Sizing up the rural-urban travel divide: Who’s up and who’s down
By Elaine Glusac
The pandemic has been hard on travel. According to the U.S. Travel Association, it has caused $386 billion in cumulative losses, but the pain hasn’t been evenly distributed. Cities, which are largely reliant on business and group travel, have suffered more compared to rural and outdoor destinations where it is easier to fulfill social-distancing needs. That sense of safety in extra space has tempted many leisure travelers to venture out on vacation.
Lodging results attest to the urban-rural divide. Short-term rentals were most popular in remote rather than city destinations this summer. According to the hotel benchmarking analysts STR, Inc., urban hotels are worse off compared to accommodations elsewhere, with occupancy down more than half in August nationally compared to August 2019. As a result, high-profile city hotels, from the Hilton Times Square in New York City to the Luxe Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California, have closed.
“Leisure travel has been the demand driver that has returned more quickly,” said Patrick Mayock, the vice president of research and development at STR, noting that urban hotels “are more reliant on group and business travel.”
The rural-versus-urban contest for leisure travelers is still a losing game for most contenders; for example, rural places consider being down 20% a sign of relative health.
Expect the rivalry to intensify, even as most states maintain restrictions on gatherings. In the eighth of a series of surveys, the travel marketing firm MMGY Travel Intelligence recently found 42% of the 1,200 Americans surveyed — the highest since the pandemic — are likely to take a domestic leisure trip in the next six months. Cities are now rolling out staycation programs, discount incentives and safety assurances to try to claim a bigger share of that traffic.
The following is a look at some of the destinations hit hardest and those that have bounced back.
Viva Las Vegas? Not so much.
Some of the biggest convention cities are suffering the most, including Las Vegas, where year-over-year visitor volume was down more than 60% to 1.4 million in July, and where the airport was off about the same amount in August, the most recent months for which figures are available.
Conventions, which have been scratched for the past six months, drew 6.6 million of the city’s 42.5 million visitors in 2019, generating $6.6 billion. With gatherings limited to 250, football fans are shut out of the new stadium built for the Raiders, the NFL team that moved to Las Vegas from Oakland, California, this season.
With a tack to leisure travel only, hotels and tourism operators are reframing their approaches. MGM Resorts, which operates some of the best-known resorts on the Strip, including the Bellagio, began offering work-from-hotel packages, called “Viva Las Office,” starting around $100, including Wi-Fi and some food and beverage credits. The company is also gambling that visitors will appreciate smoke-free casinos; its Park MGM and NoMad Las Vegas hotels, which occupy the same building and reopened Sept. 30, are smoke free.
“Everything was convention-based and now it’s changed and we have to adapt,” said Donald Contursi, the founder of the local restaurant tour company Lip Smacking Foodie Tours, which launched Finger Licking Foodie Tours, self-guided outings to three restaurants ($79).
Ever the chameleon, Las Vegas continues to develop its leisure appeal, even though the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that several casinos on the Strip were the leading sources of possible COVID-19 exposures this summer. At the end of the month, the new Circa Resort & Casino, with the city’s largest sportsbook spread across three stories, is expected to open. The new art and event space AREA15 recently opened, requiring free reservations to control capacity, for visitors to its art installations.
Another popular city for meetings and events, Miami has come a long way since April, when 85% of tourism disappeared. In addition to losing business travel, Miami suffered when the U.S. border was closed — the city is popular with South Americans, in particular — cruises were shut down and cases COVID-19 spiked over the summer. Now, hotel sales are about half compared to last year, thanks to the uptick in leisure travel.
“A big part of our tourism recovery has been to ask people in our own backyard, people within Florida, to drive,” said Rolando Aedo, the chief operating officer of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The bureau’s marketing campaign has focused on the city’s outdoor attractions, which include three national parks within an hour’s drive of South Beach, uncrowded beaches on Key Biscayne and kayaking amid the mangroves of a river estuary. Dozens of hotels are offering “Work & Learn” packages that offer rooms as day-use offices with access to resort amenities such as pools.
Cities roll out the welcome mat for residents
Back in January, when Dallas resident Murphey Sears, 38, planned to mark her 10th wedding anniversary, she and her husband discussed going abroad, or to Hawaii. By July, the parents of four secured grandparent babysitters and settled on a two-night staycation at The Joule Dallas hotel downtown.
“We needed to get away not only to celebrate ourselves but also to find some rejuvenation,” said Sears, a nonprofit development officer. “We felt so far away, even though it was 15 minutes from our house.”
Once a weekend afterthought, staycations are now viewed as a lifeline for urban tourism as cities from Boston to Los Angeles are encouraging residents to travel responsibly by staying — and spending — locally.
“We’ve had to shift to really focus on leisure travel until the meetings industry stabilizes,” said David Whitaker, the president and chief executive of Choose Chicago, which promotes travel in the city, adding that conventions normally drive 40% of hotel business.
In a weekly survey of 1,200 Americans published Sept. 28, the marketing firm Destination Analysts found that interest in leisure travel in local communities was at 44.5%, the highest it had been since mid-March, partially driven by a fear of flying.
While the 1,544-room Hilton Chicago, a large convention hotel, is currently closed, on weekends, the 180-room Viceroy Chicago has been filling nearly 80% of its rooms entirely with regional residents who self-park, as valet service is suspended. The rooftop pool, where capacity is restricted to 25 for two-hour slots, has been a big attraction.
“We have adjusted some of our strategies and we’re just super thankful to see there’s that much leisure travel going on,” said Nienke Oosting, the hotel’s general manager.
Locals are a critical market in cities like Chicago and New York City that have extensive quarantine lists for out-of-staters, deterring nonresidents. In New York state, as of Sept. 29, visitors from 34 states and territories are advised to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
The tourism office NYC & Co. is encouraging New Yorkers to explore the city’s neighborhoods with incentives that include up to 40% off rooms at the Benjamin hotel in Midtown and 20% off Harlem Heritage Tours, which offers walking trips. Amal Daghestani, 43, of Brooklyn, who works in meeting and event planning, chose the Mondrian Park Avenue hotel for a weekend stay with her family as a change of scenery and an expression of civic pride.
“New York City has enriched my life so much and doing a staycation was also my way of giving back,” she said.
Mixed results in Colorado
In July and August, Denver International Airport said it was the busiest airport in the country, relatively speaking, pointing to Transportation Security Administration checkpoint figures that showed traffic was down 57%, versus 71% on average elsewhere.
But arriving passengers didn’t necessarily go to Denver, where the current hotel occupancy rate is about 40%; last year at this time, 78% of rooms were booked. Instead, cities like Denver, along with Las Vegas, often serve as gateways to more distant vacations. Though visitor figures are down in both cities, Priceline found that Denver was also the top city for car rentals this fall, followed by Las Vegas; the pre-pandemic top cities were Orlando and Los Angeles.
“It’s important to understand that Denver is the gateway for the whole Rocky Mountain West,” said Cathy Ritter, the director of the Colorado Tourism Office. Since early March, travel spending in Colorado dropped to $5 billion, compared to $12 billion for the same period last year. “The activity in mountain resorts over the summer created almost an illusion that tourism had recovered in our state,” she added.
Colorado captures the deceiving nature of tourism spending. Though they loom large, the state’s celebrated mountain towns like Aspen and Crested Butte account for just a quarter of tourism spending. Sixty percent remains in eastern communities, including Denver and smaller cities that attract business and event travelers.
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Given the slowdown, tourism officials in Colorado Springs consider themselves lucky to be down about 22% in July and August. A “Get Out Spread Out” campaign publicized lesser-known hiking trails to ensure social distancing.
“Coloradans were here, but so were Texans, Arizonans, Californians,” said Doug Price, the president and chief executive of Visit Colorado Springs, naming residents of states subject to quarantines elsewhere. “Where a spike was happening, people wanted to get out. Colorado never had restrictions or quarantines on people coming to Colorado. It helped us.”
Some of those Denver arrivals may have traveled to Breckenridge, about 80 miles west, where the town’s taxable sales were behind 18% relative to last year, “much better than expected,” said Lucy Kay, the president and chief executive of the Breckenridge Tourism Office.
The Lure of Space and Social Distance
Most of those who have taken a vacation since the pandemic chose rural over urban areas for their getaways. Signs point to this pattern of fleeing population centers continuing. In a recent survey, Destination Analysts found nearly 40% of respondents who planned to travel this fall planned to visit small towns or rural destinations.
From the Adirondacks to northern Wisconsin, tourism authorities reported business doubling this summer over last. Even so, few will make up for the months of shutdown.
In the Greater Zion region in southwest Utah, which covers more than 2,400 square miles and includes Zion National Park and four state parks, room taxes are down $1.5 million from a year ago, though the last three months have been busier than usual, according to Kevin Lewis, the director of the Greater Zion Convention & Tourism Office.
“In the past, leisure travel has been thought out and strategic about planning a big national park vacation and spending three to four days here,” he said. “This seems a little more reactionary, wanting to find space but doing it at the last minute.”
Beaches were top destinations over the summer as demonstrated in Panama Beach City, in the Florida Panhandle. There, traffic was back to prepandemic expectations in June and July. August and September surpassed 2019 results.
“We feel it will continue next year,” said Dan Rowe, the chief executive and president of Visit Panama Beach, predicting that socially distant vacations will remain the norm.