With the holiday season on their doorsteps, local visitors bureaus and retailers normally would be gearing up for one of the year’s busiest shopping weekends.
But marketing the region as a travel destination is not an easy task as federal, state and local public health officials plead with Americans to remain at home during a pandemic.
How do you encourage commerce when consumers lack the confidence to travel?
“Very carefully,” said Keith Rahe, president and CEO of Travel Dubuque.
On average, more than 166,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 per day over the past two weeks, bringing the nation’s case count to more than 11.8 million. The disease is linked to more than 250,000 deaths.
Alarmed with rapidly rising infections and the specter of hospitals filled to capacity, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended this week that people celebrate Thanksgiving at home.
“You have to factor in … people who are vulnerable,” said City of Dubuque Public Health Specialist Mary Rose Corrigan. “Is it worth it for one year to take that risk?”
Residents appear to be taking that message to heart.
Longwoods International, a tourism research firm, found that only 58% of respondents have scheduled travel plans within the next six months, the lowest percentage since the pandemic’s onset in March.
The national survey indicated that 53% of people will not travel at all during the holidays, and only 39% of people felt safe opening their communities to visitors. During Thanksgiving, only 23% plan to travel by car and 5% by air.
The situation is uncharted ground for many in the tourism industry, which has experienced record losses this year. Compared to 2019, annual travel spending has decreased $58 million in Iowa, $466 million in Illinois and $110 million in Wisconsin, according to a study conducted by Tourism Economics.
“With COVID really running strong not only in this area but in a lot of areas, it’s going to be a difficult winter,” Rahe said.
Paradoxically, tourism professionals advise that people not travel this season and, when they do, only with members of their household.
“We want people to practice every safety measure that they can because we want this curve to flatten to the point where we all can enjoy the outdoor and indoor events,” said James Schneider, of Grant County (Wis.) Tourism Council. “I know family is important. We would rather have you get together with your family for Easter than take a risk now and risk your health.”
To support local dining establishments, he urged residents to purchase gift cards as stocking stuffers and to make use of curbside pickup.
Grant County chambers of commerce also are promoting activities that lend themselves to social distancing.
Holiday light shows, such as Katie’s Winter Wonderland put on by Platteville Regional Chamber, will showcase the city’s community gardens and enable children to take their photo near Santa Claus — but not on his lap.
“Even when Santa and Mrs. Claus aren’t here, it’s beautiful,” said Kathy Kopp, the chamber’s retired director.
Grant County also boasts more than 400 miles of snowmobile trails, manicured by local clubs.
“For social distancing and (to) get out and get some fresh air, it’s kind of a perfect storm for southwest Wisconsin,” said Drew Nussbaum, regional specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
Accustomed to out-of-towners enjoying a weekend getaway, retailers in the heart of the Galena, Ill., shopping district are cautiously optimistic as they look to Thanksgiving weekend, traditionally a feast for holiday shoppers.
“Honestly, I’m not sure what to expect,” said Jennifer Pickett, buyer and director at Gabby’s Gifts. “I’m trying to be positive about everything.”
Although the 2,000-square-foot store can accommodate large crowds, she is prepared to control foot traffic by having customers wait outside if needed.
Alana Turner, co-owner of Poopsie’s, another popular gift store, has promoted holiday shopping since September. Supply chains have been disrupted, she said, so diffusing the buying spree enables her to maintain stock.
Corrigan, the public health specialist, said shoppers still can support local retailers safely by shopping on their websites.
Julie Clark, the owner of the Dubuque gift shop Potpourri, said people have been buying early. Gift packages that can be shipped to distant friends and family are popular with customers this year, she said.