WILMINGTON — One of the sectors of Delaware’s economy hardest hit by COVID-19 is tourism.
Hotel rooms were empty for months; bars, resorts and restaurants were closed; many employees lost their jobs; and business owners were left in financial limbo.
The Delaware Tourism Office saw the challenges piling up and, according to its director Elizabeth Keller, got to work creating programs and initiatives to help tourism industry members pivot or reach new customers in different ways.
“The tourism industry in Delaware was severely impacted, like the tourism industry across the country, from COVID-19,” Ms. Keller said.
The tourism office started offering educational opportunities to members of the tourism industry to help them capitalize on the quickly changing atmosphere that was the beginning of the pandemic.
“We brought in marketing experts and specific market exports, in sports in particular, to talk to the industry,” Ms. Keller said. “Each moment was very different in 2020 and 2021 — not just people nervous about the virus, but also being put on quarantine lists from different states.”
Ms. Keller said that during the start of the pandemic, hotels and banquet spaces saw repeated bookings and then cancellations based on the changing quarantine requirements.
“A lot of these businesses had to take out loans to cover all of their revenue loss. Yes, we may have visitors now, but they are still paying back the loans they took out last year. There still isn’t a huge revenue coming in right now,” she said.
The state’s tourism sector has been seeing some activity — especially when it come to sporting events.
“In the past year, for 2021, we have seen signs of recovery — specifically leisure travel, visiting family and friends, outdoor recreation and sports tourism has been one of the keys to our recovery — sporting tournaments and large-scale sporting events,” Ms. Keller said.
“There are still areas in Delaware that haven’t fully recovered yet. We are still seeing lower numbers in hotel occupancy and visitation. We still have some work to do.”
The educational opportunities have been focused on what the industry needs.
“Ideas to adapt and move at a fast pace but also understand what consumers are thinking socially, their behaviors. It’s been very helpful in being able to not put effort into something that really isn’t going to resonate with our travelers,” Ms. Keller said.
On Dec. 2, the Delaware Tourism Office will hold a tourism summit at the Chase Center on the Riverfront in Wilmington. The event is the culmination of this year’s educational efforts.
“It’s our first time as an industry being back together, safely and in person. What we found throughout the last 19-20 months, as the state tourism office, one of the biggest resources that we could provide was educational opportunities and providing access to all the resources everyone needs to be able to do their jobs and more than what they normally do,” Ms. Keller said.
To create the summit, the Delaware Tourism Office sent a survey to the businesses they serve to see what information would be most helpful.
“We asked everyone what would help you in your job. What is your biggest challenge? We took that feedback came up with the themes and topics of the day, then we found the best speakers in our region and brought in a couple of national speakers to directly fit the need the industry shared with us,” Ms. Keller said.
The event at the Chase Center will feature keynote speaker, Andrew Davis, who is a best-selling author and marketing expert. Mr. Davis has produced for NBC’s “Today” show, worked for The Muppets in New York and wrote for Charles Kuralt. He’s appeared in the New York Times, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, and on NBC and the BBC.
Leading business minds from Delaware will also speak, including: Mac Macleod of the marketing startup Carvertise; Mike Pfeifer of 1440 Film Co.; Joanna Ford and LeAnn Qualls of AB&C Creative; and Keith Hunt, chief diversity and inclusion officer, state of Delaware. Delaware Secretary of State Jeffrey Bullock will deliver closing remarks.
The lineup seemed to work as the event is sold out, but it won’t be the last time tourism industry members will have to attend similar events.
“We hope this is the first of many new educational opportunities. We are going to continue to do our webinar series, which ranges in topics from making sure everyone knows what the current travel sentiment is because it is changing based on season, based on new COVID variants,” Ms. Keller said.