When Gov. Ralph Northam announced he was lifting social distancing requirements put in place at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, The National Conference Center wasted no time in announcing to the world that it was ready to again welcome large groups to its Lansdowne facility, known for playing host to large conferences in the learning and development communities.
“The doors are open,” Chuck Ocheltree, The National’s chief marketing officer, said. “In fact, this week and next week we are enjoying a very nice occupancy level, about 400 people here in two different educational programs.”
Ocheltree and others in the hospitality industry are bullish on the recovery potential of the region, but warn that it will likely be a slow one.
“While we are looking at the lifting of restrictions and it may feel like the end of a prolonged economic event, it’s really just the beginning of our industry’s recovery,” said Beth Erickson, CEO of Visit Loudoun, the county’s tourism authority. “We’ve got a long way to get back to where we were in 2019.”
Initial indications are promising, however.
Erickson reported that hotel occupancy in April, prior to restrictions being lifted, was just under 50% countywide. While that’s a far cry from Loudoun’s pre-pandemic norm hovering around 80%, it’s the highest occupancy rate since COVID-19 took hold last March, she said. Loudoun continues to outperform the rest of the Northern Virginia region in terms of hotel occupancy, Erickson added. In terms of forecasts, hotels in the county are still expected to lose around $72 million in revenue this year, but that’s down almost 30% from last year’s $100 million lost revenue sucker punch.
Business travel is a key indicator for Visit Loudoun, and Erickson and others are looking to the sky for signs of recovery. Dulles Airport, a major hub of East Coast business travel as well as international travel, is again beginning to show activity reminiscent of prior to the pandemic. Micah Lillard, public information officer for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, reported that between April 1 and June 1, the number of passengers screened by the Transportation Safety Administration at Dulles increased by almost 700% over the same period in 2020. Additionally, the airport hit a COVID-era high for passengers screened at its TSA checkpoints on Friday, May 28, the start of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, with 17,834.
Lillard said he expects to see those records increase as the busy summer travel season begins.
“While we remain well below pre-COVID numbers as far as passengers flying through Dulles International Airport, we are encouraged by the gradual uptick in travel, which is led in large part by leisure passengers —people flying to visit friends and relatives—especially as we get full-swing into the busy summer travel period,” he added.
Erickson said the busier Dulles is, the better the indications are for the industry as a whole.
“When you start to see those numbers coming up consistently, you’re going to know we’re really in a full-blown recovery,” Erickson said.
Leisure travel within Loudoun has not been nearly as affected as business travel, Erickson said. She noted Loudoun’s reputation as “an incredible drive destination,” accessible within a few hours’ car ride from several states. Sports tournaments have been another bright spot, she said, while acknowledging, “they don’t fill hotel rooms Monday through Thursday,” a gap the county looks to business travelers to close.
Attracting business travelers and driving demand for Loudoun as a group destination is going to be a major charge for Visit Loudoun moving forward, Erickson said.
“That’s going to move the needle for recovery,” she said.
Ocheltree believes some organizations will completely re-engineer the way they conduct employee training, the bread-and-butter niche for The National. He foresees “hybrid” training becoming the norm—offering in-person training and options for some employees to view the training at a satellite location, in a smaller group setting. But Ocheltree said he does not believe in-person training or meetings, even in large groups, will go away altogether.
“Some things just can’t happen online. Some things have to happen in person. This one program that’s here now is teachers. I think they just feel being in person and having workshops and breakout sessions, all those things that happen and are unstructured formally create value.People recognize that,” he said.
Ocheltree said there is not one part of his organization that has not changed since the pandemic arrived. The National is not immune to staffing shortages plaguing the hospitality industry globally, and Ocheltree said that has caused them to look at compensation and cross-training. Some safety enhancements put in place during the pandemic are not likely to go away, as the general public slowly gets more comfortable with meetings and in-person events.
“Everything from the way we do housekeeping to the way we serve food to the way we take care of the chairs, tables, A/V equipment, all of the touch points are being addressed differently. The way people move throughout the conference center is just different. There’s much more sensitivity to traffic patterns, large gatherings, bottlenecks. We still do buffet-style [meals] but everything is pre-wrapped including silverware. Those types of changes I think are here to stay,” he said.
As different parts of the country are handling COVID restrictions and embracing recovery differently, Ocheltree said The National is not yet seeing the floodgates open in terms of activity. But he foresees a potential supply and demand problem for 2022.
“What we see happening is people are going to realize [they’re] not the only one waiting.If everyone waits for 2022 supply and demand, it’s going to cause prices to go way up and cause space to be very limited for 2022,” he said.
The National has space on its side, however, with Ocheltree noting that a recent conference was able to offer attendees 29 breakout rooms, something most traditional hotels cannot accommodate.
Ocheltree and others point to the faster recovery of the leisure travel market, as the population emerges from a prolonged case of cabin fever.
Other statistics back up that assessment. Erickson reports that traffic on Visit Loudoun’s website is up 18% from the pre-COVID year of 2019. Destination Analysts, which has been tracking and measuring traveler sentiment since the beginning of the pandemic, also reported that 80% of Americans now indicate a desire to travel. With summer leisure travel expected to be strong, Erickson also expressed excitement about a certain facet of Destination Analysts’ findings.
“Travelers are particularly interested in visiting small towns and rural destinations. That is Loudoun County, that is our sweet spot. That’s why I think we’re going to continue to see recovery,” she said.