Ask Marci Bennett how Missouri’s tourism-dependent small businesses are negotiating the impact of COVID-19, and she’ll give you a quick, succinct answer.
“We’re walking forward with blinders … and a mask,” said Bennett, the executive director of the St. Joseph Visitors Bureau.
Certainly, it is hard to mask the effect on Bennett’s sector of the economy. Tourism is a major source of revenue for owners of small businesses and attractions in many areas across the Show-Me State.
Thousands of business owners depend heavily on the dollars spent by visitors who road-trip throughout the heartland. For them, the pandemic’s impact on travel, operating restrictions and customers’ behavior has completely scrambled the financial equation.
“It is like nothing that we’ve ever experienced before,” said Bennett. “Everything that you believed [about] how things work is not how they work anymore.”
‘As good as can be expected’
Still, some business owners have devised ways to keep things working — at least well enough to weather the storm.
“It is as good as can be expected,” said Guy Mace, owner of the Route 66 Car Museum in Springfield. “Frankly, we are not doing too bad.”
Mace, whose institution centering on dozens of classic cars opened five years ago, said he’s running at about 70 percent of where he was in 2019, the museum’s best year. International tourists and out-of-state visitors each account for approximately 40 percent of the museum’s clientele; locals make up the remaining 20 percent.
“It has been pretty steady,” he said. “The first month we were back open [after widespread shutdowns in the spring], it was way off, but that is because the museum had been closed for a month.”
In fact, he noted, the entire city of Springfield was essentially shut down. More than a half-year later, he believes business will continue to grow but won’t return to normal until a vaccine is available.
“It is just the state of the situation,” he said.
Other museums have seen bigger falloffs, however.
“All in all, we’ve lost a lot of earned revenue, a lot of earned income,” lamented Sara Wilson, “between the loss of school groups, admissions, gift shop sales, fundraisers and special events.”
Wilson is executive director of the Saint Joseph Museums, a collection of institutions that include the Glore Psychiatric Museum, the Black Archives Museum, the Doll Museum and the Native American Historic Galleries, among others.
August was a relatively good month for the campus in this northwest Missouri city, with numbers growing to almost two-thirds of normal, she said. But with the onset of school in the early fall, tour groups dried up and business fell back to 20-30 percent of normal — roughly where it was just after the post-lockdown reopening.
Information gleaned from the American Alliance of Museums indicates that their experience isn’t unique, she said.
“They had a study that came out a while ago, and they said we’re at risk of losing about one-third of museums in the United States through the pandemic,” she said. “I think that’s probably accurate.”
Wilson, who is also the president of the Missouri Association of Museums and Archives, said her institutions can draw some financial stability due to municipal funding. Still, the business losses have hit hard. Most onsite programming has been cancelled in favor of online exhibits and events using Zoom or YouTube. Facility rentals for birthdays and baby showers have fallen off significantly, and weddings booked for their sites often have been postponed.
“When we reopened in May, we were projecting a $100,000 deficit,” she said. “Towards the end of July, we looked at it and we had estimated closer to a $60,000 deficit. We did retain a full staff until recently, but at that point we had to reduce.”
Indeed, budgets are strained in a lot of places. Less than 3 miles from the museum, Shakespeare Chateau Inn Bed & Breakfast also is no longer seeing its normal numbers. March is usually a good month for the cozy lodging establishment housed in a Gilded Age High Victorian structure famous for its stained glass.
“This March, I had actually negative revenue because I had to provide a lot of refunds for cancellations that have been paid,” said Isobel McGowan, owner of the inn.
Business didn’t start to return until May and then at only a fraction of its usual clip, she said. She eventually took in approximately 20 to 25 percent of her usual summertime volume.
In addition, McGowan said she hasn’t hosted a single event since the pandemic began — a stark switch from the usual array of business meetings, family functions and social luncheons that have been the norm in other years.
For now, however, McGowan said she doesn’t want to encourage people to gather inside in large groups. Instead, she’s trying to promote sales of gift certificates for future stays at the inn, which has four guest rooms and two executive suites, noting that her establishment might offer a better alternative to conventional lodging in the COVID-19 era.
“A bed and breakfast sees so much less traffic than a commercial hotel, so it makes more sense as an option for people who are traveling or who have to travel to stay at a bed and breakfast,” she said. “We’ll just have to roll with the punches and see what happens.”
A walk in Kimmswick
On the other side of the state in the tiny town of Kimmswick, rolling with the punches has become second nature. Nestled on the banks of the Mississippi in Jefferson County just a few miles down Interstate 55 from St. Louis, the hamlet got hit by flooding last year. This year, its challenges have come from a microscopic threat that poses more major economic consequences.
“I think everybody is holding their own,” said Betteanne Smith, owner of Mississippi Mud Gallery and Gifts, as she stood in front of a shelf of repurposed cedar fenceposts fashioned into wooden ducks. “Our biggest dilemma right now is the loss of our larger events that we can’t hold.”
Indeed, those events are part of the lifeblood of Kimmswick, where fewer than 200 residents typically host tens of thousands of visitors for the annual Apple Butter Festival. Others come for Witches’ Night Out, a different autumn gathering. Various galas, themed around everything from strawberries to cookies to Christmas, dot the civic calendar.
While some events are still scheduled, the loss of Apple Butter and Witches’ Night Out — two anchors of October — hit hard. Conversations while wandering the streets among the mostly woman-operated craft shops, antique depots and eateries yield more concern for the tiny town’s municipal revenue stream than for the businesses themselves.
“Now, that’s two years in a row,” said Mary Hostetter, speaking of the cancellation of the annual Strawberry Festival, which also was washed out by flooding last year. “They lost their revenue for that major festival and now Apple Butter on top of it. It puts the city in great financial distress.”
Famous for apple pie featured everywhere from the “Today” show to The Wall Street Journal, Hostetter’s Blue Owl Restaurant and Bakery is marking its 35th anniversary in this strange year. Speaking at the close of business on a busy fall Friday, Hostetter said volume since the reopening has been unpredictable.
“You never know from day to day,” she said on a day when the wait for a table was 45 minutes. “Tuesday, we had 121 people. Wednesday, we had 185 people. Then yesterday, we had 140 people. Then today, we had over 200 people.”
Still, business is down overall, falling by more than 40 percent as of the end of August.
“This time of year, we would have had a lot of bus groups coming in from all over the United States, and we haven’t seen any buses at all,” she said. “That’s made a big difference in our numbers.”
In early October, that drop in business and the revenue it generates prompted Kimmswick Mayor Phil Stang to post an open letter on the city’s website, imploring residents of the region to shop, eat and donate to keep it afloat through the pandemic.
Stang pointed to Kimmswick’s many shops and attractions — among them, the Blue Owl’s desserts — as well as its plans for riverboat tour stops, even as he noted that much of its municipal budget is funded by sales tax and revenue generated by the now-cancelled festivals.
“The future for Kimmswick, in a few years, looks bright. However, that will be the future, and this is now,” he wrote, noting that the Strawberry and Apple Butter festivals generate 80 percent of the city’s annual revenue. The city also depleted its reserves in 2019, spending more than $150,000 in response to flooding, and it needs to generate $200,000 to “survive in 2021,” the mayor wrote.
“Today, Kimmswick is staring into a financial “black hole. By year’s end, Kimmswick will for all practical purposes be out of money,” Stang wrote. ”We have explored all avenues of relief; federal, state and county funding, to no avail. We will have no employees or city services, without outside help.”
At the same time, an upbeat tone seems to pervade Kimmswick, and Hostetter is no exception.
“We get that a lot where people say to us that we’re their first choice for dining out,” she said. “It is the first time they’ve been to a restaurant since March. That makes us feel very confident we’re doing the right thing.”
Dawn Scott, owner of local gift outlet Name It Already, agreed that the city is suffering more than the shops themselves.
“Our business has actually been doing better,” she said, noting that the store had just moved to a more favorable location. “We’ve seen more traffic, I honestly think, even than we did last year. I think it is because a lot of people can’t go to other places they would normally go to.”
Many patrons have said they’ve tried to buy from local establishments to help them through a difficult time, Scott said, echoing a belief shared by other business owners here.
“They said they’d rather come here and buy than buy it off Amazon or go to Walmart or Hobby Lobby,” she said.
At Mississippi Mud, Smith said she’s seen a noticeable shift in tourism as folks from nearby locales replace customers from out-of-state. Kimmswick’s appeal is flourishing as a day trip for socially distanced suburbanites looking to escape the monotony of life under lockdowns and quarantines.
“We are getting a lot of people that have never been here before from St. Charles or St. Louis,” she said. “They’re staying close to home. The silver lining is that they are exploring locally, and we’re making new friends that way.”
Day trippers versus overnighters
In St. Joseph, Bennett said the Visitors Bureau is seeing a similar phenomenon in the western part of the state. As local businesses see fewer national tourists, the bureau has changed its marketing pitches to target fellow Midwesterners from Kansas City, Topeka, Lincoln, Omaha and Des Moines, she said.
“It seems that traveler sentiment is leaning toward going someplace that they are familiar with [and] that they don’t have to fly to, that they perceive as a safe location,” she said.
There also has been a resurgence in outdoor travel, with recreational vehicles becoming very popular, Bennett noted.
“As you know, you cannot rent an RV in this country right now. You can’t even buy one. There is like a six-month waiting list,” she said. “We have changed some of our messaging to focus on the outdoor opportunities that are here and also to focus on the safety measures that are in place in our community.”
Melissa Cummins, marketing and community relations manager at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, said businesses in her city also are experiencing a general trend of visitors who are staying closer to home — an increase in “day trippers” versus “overnighters.”
“There’s a big decrease in travelers from outside the U.S.,” said Cummins, who noted that the famous writer’s onetime abode usually draws visitors from as many as 77 nations. “We did see tourists from surrounding states — Iowa, Illinois, Kansas. We see a lot of influx from those areas.”
After the shutdown, the museum has been open daily — albeit with limited hours and social distancing regulations. Cummins said volume is down by as much as 40-50 percent, which in turn means fewer people are spending money in local shops, restaurants and other businesses.
“We have seen a large decrease in the number of tourists, but our understanding is that that is typical just about anywhere you talk about,” she said.
They’ve also done more with video tours and social media.
“Other than that, we’ve just tried to continue as much as we could, keeping the doors open so they could experience Twain’s hometown,” she said. “We’re looking forward and being positive about it. Tour groups that had booked for this year have rescheduled for 2021, so when the time comes, we’ll see if they’ll be able to maintain their tours and come visit us.”
Regardless, there seems to be a general sense among many business owners and attraction managers across the state that the post-COVID world eventually will yield pre-COVID attendance numbers — and spending — for small towns that depend on the summer family vacations largely wiped out by the realities of 2020.
“You just never know what is going to come next, but God has always taken care of us,” noted the Blue Owl’s Hostetter. “He has always provided. He has always taken my hand and led the way. I’m very fortunate for that.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism in Missouri had a total economic impact of $16.5 billion annually, with visitor expenditures accounting for more than $13 billion. Nearly 42 million people visited the state each year.
Source: Missouri Division of Tourism