After a summer of being stuck in the house, tourism in Delaware this year is making a comeback, though not across the board, and not yet on completely solid ground.
"Tourism in Delaware overall is obviously seeing a major uptick since what we experienced with COVID-19," said Delaware Hotel and Lodging Association Chairman Bill Silva, a 30-year veteran of the industry. "I mean, [during the pandemic,] some things were beyond our control, and I think most industries experienced some sort of catastrophic loss to some degree or another. Hospitality is recovering slowly."
While destination stays like those at the First State's beaches are going for a night this year what it would've cost for a week the year prior, vacation rentals are definitely seeing the best recovery. Locations in New Castle and Kent counties aren't seeing the same kind of recovery as Sussex due to a different market appeal, Silva said.
"If you go to the vacation resort areas, they're definitely seeing a big bounce back sooner because a lot of people who were not traveling last year are now trying to get vacations in, and it's created some pent up demand for beaches and resorts," Silva said. "Whereas more suburban areas, the hotels are a little bit slower to to recover. We relied upon legal travel which, the courts are starting to slowly open back up, but law business in Delaware is very important to New Castle County, in particular. I'm sure Dover as well. So you have these closures, it takes a while for the travel to return for those things, and of course, conventions and meetings, which haven't returned yet, but are in the process of coming back in smaller quantities."
In 2020, occupancy rates at hotels dropped from their standard January and February rates to 20% below average in March, declining by 30% in May. In 2020, 31.1% of Delaware hotel rooms were filled in April, which was down from 61.3% in April 2019, while May went from 65.9% to 33.9%. By September of 2020, Delaware stood at 46.8% occupancy on the year, compared with 60-63% in the first nine months of the past four years.
Things are looking up, but Silva said it will take some time to get back to normal, and even longer to recoup the costs invested into anti-COVID measures put into place, from occupancy restrictions to new infrastructure.
"There's definitely been a lot of investment on the hoteliers part. And unfortunately, the revenue hasn't been there to offset that. So they're all still recovering from those losses. I think it'll be years before we're back to normal. But there's a lot of optimism with things returning," he said. "It's definitely a rebound...Speaking with the beach properties, their occupancy has recovered much, much quicker. Like I said, that's where the demand has really shifted. There are hotels in the resort areas that are running in excess of 80%. Whereas, the larger group of hotels that represent the state hospitality and tourism in New Castle County and in Kent County, are probably in the mid-60s. From what we're seeing now, they're not quite there yet, about 50% occupancy and maybe a little bit lower."
The survival of these businesses is integral to the community fabric and wellbeing of the state's towns and cities, Silva said. While many people might see a chain name on a location, he notes those are locally owned branches which invest back into their communities and put people to work.
So talk of the COVID-19 Delta variant is concerning to those who fear more restrictions if things aren't brought under control. He pointed to a hotel that was purchased and converted into a homeless shelter by New Castle County as an example of how tenuous a situation some locations are currently in trying to keep their doors open.
"That was right out of the gate with with the first phase of the pandemic. So, there's always that fear that if it's not recognized that the loss was great, and recovery is going to take some time, that another another loss could be catastrophic. Having said that, we developed a little bit of a muscle memory when it comes to what to do during these times. We know how to behave, and what type of PPE and restrictions, social distancing, we need to have in place for our associates to keep them safe," he said. "Just reminding everyone of that 50% occupancy is not going to get us to where we need to be--but it's certainly a lot better than where we were in 2020, for sure."
There's also the current hurdle of finding enough bodies to occupy the positions of need to continue operations as travel increases, at least for the time being.
"It's tough, because we lost 60 to 70% of our workforce pretty much overnight, and I'd hate to see that happen again," Silva said. "Talking with just the members of my association, I think we're all trying to get back to, I would say, a good percentage would be around 80% of our pre-COVID staffing levels, if not more. I certainly think the beach properties would probably argue that's maybe 100% to 110% at this point, because many restaurants and food and beverage outlets have had to close for periods of time, not having adequate staffing. We've had to shift a lot of our employees into other areas to accommodate travelers...that's one of the greatest difficulties: getting staff back and getting them trained, and just employing people."