The July 4th fireworks are canceled. The Cape Cod Baseball League bats will stay silent. Forget about all those parades and festivals. But tourism industry leaders still hope to draw throngs of out-of-towners this summer, and they are looking to the Baker administration for help.
The state’s 16 regional tourism councils just sent a letter to Mike Kennealy, Governor Charlie Baker’s economic development secretary. The ask: a $15 million portion of the federal Community Development Block Grant funds coming to the state, thanks to the CARES Act. They want to pay for the mother of all marketing campaigns.
Long term, the tourism councils have their eye on a different prize: legislation that would allow hotels to impose an additional fee, on top of the room taxes, to cover regional promotions. But the earliest that money can start to flow is 2021.
Hoteliers and others in the hospitality industry can’t wait that long. In Boston and Cambridge, for example, 48 of the 90 hotels are closed completely. No revenue, whatsoever. Thousands of jobs, lost. These hotels remain dark in part because Governor Baker has limited hotel stays to emergency uses, including front-line workers fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Baker also called for out-of-state visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days, intentionally putting a damper on travel.
And the hotels that are open? If they are downtown, they’re “lucky” if 10 percent of their rooms are occupied. (The Logan Airport hotels are somewhat busier.)
Assuming that Baker allows regular hotel business to resume, possibly later this month, the tourism councils are crafting a campaign to promote the entire state, starting by targeting visitors who can drive here. They’ll probably need some money to launch it. Of the $284 million the state collected in hotel taxes last year, only $10 million went to tourism promotion. Those numbers underscore how little the state invests in the sector, and how much the state budget relies on the industry.
The councils, in their letter to Kennealy, say the state needs to shed its image as a coronavirus “hot spot.” (Massachusetts is third behind New York and New Jersey in the number of COVID-19 cases.) They want to reassure visitors that it will be safe to travel to the state. The money, they said, is particularly important because hotels, restaurants, and retailers have been among the hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic.
Lea Filson, executive director at the Plymouth County Convention & Visitors Bureau, sees similarities between the recovery in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and the recovery that needs to take place in Massachusetts. It’s natural she would: Filson came to Plymouth last year from New Orleans, where she worked in tourism for 13 years. She said two tourism groups in that city received $16.5 million from CDBG disaster funding following the hurricane, a lifeline for the local industry.
Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce chief executive Wendy Northcross hopes this summer won’t be a washout. Many Cape businesses, she said, essentially rely on 15 weeks of revenue to cover their costs for the entire year. Visitors won’t be going to concerts or baseball games. But she said they should be able to grab a clam roll or hit the links. An ambitious marketing effort, she said, would help potential visitors understand what to expect.
Like other industries, hoteliers are awaiting word from the Baker administration about the social distancing and cleanliness protocols they’ll need to adopt to protect workers and customers.
A reopening advisory board is scheduled to report back to the administration by May 18, although state officials may offer some guidance ahead of time. That would be important for hotels, particularly those that are closed and will need to adjust their reservation systems.
Meanwhile, Unite Here Local 26, a union that represents thousands of local hospitality workers, said strong local and state regulations are essential for the industry’s recovery.
Martha Sheridan, chief executive of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, said she hopes the industry’s struggles will spur the Legislature to approve its marketing-district proposal. The legislation has been tossed around Beacon Hill for a few years, and was gaining traction before the pandemic. It would allow hotels to band together on a regional basis to add an assessment of as much as 3 percent, on top of existing room taxes, for marketing efforts. If Boston hotels adopted a 1.5 percent assessment, for example, it could raise nearly $30 million in one year. (That’s based on the numbers during the boom times that ended abruptly in March.)
Even with the Legislature’s approval, Sheridan said, the tourism bureau would still need endorsements from a majority of hotels in the area, as well as the Boston and Cambridge city councils. In the meantime, she said, the state needs to start advertising as soon as it’s deemed safe, to bring the crowds back.
The industry is about to find out just how much interest there is in visiting Massachusetts during a pandemic. There’s no way they’ll know for sure, though, if they don’t put out the invitation first.