Progress is being made, but challenges remain on the slow path toward 'normal'
With more Americans becoming vaccinated, we are beginning to see the very first signs of a much-needed and welcome return to “normal.” Some positive news and trends hint that we are finally starting to turn the corner with regard to the pandemic. However, the next several months will still likely hold a bumpy path, and require continued adherence to safety protocols.
Travel sentiment trending in positive direction
One indicator that concerns about COVID-19 are slowly easing is travel sentiment, which Longwoods International has been tracking since the start of the pandemic. According to the latest findings (Wave 34), 88 percent of American travelers have travel plans in the next six months. This is the highest level since early March 2020. In addition, 58 percent of travelers polled feel comfortable traveling outside their communities, and half support opening their communities to visitors, some of the highest levels since last May.
In Pennsylvania, some easing of restrictions went into effect on April 4, including the elimination of the food requirement when purchasing alcohol; ending of the curfew for the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants; increasing indoor dining capacity to 75 percent; and allowing bar seating, but with social distancing requirements in place.
As mentioned in last month’s column, youth sports tournament activity is continuing to provide a boost to hotel occupancy rates. It is important to note that these events have been safely held and followed COVID protocols. A recent March 2021 weekend generated $800,000 in hotel revenue and was the best performing weekend since August 2020 due in part to a middle school basketball tournament.
On the event side, Grange Fair recently announced its 2021 stage lineup, giving hope for the return of this late summer tradition; the Rothrock Grit Gravel Grinder is set to welcome competitive mountain bikers on June 5; and Penn State announced some fans in the stands for the annual Blue White Game, and intends to hold in-person graduation at Beaver Stadium on May 8.
Business and event organizers still face uncertain environment
However positive these developments are, businesses and event organizers still face an uncertain environment amidst concerns about COVID case counts. For some, these challenges continue to impact operations.
Corporate travel and meetings business is still virtually non-existent, and our hotels are still struggling to fill rooms during the week.
Opening up restaurants to 75 percent capacity is good news, but with six-foot social distancing still required if partitions are not used, not all restaurants will be able to operate at that level due to space constraints and room configuration.
Restrictions on indoor capacity for events continue to wreak havoc on the events and catering industry, and related support businesses and professionals. Pennsylvania is losing weddings and events to bordering states that are less restrictive.
Finally, the announcement by the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts that it would not hold an in-person festival this July – followed by the cancellation of Philipsburg Heritage Days – was a harsh reminder that continued uncertainty makes it difficult for large-scale events to proceed as planned. The announcement also reinforces the devastating impact that the pandemic has had and continues to have on the arts.
Full recovery will take time. We will get there.
Fritz Smith, President and CEO, The Happy Valley Adventure Bureau
Returning to “normal” means ensuring that our hospitality industry thrives, arts and culture come back strong, and restaurants remain open to welcome diners, both local residents and visitors. Returning to normal also requires students, residents and visitors to remain vigilant. Full recovery will take time. We will get there.