Accommodation and sales tax collections in New Hanover County each recently saw monthly year-over-year decreases. While modest, they mark the first downturns for the taxes – indicators of tourist-related economic activity – since the pandemic.
These metrics may suggest the record-breaking, post-pandemic tourism blaze has already peaked. But at the same time, there are other signs that there’s perhaps more wiggle room until some segments of the local hospitality market hit a ceiling.
The U.S. Travel Association is calling for continued strength in domestic leisure travel for the remainder of the year but acknowledges “a softening of demand.” And in what could be seen as a bellwether – or an isolated occurrence – Walt Disney World had its slowest Fourth of July weekend in nearly a decade.
The pandemic spurred a national phenomenon known as “revenge travel.” Antsy after being cooped up inside, vacationers with spare savings accumulated from pandemic-era restrictions and stimuli triggered spikes in tourism spending.
“I think we’re near the end of revenge,” said Mouhcine Guettabi, University of North Carolina Wilmington associate professor of economics and regional economist. “Those excess savings are certainly being exhausted.”
While a dampening in demand is up for debate, some local vacation rental experts say a newfound surplus in supply is impacting the market.
Chris Byars, business development officer for Bryant Real Estate, said this summer’s shift in vacation rental activity isn’t representative of a slowdown, but rather, it’s a realignment. With what Byars described as stable demand and excess supply, there’s been downward pressure on pricing. “We’ve seen average daily revenue drop just a little bit,” he said.
Bryant Real Estate’s primary focus is managing about 270 vacation rentals in Wrightsville, Carolina and Kure beaches. Since last summer, the firm added 50 listings.
“We’ve got more supply than we’ve ever had,” Byars said. “It wasn’t just the little guy that’s hurt during inflation …Vacation homeowners are feeling the pinch. And they’re deciding, ‘Hey, I need to monetize my asset and put my home on the [short-term rental] market for those times when I’m not going to be there.’”
Occupancy has slightly compressed, he said. “We are seeing just a little bit of fall-off because of the supply. But during the summer months, we’re still pushing on that 100% level.” Byars said. “We’ve had a slower spring than we’ve been accustomed to. We expect that fall will likely be a little slower as well.”
Savvy renters are being rewarded for their patience. Bryant’s portfolio utilizes dynamic pricing – similar to the airline and hotel industry – so rental units’ rates fluctuate daily based on demand. This means renters can score an available rental at a discount.
“We’re seeing a huge uptick in bookings in less than 21 days prior to arrival,” Byars said. “Our asset is an expiring asset. If I don’t rent it, then it’s empty and we get no income.”
To mitigate the increased competition, many second homeowners have shortened length-of-stay restrictions, Byars said.
A glut of new short-term rental (STR) inventory may also be impacting the downtown area.
“Definitely this last year has been different,” said Jordan Giovannucci, who along with her husband runs Brick & Barley, an Airbnb business with three listings and nearly 800 consecutive five-star reviews. Airbnb launched categories last year, which changed how renters discovered properties, Giovannucci said.
Also, the city was forced to drop registration requirements last year that previously capped the amount of STR properties. The change came after the N.C. Court of Appeals sided with a couple who sued the city after they were denied an STR permit.
Two of Giovannucci’s Airbnb listings, in a duplex located downtown, had secured permission to operate through the city’s since-defunct STR system. Now that there are no separation requirements between STRs, she said, “there’s an influx of spaces to rent so there’s more competition.”
Overall growing interest in Wilmington could be buffering the impact from the new booking options, she added. “It’s back and forth, push and pull. So dates that we definitely should have booked, or we normally would have booked, have remained empty,” she said. “But overall, we’re doing very well.”
The palatable changes are “not so much bad, as much as [they are] different,” Giovannucci said. “We’re just having confusing times on what we should anticipate.”
In April, a two-year-long local tourism hot streak finally cooled down.
Monthly Room Occupancy Tax (ROT) collections in New Hanover County, a percent of revenues generated by the short-term rentals of accommodations like hotels and vacation homes, were down year-over-year for the first time since February 2021. In May, the county logged another ROT dip, again down 4%, compared to May of last year (June figures aren’t available until mid-August).
Sales tax collections in New Hanover County also saw their first post-pandemic monthly year-over-year dip in May – down just 0.6%, the first decline since September 2020.
This tiny lull and other metrics could be interpreted as a sign that consumers’ voracious post-pandemic spending sprees have finally reached a plateau or summit, according to Guettabi. Market activity in the hospitality sector is hearty – and outpacing pre-pandemic levels – but the record-breaking saga could be over.
“If you look at the numbers themselves, it’s still well above 2021; they’re still well above 2019. So I don’t want to say that it’s purely a math problem, because 2021 and 2022 were so high, that now we’re comparing to a level that’s not sustainable,” he said.
Even with the recent flattening in ROT collections in April and May, both months showed significantly higher activity than the same time period before the pandemic emerged – about 51% more in compared to 2019.
Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is allotted a portion of ROT revenues to promote tourism, attributed the ROT decrease this spring to wet months and a travel readjustment “back to a normal pattern” as schools and workplaces have pivoted away from remote options.
Pent-up travel demand and the lure of the area in the era of remote flexibilities drove the dramatic and record-breaking wave, according to Hufham.
She said an industry-wide leveling is anticipated for travel, and locally, she expects increases to level off through the current fiscal year. “As we are seeing a local trend back to a more normal visitation pattern, we hope to continue the upward momentum that was created during the past couple of years,” she said.
Meanwhile, Wilmington International Airport’s trends are still ascending. The airport, which has more than doubled its available routes in two years – thanks in part to the arrival of its first and second low-cost carriers that cater to leisure travelers – had a record-breaking June. Outbound passengers exceeded “any month ever recorded by 25%,” according to an ILM spokesperson.
Guettabi cited the airport traffic and latest jobs reports as metrics that show no signs of a slowdown. “There’s still inconsistent data coming from different places,” he said.
The recent shifts in sales tax and ROT collections could be characterized as a “gradual reversion” to pre-pandemic trends, Guettabi said.
A peak was bound to happen, Guettabi said. “It’s impossible for us to have just kept going up with no reset,” he said. “Maybe we’ve kind of gotten all the spending demons out of the way and we’re going to start behaving like we were pre-pandemic. But then again, maybe not.”