Looking for late-stage pandemic deals on hotels? Consider sticking to the cities. Popular rural destinations west of the Cascades — near national parks, along the Pacific coast — are happy to see tourists, and depend on them for income, but aren't hurting for customers right now.
"Last year was even a little bit busier than 2019, to be honest," said Tiffany Turner, CEO of Adrift Hospitality, which runs six coastal hotels (in Seaside, Oregon; Astoria, Oregon; Seaview, Washington; and three hotel properties in its home base of Long Beach, Washington) with a seventh currently under construction. "By sheer, dumb luck we're in a rural beach town and that's where people feel safest traveling. We're the anomaly."
The feat of seeing more business in the pandemic year of 2020 than the year before is even more impressive when you consider that hotels in Pacific County — which includes Seaview and Long Beach — were closed for 12 weeks when COVID-19 first arrived.
The economic recovery for hotels in Washington state is uneven, with rural locales tending to lead the pack. That's a reversal from pre-pandemic years, said Andi Day, executive director of the Pacific County Tourism Bureau and board member of the nonprofit Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA).
"Five years ago, we had this dynamic where so much tourism was in the urban areas and the gateways," she said. (In tourism-industry-speak, "gateways" are the places tourists typically land and spend the first day or night when visiting someplace new.) "We were like, 'How can we spread that love around to the rural areas?' Now it's almost flipped. We are recovering very quickly and asking how we can reboot our urban centers."
As the WTA designed its 2021 summer marketing campaign — assisted with $12 million from the state Legislature — it conducted a statewide audit of destination communities. "We got a pretty good sense about who's more sensitive about being overwhelmed," said WTA executive director David Blandford, "and who was saying: 'No, we want the floodgates open.'" On the more sensitive list: small towns, especially along the coast and near parks, some of which were overwhelmed by clumsy, littering, blunderbuss tourists in 2020. On the "more please" list: cities (especially Seattle) and some destinations in Eastern Washington.
The vogue for the countryside is visible by other measures as well — like on Vrbo, an online marketplace for vacation-home rentals.
"The demand is largely focused in areas near lakes and mountains," said Alison Kwong, of the Expedia Group, which owns Vrbo. "For example, destinations like San Juan County and those near Olympic National Park have seen an over 20% and 40% increase in summer demand compared to the same period in 2019, respectively."
Meanwhile, room revenue in Seattle has sunk much further than in the state as a whole, said Anthony Anton, CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association. In March 2021, Seattle room revenue was down 55.6% from March 2020, while statewide, it was only down 35.9%.
Downtown Seattle, in fact, has the second-lowest hotel occupancy rate among its travel-competitor cities, with Vancouver, B.C., at the bottom.
In April, hotels in downtown Seattle had an occupancy rate of 30.8%, said Kauilani Robinson of Visit Seattle, a nonprofit marketing organization. Portland was at 34.4% and San Francisco at 38.7% while Nashville, Tennessee, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Austin, Texas, were all above 50%. U.S. hotels as a whole ran at 57.5% occupancy. (The national figures come from Smith Travel Research, a data-analytics firm and much-referenced authority in the tourism and hospitality business.)
Why are Seattle hotels doing so poorly — not just compared with the rest of the state, but the rest of the nation?
It's a few things, explained Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of Visit Seattle.
"Over the last decade, we've been a city running at 80% occupancy," he said. That success has been built on a mix of business travel (meetings and conventions) plus international travel which, Norwalk said, had been the fastest-growing segment for Seattle's hotel business over the past decade. That, as well as leisure travel, withered during the pandemic — but COVID-19 wasn't the only culprit. The news cycle, Norwalk argued, also played a part.
"There was uncertainty about safety in the city related to social unrest," he said. "Seattle and Portland spent way too much time in the national news about how crazy and unsafe they were — which was really not the case, but people were staying away anyway." Vancouver only trailed Seattle and Portland, he said, because of Canada's border closure.
"That's going to be favorable for the consumer," Norwalk said. "There's going to be some good pricing and good packages available."
Some downtown hotels are offering 20% off (Motif Seattle) and third or fourth nights free (the Four Seasons, some Seattle Hyatt hotels), while others are offering packages like discounts on kayaking tours (the W Hotel) and a $100 Nordstrom gift card per night of stay (Westin Seattle). But be sure to read the fine print and check "offer" prices against the regular prices — nightly room rates at the Westin Seattle with the $100 gift card or the W Hotel's kayak-discount package, for example, tend to run pricier than the same rooms without the packages, significantly cutting into the purported savings.
Visit Seattle is also working on I Know A Place, a marketing campaign involving hotels, local businesses and the city's Downtown Revitalization Working Group to provide incentives — savings at restaurants, for example — for travelers to stay in downtown Seattle. That campaign, Norwalk said, is evolving and will continue to grow throughout the summer. (Check the website, visitseattle.org/i-know-a-place, for updates.)
In good news for Seattle hoteliers, Norwalk says: Things are coming back. That 30.8% occupancy rate in April was a pandemic high, and several 2021 conventions that had been wavering — including Emerald City Comic Con — gave encouraging signs about moving forward after Gov. Jay Inslee announced the state would lift COVID-19 restrictions by June 30.
Blandford, of the state WTA, said things are looking good for the travel industry as a whole, as more and more consumers indicate they're interested in travel — and not just the short-haul trips popular during the pandemic.
"We were saying even before COVID-19 that travel demand — the intention to travel — was strong," Blandford said. "Now consumer confidence is at an all-time pandemic high. Destination Analysts [another hospitality data firm] says 87% of Americans plan to take some kind of trip this summer. That kind of percentage is remarkable."
The tourism success of coastal towns like Long Beach might not be the anomaly for long.