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Viewpoint: Delaware’s economic recovery will need tourism

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Sarah Willoughby

By Sarah Willoughby

This has been an unprecedented and devastating year for all of us in Delaware, especially the tourism and hospitality industry. The economic impact of COVID-19 is far-reaching. Restaurants, hotels, retail shops, and small businesses have closed their doors never to reopen again. Many others are barely getting by.

The Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau, Delaware’s destination marketing organization (DMO) for New Castle County, has been hit hard by the pandemic – as have all our peers. Nearly 100% of our budget is derived from accommodations tax revenue, which has reached a record low since the pandemic began.

With the loss of nearly all our funding, the bureau furloughed more than half its staff last spring, ultimately having to eliminate some positions entirely. The four of us who are still working are on reduced hours, operating with a shoestring budget.

We’ve also had to let go of our Visitors’ Center, located in the Community Services Building in downtown Wilmington. We did maintain our office space and will be returning when it is safe to do so.

The bureau continues to serve visitors through our website and a live chat that provides tailored travel assistance. We are using creative, low-cost methods to promote our region including social media campaigns, search engine marketing, stakeholder outreach, and tourism partnerships – mostly to a local audience due to the travel advisories our state and the surrounding states have recently issued.

Help is needed now for the future. We are seeing a record number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Our governor has advised us not to travel … but there is light at the end of the tunnel. A COVID-19 vaccination will be available in the very near future, marking the beginning of the end of the pandemic that has wreaked havoc on our economy and lives.

I am pleading with our local, state and federal officials to help all Delaware DMOs secure the emergency funding we need to stay operational. We also must build an aggressive marketing strategy that is ready to launch as soon as people can travel again. This needs to be done now.

While most business sectors were able to receive COVID-related financial aid, we were not eligible for any of the relief programs that have helped other organizations. Because the bureau has a 501(c)(6) tax designation, we were not eligible for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). We did receive limited funds from the state and county CARES Act allocations and are extremely grateful for that support. However, the relief grant came with strict guidelines on how it could be utilized. For example, it could not be used to cover basic operational costs necessary for us to function. We did not qualify for additional CARES Act funds because those monies are not designated for convention and tourism marketing.

Tourism is one of Delaware’s most robust industries, generating more than $3.5 billion annually and supporting more than 44,000 jobs. Visitor spending also generates significant tax dollars that support state and local municipalities, enabling them to fund essential services including fire and police protection and public schools.

Every dollar DMOs spend is put toward attracting visitors. Despite this important work that is essential to our economic recovery, DMOs have largely been forgotten when it comes to coronavirus relief.

Even when the threat of COVID begins to dissipate, tourism research indicates most people will be reluctant to travel far for vacation for some time. This is good for Delaware’s recovery. Consider that there are more than 57 million people living in the Mid-Atlantic alone, just a short car ride away from our state.

This is why the work of Delaware DMOs is so essential now. Financial aid will enable us to put together a marketing game plan that will drive a swift rebound and, in the long term, growth beyond pre-COVID revenue projections.

Please help us help our tourism and hospitality family. And time is running out. We can only sustain the budget shortfalls COVID-19 has handed us for so long. If no aid is received, we will soon have to make more hard decisions that will further impede our ability to champion our industry.

Sarah Willoughby serves as executive director of the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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