MANSFIELD — The travel industry in Richland County – like that of destinations worldwide – will look different in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic losses caused by the cancellation of major events along with an overall decline in leisure and business travel will be felt for a long time.
It is estimated that 129,500 fewer people will spend $11.4 million less than anticipated in Richland County this summer. COVID-19 shutdowns and the resulting economic loss happened just as the travel season normally ramps up and lodging tax collections, and traveler spending at area businesses, are at their peak. While the fate of all races at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is still unknown, major events from March through July, such as Inkcarceration, Ohio Civil War Show, and many conferences have been canceled or postponed.
By the end of March, overnight stays at area hotels and bed and breakfasts had almost disappeared. Taxes generated by those room nights fund Destination Mansfield-Richland County, the area’s tourism marketing agency that is responsible for promoting the county to leisure and business travelers. Because the organization is 90 percent funded by a bed tax, when travelers don’t stay overnight, money earmarked for marketing of the county’s once-thriving tourism industry dries up. The lack of city and county lodging tax, combined with a $50,000 cut by the city of Mansfield to Destination Mansfield, is resulting in projected losses in excess of 50 percent for the year.
The ultimate impact will be on local businesses that will suffer from dramatically reduced visitor spending.
Destination Mansfield-Richland County President Lee Tasseff said that even before city cuts and reduced bed tax collections, Destination Mansfield-Richland County’s usually broad based focus on ourism and community development had become more focused.
“What remains is a commitment to marketing our community as a destination,” Tasseff said. “Anticipated slow recovery, the lack of overnight stays and resulting bed tax receipts have given us a clarity of purpose as we define what kind of organization we need to be going forward. We will restructure, run at a reduced staffing level and focus wholly on efforts aligned with our core purpose: marketing the county to visitors and increasing visitor spending.”
Tasseff is confident his organization can function effectively at its new staffing and funding level.
“The clear direction is to be very good at selected things. We aren’t going to do the community at large any good otherwise.” Currently, every aspect of how the operation runs is being re-evaluated on an ongoing basis. We are literally changing every week.”
As for the near future of marketing, research shows “drive markets” that are not in major metro areas will be some of the earliest to see visitors, as people feel more confident travel short distances. The same holds true for outdoor recreation activities and attractions. The Mansfield area also hopes museums and historical sites in markets like ours get a bump early on.
Our talent and resources are solely focused on generating spending from outside the community and positioning the region in a positive light across Ohio and the Midwest. Those efforts will attract visitors and their travel dollars, thereby increasing income for a vast array of small businesses and nonprofits.
But everything depends on consumer confidence.
Every travel industry indicator predicts visitor spending will be slow. When will Americans travel again? When they feel safe doing so. Consumer confidence will dictate how hospitality businesses can ease apprehension. Businesses and attractions have the best chances for success in a post-COVID-19 world if customers believe their interests are paramount.
“Relaxing restrictions is just the start,” Tasseff said. “All of the research we have seen indicates that building and maintaining a ‘safe’ environment must be more than a marketing slogan or positioning statement. It is a dedication to your customers that needs to be demonstrated in everything you do, from websites, social media and signage that tell guests what to expect, to actively cleaning, providing sanitizing products and wearing masks.”
It will take time to get back to normal. But to be successful, the tourism industry will find success if them adapt and adjust to the business at hand. But always, the key is to offer great service, popular products, and make certain customers feel safe.