COVID-19 Hit Tourism Hard But State Experts Say There Are Silver Linings

Jun 19, 2020

Tourism is the second largest industry in the state. The summer of 2019 was a big year for the industry. More than three billion dollars were spent in the state and tourism generated $230 million in tax revenues. Wyoming Office of Tourism Executive Director Diane Shober said the state had set even loftier goals for 2020. But when Shober spoke with Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska, she said this year COVID-19 has hit tourism hard but there is hope that things could improve.

Diane Shober: So the good news is that the fundamental strategy hasn't changed, because Wyoming has always been wide open spaces, a road trip destination. And so this is a destination where people have always [come], you know, for that we don't have to change much. And that's good because [some] destinations do have to completely reinvent who they are and how they are in this for travelers in a COVID world. Wyoming doesn't have to do that, and [it's] still wide open spaces, not very many people, beautiful outdoor national parks, dude ranches, state parks. So our product and the product experience didn't have to change. And so what we have done just in our shift in marketing is obviously timing of it. Because we're not doing anything internationally right now. We've shifted some dollars into our domestic campaign, so that we could focus on that road trip. And then we're launching the first day of July an entire road trip campaign based on routes. They are marketing routes. Salt to Stone...harnessing that whole west side of the state from Salt Lake, the Great Salt Lake up to Yellowstone National Park.

The Black to Yellow, which runs across the north corridor, the Black Hills and to Yellowstone. Park to park is from Rocky Mountain National Park to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. And then the Rockies to Tetons. And they've been in place for many years because the inspiration for most people's travel to Wyoming is our national icons. But then how do you really elevate the road trip along the way to or from, and so we're enhancing a campaign specifically around those routes, which gives us more opportunity to really focus on local communities along those routes. And that is repurposed money. That was not originally planned to be in the marketing budget this year.

Kamila Kudelska: So it's definitely kind of refocused much more on the road trippers of America.

DS: Yeah, yeah, just putting more emphasis on it. And you hear it. I mean, you see any kinds of ads or car commercials, a lot of great brands and products, consumer products they're all talking about this. So it's nice to be able to just, you know, put yourself in there where people are already thinking about it and because it already has been a road trip destination.

KK: Right. And so how has tourism looked since we reopened?

DS: Well, I think better than expected in a COVID world. I mean, the economics right now are not showing that there's any increase. [In] Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, even though the first 10 days of June, were at maybe 57 to 60 percent of where they were a year ago. And certainly in terms of hotels and their occupancies, they're still not anywhere near where they were before. We're seeing an uptick, but yet not to levels that really...we're still woefully behind where we were a year ago. And so there's a lot of room for opportunity for growth and development.

Think about people who are maybe operating an Airbnb. They may need to have more space between guests so that they can have that kind of cleaning that they want to provide. In hotels, in a place like Yellowstone, where you need a large volume of employees, but they're normally housed in dormitories. And if there's some restrictions there on what you can actually open and what is available for overnight lodging. Some of the rafting companies have chosen not to operate this year because you can't socially distance. And so in context, we're moving...we're in a much better place than we thought we would be even 30 days ago. But we still have a long way to go to get back to what we would call normal. And I don't anticipate that we'll see that...Hopefully we see it in 2021 is what I'm hopeful for.

KK: So it is looking like it will pick up going forward, but it's just, it won't be like pre-COVID numbers.

DS: Exactly, I don't even need a crystal ball for that. What we want to do is leverage this, pray that wildfires stay contained. And there's other things that interrupt our tourism season in a normal year. And so we really don't need any further disruptions and we want people to be safe out there. You know, one of the last things we want is more outbreaks of this and we, all people, have a responsibility to each other and to the experiences that they want. They may be slightly different under these circumstances, but they could still be really fulfilling and really enjoyable.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Kamila Kudeska, at kkudelsk@uwyo.edu.