupancy rates have fallen into the single digits. Several events have been canceled altogether through the end of May.
“We already have a couple of cancellations for June, so we’re just playing it by ear to see how all this plays out, but lodging occupancy taxes will take a big hit,” Rempp said. “In the meantime, we’re calling on all our residents to do what they can to support our local businesses until we get out from under this.”
Rempp said she’s trying to be optimistic, but most people are playing a waiting game to see how the crisis ends. May 1 seems to be the date when that information will be available.
Niedan-Streeks agreed the end is probably in sight and we will get through this nightmare.
“People will travel again, meetings will book, full motor coaches will be overnighting in our communities and spectators will gather for sports, recreation and community events.”