County Visitor Spending Picks Up Slightly, But For How Long?

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Oct 12, 2020
Visitor spending during the summer peak months of July and August rose slightly above last year's monthly figures, despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on travel. Spending, however, is still lagging in the city.

In New Hanover County overall, the August room occupancy tax figure was at $2.07 million, a rise of nearly 4% from the close to $2 million last August. And in July, the area's peak month, room occupancy tax collections totaled $2.48 million, just over a 1% increase from July last year totaling $2.45 million.

July is historically the busiest month for tourism in New Hanover County, followed by August and June for the top three months, tourism officials said.

The latest room occupancy tax collections are "consistent with the nationwide Covid-19 trend of visitors seeking destinations outside of urban areas," said Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority, in an email Monday.

"Another travel trend is renewed interest by travelers in vacation rentals. The bulk of our vacation rentals are located on our island beaches," she added.

The figures across the board are being carried by the area's beach towns including Wrightsville, Carolina and Kure beaches, as well as unincorporated areas of the county.

The August room occupancy comparisons show that "once again the beaches and District U show gains while Wilmington and the Convention Center District continue to experience losses in revenue," Hufham said.

New Hanover County's "District U" for purposes of the tourism figures are the unincorporated areas of the county, which includes Figure 8 Island, and other areas outside city limits or beach towns, according to the Wilmington and Beaches CVB.

The tourism authority does business as Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau (Wilmington and Beaches CVB).

Meanwhile, spending dramatically lags in the city of Wilmington.

In July, the city was down by 18%, while the convention center district was down nearly 49% between July 2019 and this July. The city's August figures were down by nearly 15% from the same month the previous year, while the city's convention center district was down by 35% in August year over year.

"While the beach ROT collections show growth, Wilmington continues to struggle to regain occupancy as size limitations on gatherings remain in place" Hufham said. "Small events such as weddings and reunions are starting to come back; however, our meeting and convention business has been on hold since March and most fall and holiday events have canceled or gone virtual."

"Restaurants, attractions and breweries are still operating on a limited basis with capacity restrictions," she said. "Our performing arts venues were only recently allowed to open under Phase 3 at greatly restricted capacity that will continue to limit the types of shows and events that can be staged."

So far, the tourism authority is seeing closures, some permanent and some temporary, in the retail, restaurant, nightlife and event space, she said. And while lodging properties are working to stay afloat and ride out the COVID crisis, a couple of smaller lodging properties have closed temporarily, such as Blue Heaven Bed & Breakfast downtown. 

"Several small realty companies have closed, however, their inventory was shifted to larger realty companies," she said. 

While not all closures are known and will take time to gather, Hufham said, "most are temporary closures for various reasons. Most permanent closures that we are aware of have already been reported by mainstream or social media, such as Tails Piano Bar, Dock Street Oyster Bar, Stalk & Vine, Ruby Tuesday’s, among others."

"As long as the virus remains a threat and restrictions are in place, certain sectors of our industry will continue to struggle," Huffham said.

Another important factor in the mix is the confidence in visitors' willingness to travel. Hufham said that sentiment is improving but "is still a long way from pre-covid confidence in safe travel."

To keep the visitors coming in the offseason, Wilmington and Beaches CVB is working on its "Fall is the New Summer" campaign, which focuses on the summer activities visitors can enjoy in the fall when the area is less crowded and there are lower "off-peak" prices, she said.

The area is also being marketed as a destination for work-remote professionals who want to be in a coastal setting, as well as for family and educational trips.

Hufham said, "Everyone is hopeful that people will continue to travel to destinations that offer outdoor activities and mild climate."

For an in-depth look at the past, present and future of the area's tourism industry and some of the business players, read Cece Nunn's article TOURISM: Down on the boardwalk, in the September 2020 issue of WilmingtonBiz magazine.
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