January 5, 2023
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© 2023 Delaware Business Times
WILMINGTON — When it comes to tourism, 2022 continued to be a solid year for the First State, especially when it came to leisure travel. But looking to the future, the question remains: when will meetings and corporate travel fully recover?
Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to work-from-home models, there may be some lingering effects on business travel. Fifty-five percent of hoteliers and industry insiders expect that hotel-based meetings attendance in 2023 to continue to be 90% or less than pre-pandemic numbers, according to an annual survey held by Northstar Meetings Group/Cvent.
“The fundamental model has changed, and companies are operating with a partial presence in the office. Some are realizing that virtual meetings could help avoid some trouble, and they became used to doing business like this,” said Bill Sullivan, board member of the Delaware Hotel & Lodging Association and manager of the Courtyard by Marriott Newark. “It’s a major concern throughout the industry, whether you will have the corporate core business.
“I think we’ll probably have 60% or 70% of [business travel] next year, but we’ll still be working to get back to where we were,” he added.
In November, 59% of all Delaware’s hotels were occupied, slightly under where they were in the same month in 2021, a record-setting year due to pent-up demand, and in pre-pandemic 2019. Statewide average revenue per available room is still trending on 2021 levels, hitting a high of $144 in July.
Meanwhile, the tourism chiefs from the state point to the room accommodations tax, which funds part of their budget, as another key sign that demand is high for Delaware visits. Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau (GWCVB) Executive Director Jen Boes notes that their budget is still off 25%, another sign of slow returning business travel.
“That said, our meetings and conventions are really strong. Our bookings are almost back to where they were pre-COVID, and we’re booking larger events,” Boes said. “Our contracted room nights for those have nearly tripled.”
In 2022, the GWCVB contracted for 14,217 room nights in 45 bookings solely for meetings and conventions, bringing many for business travel. In 2019, that number was 5,250 room nights.
“Wilmington remains an easy drive for about one-third of the population, and it’s less money to book here, when airfares are required,” she added. “I think the online meetings have affected smaller meetings, but I don’t think it’ll take the place of face-to-face networking.”
In Kent County, room accommodation taxes hit record numbers, specifically between August and November. Kent County Tourism President Pete Bradley attributes the success to continued draws like the Thunder Over Dover and Firefly Music Festival, which he expects to continue in 2024 – Firefly is taking a year off in 2023.
“We’re doing well with the metro areas like Baltimore and Philadelphia, because we are a quick getaway and we have outdoor and historical attractions as well,” Bradley said. “But some of our events like the Amish Country Bike Tour have been quietly growing. We expect next year to be a big year, especially as DE Turf continues to be an anchor.”
Sussex County continues to enjoy high occupancy rates with the beach as the major draw, but also maintaining solid trends in the winter months. Southern Delaware Tourism Executive Director Scott Thomas also pointed out that hosting the “summer White House” when President Joe Biden visits helps to fill hotel rooms by staffers, media and security as well.
“We have big fall events like the Sea Witch Festival, but also having [Biden] here maxes out occupancy on some weekends. There’s a lot of factors working together, and it’s going to be interesting to see where it goes from here,” he said.
Looking ahead, all Delaware’s counties will be examining new marketing venues, from localized ads with Connected TV for Kent County, or launching of commercials for social media for the GWCVB in the spring, leveraging the attention garnered from the Biden presidency and the PGA Tour.
From a state perspective, Delaware Tourism Director Jessica Welch said it may be time to tell the First State’s story beyond the typical drive-from locations. Right now, her office is working with the 1440 Film Co. to showcase Delaware, potentially targeting the Boston and Chicago markets.
“Some of the data we have shows that we have visitors from there, and New York, assuming because it’s colder and they may want to come for a warmer beach,” Welch said. “New York has always been where we draw from, in addition to Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. But we’re really looking forward to attracting more people from those three cities.”
In addition, Welch said her office would be sending representatives to travel and adventure shows to boost Delaware’s name in the vacation market – as well as attending the American Bus Association Conference to draw group tours back.