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Small businesses lifted by return of tourists

Heather Bise

Heather Bise, owner of The House of Bise Bespoke, poses on the front porch where she entertains guests July 19 in Cleveland. Bise started the business in 2019 and catered to international tourists, attracting guests from New Zealand, Botswana, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. (AP Photo: Tony Dejak)

Small businesses in the U.S. that depend on tourism and vacationers say business is bouncing back, as Americans rebook postponed trips and spend freely on food, entertainment and souvenirs.

U.S. states and cities have loosened many of their restrictions on crowd size and mask-wearing, a positive sign for businesses that struggled for more than a year when theme parks and other tourist attractions were shuttered.

Still, the return to a pre-pandemic “normal” is a way off for most. There are few business travelers and international tourists. Many businesses are grappling with staff shortages and other challenges. And if a surge of the more contagious delta variant or another variant of the coronavirus forces states to reenact restrictions or lockdowns, the progress might be lost.

The U.S. Travel Association, a travel industry trade group, predicts domestic travel spending will total $787 billion in 2021. That’s up 22% from 2020 but still down 20% from 2019 levels. The association predicts travel spending won’t completely rebound above 2019 levels until 2024.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, Jenny Kimball, co-owner of the independent hotel La Fonda on the Plaza, with 180 rooms, said her hotel is sold out through the summer and booked about 90% on average for the fall. That’s a welcome change from the two or three guests the hotel had at one point as it stayed open during the height of the pandemic.

“It’s crazy busy, it’s wonderful, everyone is happy,” she said.

The clientele is different than prior to the pandemic: There are more families and people working remotely, and they’re staying longer, an average or four or five nights compared to two or three.

“Families want to come and stay longer and really vacation and see more of the city and more of the museums,” Kimball says.

Kimball’s biggest problem: A shortage of workers in the restaurant, bar and kitchen. She urged vacationers to have patience.

“It’s very hard after such a horrible year to have the demand and not be able to serve them, because we don’t have 100 percent staffing back yet,” she says.

Heather Bise owns and runs a 7-bedroom bed-and-breakfast in Cleveland, Ohio, near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She opened The House of Bise Bespoke in 2019 and catered to international tourists, attracting guests from New Zealand, Botswana, Eastern Europe and other far-off places.

The cancellations started in January 2020 and she refunded guests thousands of dollars.

So, Bise retooled her business model and switched to renting out the whole house. Ohio lifted restrictions on mass gatherings in March, and the Hall of Fame reopened in June. Business has rebounded during the past two months — so much so that she’s making more than she was pre-pandemic. Demand is so strong she raised prices and switched from serving breakfast and dinner to just breakfast.

But her guests are now all from the U.S., usually families meeting up for a reunion or wedding parties — which now make up 60% of her business. She worries that the wedding business will evaporate after the summer and fall.

“Let’s just hope people are having weddings in January,” she said.

Many owners are pleasantly surprised by the pickup in domestic tourists, but still need to see corporate travelers and tourists from overseas before business is back to normal. That could take some time. While improved from 2020, the USTA estimates that spending on business travel this year will be less than half of 2019’s $270 million and international travel spending will total about one-third the $179 million spent two years ago.

Martha Sheridan with the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau said the Boston tourism industry is relying on “leisure visitors” — families traveling to the city to take in attractions, couples vacationing and women taking “girls weekends.” That means weekend business is strong, but mid-week business is still “significantly lower than what it would normally be.”

That could begin to change, she said, when conventions resume at the end of July.


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