Erickson: Confidence in Safety Key to Recovery

Loudoun’s hospitality and tourism industry has been shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Visit Loudoun President and CEO Beth Erickson has said it can also lead the recovery—if people feel safe coming to Loudoun.

“People are going to want to come out to an area with the rare open spaces, fresh air, great food, wine, ability to start connecting with people in a way that they have not had in a while in a safe environment, or a perceived safe environment,” Erickson told supervisors on the county finance committee May 12. “So I think that one of the other things that’s going to be key, is the consumer confidence in the safety of the venues and the destination when they start going back in. And that’s why it’s so critically important that we manage this situation well.”

Visit Loudoun functions as the county’s convention and visitor bureau, receiving funding from the county from taxes on stays in hotels and bed and breakfasts. For the current fiscal year, collections are expected to be below previous budget projections by more than $1.4 million, to a total of $2.9 million in tax revenues. For Fiscal Year 2021 beginning in July, collections are expected to be down anywhere from $283,000—if a recovery were to begin in May—to almost $1.4 million, depending on when business picks back up.

Either way, hotel tax revenues—a reflection of how busy Loudoun’s tourism industry is—are not expected to reach their Fiscal Year 2019 high again for years.

Loudoun’s tourism industry was as recently as 2018 the third-largest tourism industry in the state by tourism revenues. This year, Visit Loudoun has already poured money into a relief fund for hospitality workers. But Erickson said her organization is helping Loudoun’s tourism and hospitality industry get ready to get back to work. And, she said, Loudoun is well suited to lead that comeback.

In particular, she said, it doesn’t have the population density of other major tourism draws like New York City, and while it may take a while until tourists are comfortable with hopping on an airplane, many visitors to Loudoun drive here.

“We’ve got the real key benefits that people are going to be looking toward when they start moving and beginning to start meeting again,” Erickson said. “Loudoun County is right there in order to be able to maximize the opportunity.”

And she warned against rushing into a disorganized reopening of business.

“What you’re seeing in other destinations is that the opening process may not have been as well-executed as everybody had hoped, so I think the  more that we can make sure our businesses are well aligned and ready to go, I think the better our stepping into that arena will be,” Erickson said.

Old Ox Brewery president and co-owner Chris Burns agreed with Erickson’s advice, saying breweries are facing a lot of uncertainty and anxiety.

“People really want to be able to do business, and people want to be able to welcome customers back to their establishments, and I think that’s perfectly natural,” Burns said. “There’s the sense that no matter what, we want to make sure that we’re being as safe as possible, because the worst-case scenario is if we start opening back up, and then all of a sudden we have to go back down into a lockdown.”

Breweries will likely span the entire reopening process. Elsewhere in Virginia, in the first phase of Gov. Ralph Northam’s “Forward Virginia” plan to gradually reopen, breweries have been allowed to welcome customers only outside, and only with social distancing protocols in place.

Some breweries, particularly in western Loudoun, will be well-suited to that, Burns pointed out.

But others in relatively small, downtown spaces will likely have to wait until the region is further along in reopening to open their doors again.

And he added the other thing businesses need from the government is clear guidance and predictability. He pointed to the short time lead-up time businesses in other parts of Virginia had after the announcement they would begin reopening on May 15—or the announcement on May 14 that Richmond would not reopen after all.

“I completely understand, public safety comes first 100 percent,” Burns said. “But from our perspective, what need from regulators is, we need a concrete plan, and we need it with some advance notice.”

Northam’s most recent executive order will keep Loudoun in “phase zero” of shutdowns, the current regime, until Friday, May 29, although that could be amended by another executive order.

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