PROVIDENCE — A little over a year ago, Rhode Island was bustling with visitors exploring the Newport mansions decorated for Christmas and poking into boutiques on Westminster Street in downtown Providence before seeing a live show.
A few months later the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything, and 2020 became a year of canceled or reimagined events, from the Newport Jazz Festival to the International Boat Show, the popular South County’s Seafood Festival, and even WaterFire, which some consider to be the face of the tourism industry in Providence.
Pivoting to virtual events, taking business outdoors, applying for federally funded grants, and postponing large gatherings became the new normal.
Tourism bolsters much of Rhode Island’s economy, and the 10-week long summer season can power some businesses through the rest of the year. So when President Biden recently said the federal government ordered enough COVID-19 vaccine to immunize most Americans by “early fall,” some veterans of the Rhode Island tourism industry braced themselves for a second “summer of sadness” while hoping that perhaps this year would be at least a little better than the last.
“Summer 2021 will be better than summer 2020, but nothing like summer 2019,” said Brian Lavin, a hospitality and tourism management professor at Johnson & Wales University who used to work for the Providence tourism council. “But we’re starting to see that we can’t be as optimistic about this coming summer as people thought we could be.”
Last year, only 15 percent of hotel rooms in Providence were filled in June; the highest level reached was 31 percent occupancy in August, and revenue from lodging dropped by more than 70 percent compared to 2019. In Newport, where visitors typically come from around the world to see the mansions, lodging sales dipped 25 percent and spending in restaurants declined up to 40 percent in the third quarter.
Evan Smith, chief executive of Discover Newport, said he finds himself awake in the middle of the night trying to figure out new ways to “save tourism” during the pandemic. He said he knows not everyone in the country will receive the vaccine, but businesses and destinations need to boost consumer confidence and convince people that they can travel safely.
“People have cabin fever — even more so this year. They want to travel, just not far,” said Smith, who is planning to target consumers from drive-by markets as far away as Washington, D.C., and Maine in his upcoming advertising campaign.
The ads will feature health and wellness themes for leisure travelers looking to go to a spa, find the best biking trail, and exercise in an open environment, Smith said. He’s hoping to bring back events on a smaller scale by using rapid COVID-19 tests.
Louise Bishop, chief executive of South County Tourism Council, said she is ready for the “summer of weddings,” many of which were postponed last year.
“We’re turning a corner, but we didn’t have the losses that everyone else did,” said Bishop, who saw visitors hungry for the area’s ocean views rent whole cottages and have their own spaces, allowing them to stay longer.
On Block Island, where outdoor adventures are always the main attraction, tourism council president Jessica Willis said she froze advertising spending last year, not knowing what would happen with the budget. But with an emphasis on outdoor activities, the area saw an influx of day-trippers, longer lines than usual, and crowded beaches and walking trails. She’s now planning to advertise at the same level as she did in 2019, to help boost hotel and lodging sales.
Cities in Rhode Island took the hardest tourism hits in 2020, as did metropolitan areas in much of the country. Providence lost more than $81 million in hotel revenue last year. The boutique Graduate Hotel remains closed, and the Omni Providence Hotel houses only college students from Brown University.
At this point, experts say it may take until at least 2024 for the city’s tourism levels to get back to where they were during pre-pandemic times — a longer recovery time than other regions of the state are predicting.
“It’s really hard to paint a broad brush stroke that tourism will be back, up and running, by this summer,” said Lavin, of Johnson & Wales. Some destinations are built to be sustainable, he said, but metro areas are not necessarily so, especially during a global pandemic.
“Providence is a good example of that,” he said. “Right now, it’s like a ghost town. You don’t see anyone. And that’s just not that city.”
“It’s been frustrating, especially on the event side,” said Kristen Adamo, Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau president.
But things are looking brighter. There are sporting events booked for this summer at the Rhode Island Convention Center, she said, though the venue is currently being used as a COVID-19 field hospital.
“August is actually kind of busy,” said Adamo, before acknowledging that COVID-19 is still a concern.
“But [some] events were originally for 1,000 people,” she pointed out. “What happens now?”