Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Vacation, Staycation: Pandemic travel trends include outdoor recreation close to home

Norris Flowers was 12 years old when he launched his life-long career in the tourism industry.

Fifty-five years later, he’s seen a lot—but never anything like the pandemic crisis of 2020.

“We couldn’t have picked a worse time for this to happen, coming out of winder doldrums when businesses are down and looking forward to the busy summertime,” said Flowers, president and CEO of Destination Gettysburg. “For this to hit in March when we’re starting to crank up, and it’s instantly all shut off? I’m running out of adjectives, but it’s devastating.”

The pandemic was indeed a rude awakening, after a surprisingly promising start to 2020.

“January and February are traditionally slow months, but this year we set records in hotel demand in Adams County—a combined 15% increase over 2019,” Flowers said. “So, the projections for 2020 were supposed to set all kinds of records, moving the bar up in revenues.”

Instead, revenues fell faster than a lead balloon.

In April, hotel revenues totaled $960,000, dropping 78% from last year’s nearly $4.4 million. Destination Gettysburg, like most area tourism bureaus, derives nearly all of its funding from a percentage of hotel taxes.

“We’ve seen a 90% drop in revenue based on hotel taxes,” Flowers said. “On March 16, we had 15 full-time positions. We’ve been hit so hard financially… we’re a full-time staff of seven, period.”

Tourism is tied to the Adams County economy—it has an economic impact of $735 million.

Despite the bleak situation, Flowers points to several encouraging signs. Camping and other outdoorsy activities are all on the rise.

But the biggest travel trend for 2020? Traditional summer vacation plans are morphing into staycations and daytrips.

“The national research is saying that,” Flowers said. “And we saw that early on—even in the red phase, people were out walking the battlefield, and 90% were from the region.”

Researchers say those able to afford vacations will likely be driving, not flying, staying closer to home, and probably returning to a destination that’s familiar rather than exploring a new location. That’s great news for a destination like Gettysburg, where more than half of all visitors in a typical year are returnees.

“The travel industry as a whole will recover faster than other industries, and Adams County will bounce back faster than others,” Flowers said.

That’s due in great part to the draw of the Gettysburg National Military Park. The National Park Service reopened its visitor center in late June.

“Outdoor assets are an advantage, because they make social distancing very easy,” said Aaron Jumper of the Cumberland Valley Visitors Bureau.

Cumberland County has always hung its hat on outdoor recreation—fly fishing, hiking—including a portion of the Appalachian Trail, plus three state parks.

“Staycations are what we’re pushing for this summer,” Jumper said. “They’re opportunities for people who haven’t explored their backyards.”

His organization is launching “My Cumberland Valley Summer,” a marketing pivot that features bucket list experiences in Cumberland County’s smaller towns.

While hotel occupancy is down more than 50% from last year, Cumberland County Visitors Bureau hasn’t lost any of its 13-member staff. That’s largely because it’s combined with the county’s economic development agency.

“One of the benefits we have, with our economic development arm—we can see some of the business needs and then act on those needs through grant funding and other programs being announced in the coming weeks,” Jumper said.

Forecasts predict it’ll take 18 to 24 months for the tourism industry to return to its pre-COVID-19 levels.

“This pandemic is nine times worse than the impact our industry felt from 9/11. It’s going to take us to 2022 to get back to 2019 numbers,” said Mary Smith, president and CEO of Visit Hershey & Harrisburg (VHH).

In Dauphin County, the $2.5 billion tourism industry accounts for 20,000 jobs. Hersheypark is a primary driver.

“There’s no question, Hersheypark not being open for the first part of the year impacted hotel numbers, our restaurants and other attractions,” Smith said.

About 30% of Dauphin County’s 8,900 hotel rooms at 88 properties were occupied in May. Similar to Destination Gettysburg, VHH’s annual operating budget of nearly $4 million is primarily funded through hotel taxes; half the staff is furloughed.

VHH recently launched an initiative called the Safe Together Pledge.

“It’s a tool for businesses to be able to communicate to the public [via posters] that they’re following the recommended health guidelines set forth by the state and CDC,” Smith said. “Research shows more than 75% of people will research a destination to see what guidelines and protocols are in place.”

Smith has been in constant contact with Dauphin County’s specific industry sectors throughout the pandemic.

“One of our hardest hit industries in addition to hotels, are restaurants,” Smith said. “Many have gotten creative by expanding outdoor dining, and I applaud the city of Harrisburg and the Downtown Improvement District who partnered to make outdoor dining a success.”

VHH typically attracts visitors from New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., but, this year, they’re marketing primarily to Pennsylvanians.

“Based on the national research, people are still hopeful they’ll be doing at least one to two road trips before the end of the year,” Smith said. “One of the things that’s a positive for not only Dauphin County but the entire state of Pennsylvania, is that we’re a driving destination with many outdoor activities and attractions—that’s a good thing for us.”

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