Philadelphia’s rich history, and culture and arts scene create a lot of natural reasons to come to the Delaware Valley region for a visit, a business convention, or to see a concert or professional sports event.
But with the COVID-inspired social distancing requirements closing down business travel and events, shutting down major venues, greatly restricting hotels and restaurants — the list goes on — will tourism bring more business to the suburbs than the city?
“Consumer research did show that travelers were seeking more suburban/rural destinations throughout 2020,” said Paul Bencivengo, president of Visit Bucks County. “Outdoor activities and areas with wide-open spaces were preferred over more densely populated places.”
VisitBucksCounty.com hit a record level of users in 2020, despite a 26 percent drop in hotel occupancy for the year. The county is hoping the vaccine turns things around for hotels and restaurants in 2021 and is marketing its plentiful outdoor attractions for socially distant fun, even in winter, because consumers are likely to avoid crowds for a while.
Bencivengo said 2019 was a record tourism year for Bucks County, with 29,000 people employed and $1.1 billion in economic impact. “We are optimistic for 2021,” he said.
Montgomery County’s Valley Forge Convention and Tourism Bureau (VFCB) raised that possibility during at a county commissioner’s meeting last month. The organization was presenting its game plan for rebuilding tourism sales after a 50 percent drop last year.
“We all want to move on from 2020,” said Michael Bowman, president of the VFCB. “We have a game plan for 2021 and are moving forward.”
That game plan, showcased with “Make it Main Street” tourism videos encouraging consumers to visit Montgomery County’s small businesses, projects three years of effort to bring back the business lost in a single year of the pandemic.
“There is a pent-up demand for celebratory events and reunions,” said VFCB vice president Jake Markezin. “We want people to choose Montgomery County for those events.”
Lisa Karl, vice president of sales for the bureau, agreed and said that one of the most marketable qualities of suburban counties in the era of COVID-19 is “room for social distancing.”
Of course, decision-makers responsible for arrangements for weddings, proms, graduations, and other events are hesitant to commit when so very much is still unknown.
”I was just speaking with someone from a school district about preparing for prom and graduation, “ said Steve Byrne of VisitDelcoPA.gov. “And the thing is, all of us are holding off and planning for things to go several different ways. We don’t know where we will be with the virus and with restrictions in a few months, so any plans you make could go out the window.”
Byrne said that for counties ringing Philadelphia, there may be more local money available because people are not commuting to jobs in the city. But people are still spending less in general.
“If you can only have 10 percent of your capacity indoors, you are pretty limited for events,” said Byrne, noting major employers in Delaware County have gone all remote and many business events are on hold. “We are all just hoping the vaccination program works, that the restrictions will loosen, and business, as we knew it before, will move forward.”
In Chester County, Nina Kelly of the visitor’s bureau said the county’s open areas are a marketing tool in a time when people are seeking space.
“‘We have room’ is the name of our marketing campaign,” Kelly said. “We literally have preserved open space that is the size of Philadelphia.”
Kelly points to equestrian sites, the Devon Horse Show, the 1,000-plus acres of Longwood Gardens, the wide open spaces where folks can take a hot-air balloon and stay in their pod. These might well be a draw in an era when no one is sure if they are ready to go back to indoor events or crowded venues.
“We do have room,” said Kelly, “If it is not dreadfully snowing or pouring, places like Longwood Gardens are a fantastic draw. You are outdoors, it is beautiful, and you can remain socially distant.”
Kelly said that Chester County’s efforts, and those of other suburban Philadelphia counties, are part of the effort to bring tourism to the Greater Philadelphia region.”
“We have a lot to offer here as a region,” she said. “There is so much to the greater Philadelphia market, for business and tourism.”