Two years after COVID-19 mitigation efforts ruined the hospitality industry’s busy summer travel season, a new concern is looming over the business: the state of the economy.
Inflation warnings sounded in April when a Bankrate survey said 70 percent of Americans were modifying their vacation plans due to rising prices. Since then, similar effects have been seen with the increase in gas prices, and airline bookings have begun to decline in response to higher fares.
Ben Fileccia, senior director of operations at the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the economic environment is forcing the industry to change summer performance projections.
“Early in the year, this summer was projected to be one of the strongest tourism seasons in our history,” he said. “Because of inflation and rising gas prices, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. We have no historical data because gas prices have never been this high before. We just don’t know.”
Of particular concern are travelers coming from outside the region. They may look at how far the Delaware Valley is, see the expense of going here, and opt not to come this year.
But Nina Kelly, director of marketing and communications at the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau, thinks those closer to the region will choose it over other destinations.
She calls it a “displacement,” merely different people coming to the region, but no significant change in the overall number that does visit.
“There’s such a vast wealth of people near us, in a drivable market, that I think it shifts in who comes,” said Kelly.
Kelly added that gas prices don’t affect the industry as much as one might think.
But even with the high prices, the context of the last two years may be able to overcome the current hindrances to travel, according to Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association.
“I think there’s still a lot of pent-up demand from being unable to travel the last two years,” he said. “I’m hoping they offset each other somewhat.”
Grose added that May was a strong month for the industry, especially with local universities having graduations and it is too early to tell if the concern about the economy will translate into actual negative consequences.
One local bed and breakfast has not seen anything to hint at a decline yet.
“We’re rocking,” said Lance Shortt, owner of the Inn at the Whitewing Farm in West Chester. “We’re still getting a decent amount of flights coming in, especially within the last couple of months. Everything is really par to last year or better.”
And even as those far away consider not traveling as far this year, those locally will too. Staycations may be an option, as they typically were during the pandemic as travel was limited.
Shortt said Whitewing already had a high concentration of staycation travelers, but that picked up during the pandemic and is still increasing today.
“We’re getting people from almost our hometown,” he said.
Fileccia said more people are staying local for travel, but they are also exploring other areas of the state they may not know.
“Going out to Lancaster, up to the Poconos,” he said. “Travelling to some of our great destinations in Pennsylvania.”
While Whitewing’s tranquil and outdoorsy appeal is key to bringing in new and returning customers, Shortt added that local attractions like the Brandywine River Museum, Mt. Cuba, and the area’s vineyards keep people coming back.
Kelly said Longwood Garden’s recently announced light exhibit by Bruce Munro, which lasts until October, is a massive boon for the area tourist industry.
“You’re seeing one of the world’s great gardens as well as a renowned art exhibition,” she said. “So that drives business like nothing else.”
In the city, The Franklin Institute’s Harry Potter exhibition is drawing vacationers, Grose said. The FIFA World Cup host announcement for Philadelphia is also helping, which is why he has an upbeat outlook on the local industry for now.
“There are a lot of positives right now,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement to travel again.”