Officials see early promise for spring season
After more than a year of the coronavirus pandemic, the tourism industry in Bucks County and across the Commonwealth is showing optimistic signs of life in the spring and summer.
From small towns in Bucks County to trail towns in other parts of the state, visitors looking to get out and explore could stem some of the losses from the pandemic in 2020.
Visit Bucks County President Paul Bencivengo said this week that the county’s official tourism promotion group is abuzz with requests from people wanting to visit the area’s smaller boroughs, museums, breweries and more.
“We are seeing, right now, that our web traffic to Visit Bucks is already above 2019 levels,” Bencivengo said.
The year before the pandemic set a record for tourism in Bucks County, he said.
Pennsylvania’s trail towns – remnants of past generations built on the backs of rail trade and for the better half of the 21st century largely forgotten by other than locals and weekend warriors – have also become popular destinations in the pandemic. .
“It’s a subset of tourism that has been booming,” said Chrissy Tobias, communications specialist for the York County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The trail towns have been able to capitalize on outdoor activities”.
With a record number of cancellations and postponements of events, the trail towns and hiking trails were one of the only highlights of the past year, she said.
In 2019, visitor spending reached $ 46 billion in Pennsylvania. Central Pennsylvania accounted for $ 9 billion in spending, just behind Philadelphia and its suburbs, including Bucks, according to the 2019 state report on the economic impact of travel and tourism. Visitors spent nearly $ 11 billion in this region in 2019, up 3.3% from 2018.
About 8.29 million people visited Bucks County in 2019, generating more than $ 1 billion, according to internal Visit Bucks County estimates.
Tobias does not know how much the different regions and state lost in revenue last year. That data won’t be available until the 2020 report is released this summer, but she estimates the numbers are likely to run into the billions.
“Indoor events will be the last thing to collect,” she said, adding that she believed small towns could experience a spike in popularity from previous years.
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Bucks County is already seeing positive trends, with local hotel occupancy rates in April.
“Three weekends out of four (in April), Friday evenings, the hotels recorded 70% occupancy; and then on Saturday they saw an overall occupancy rate of 80%, ”Bencivengo said.
Boroughs like New Hope and Doylestown have long been popular small town attractions for visitors interested in history, the arts and nature. Others, like Perkasie, Quakertown and Bristol Borough, are benefiting from revitalization efforts.
With the reestablishment of these small town centers, tourism opportunities to keep more visitors to Bucks County for longer could help bring the county’s tourism and hospitality industries closer to employment and income levels. before the pandemic.
Hospitality jobs, which primarily include retail and hospitality jobs, employed more than 30,000 people in Bucks County two years ago.
Although estimates of how many jobs these industries will lose in 2020 are not yet available, Bencivengo said hotel occupancy rates alone were down about 26% last year compared to 2019.
John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said Commonwealth patrons were eager to get out and eat, as evidenced by the crowds and queues, and the summer season is expected. be responsible for the restaurant industry in Pennsylvania.
“I think the early indication is pretty clear that they are,” Longstreet said. “We’re getting reports of long waits for tables statewide, pretty universally,” adding that the desire to dine out seems to be common across the country.
Longstreet also noted that after a year of limited opportunities to eat in public, some individuals and families were able to save funds, which could be used for meals or vacations at destination.
“Of course, that bodes well for restaurants as well,” he said.
And as many establishments have made significant changes to their locations during the pandemic – adding outdoor service, for example, or changing the menu – just about any restaurant, cafe, brasserie, or whatever. beloved restaurant has become a destination dining experience. .
“I think it’s all going to be a big draw this summer, because of the fact that people are so tired of eating their own food, they are tired of being at home, they are tired of being closed. .these things are going to lead to an incredible amount of business, ”Longstreet said.
Al fresco dining continues to save grace
Part of this recovery and a reason for optimism is in large part due to the increase in outdoor dining.
Last year, Commonwealth restaurants lobbied for streets to be closed and loosened open container laws if at all – a reactionary movement that can be here to stay. Harrisburg continues its “Saturday Nights in the City” closing weekly North Second Street. Similar street closures continue on Crystal Street to East Stroudsburg and Main Street Street to Bethlehem.
The Borough of Doylestown helps local businesses, including restaurants, stay open and keep customers safe.
The borough recently announced the return of its “Pedestrian zones“weekend evenings until September.
Pedestrian zones began last year to keep local businesses operating while respecting social distancing and other health and safety regulations in the event of a pandemic.
Part of Main Street turns into an outdoor shopping and dining area next Friday and Saturday night, closing to traffic from 5 to 11.
Ready for visitors:Beginning of pedestrian zones to support Doylestown businesses
“Al fresco dining was extremely vital to our survival in 2020,” said Brandon Hufnagel of Glen Rock Mill Inn in York County. “During the 0% to 25% occupancy restrictions this was the only seat we offered as it was not financially viable to operate the main interior part of the restaurant, which could only have offered about 25 seats.
This time last year, alfresco dining was widely seen as an interim measure to help businesses stay alive. Today, as tourism and travel numbers start to come out of the red, these designated areas can be a key part of restarting local economies.
Hufnagel said he believes changes to secure outdoor dining for restaurants in 2020 may lead more cities to consider pedestrian-only lanes for the foreseeable future.
The unknowns: customer comfort, staffing
Restaurants that don’t have the luxury of an open-air location face a stranger: customer comfort.
As seating becomes a luxury for some restaurants, the industry is also facing a massive crisis – staffing. As restaurants reopened and bar service returned, workers did not.
Pennsylvania’s travel and tourism industry accounts for 333,100 jobs. Almost 30% of these positions are in leisure and catering, according to the Pennsylvania Travel and Tourism Economic Impact Report 2019.
In addition to staff shortage issues linked to the higher rates offered by unemployment benefits, Longstreet noted that the summer season could prove difficult for restaurants to open at full capacity when the time comes. He believes alfresco dining is a permanent change.
“Particularly in Pennsylvania is that when people can go out they want to go out. Due to the fact that they spend long winters here when the weather is nice they want to be outside,” he said. he declares.
For restaurants that have survived the pandemic, it is starting to emerge that alfresco dining continues to be paramount to local industry and tourism.