October 18, 2021

Industry locally feels pinch from virus pandemic

Kevin Conlon/city editor

Michelle and Joe Violando of Phoenix, Arizona, tour the 1980 House Museum in Cortland on Friday afternoon as Pam McLean, right, a volunteer leads them.

The couple was just two of the people who have toured the historic house since it was allowed to reopen in August after shutting down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“A lot of folks are taking short drives,” museum Executive Director David Lane said Friday.

Joe and Michelle Violando of Phoenix, Arizona, were in the area to attend a wedding in Ithaca and stopped at the museum.

“We looked for attractions along the way and this caught my attention,” Joe Violando said.

The couple was cautious where they stopped, due to the coronavirus concerns.

“It depends on what it is and how crowded it is,” Violando said.

Pam McLean, a volunteer at the museum for seven years, conducted the tour, explaining at one point a display in cases in a second-floor hallway containing products made by the Wickwire factory, owned by Chester Wickwire, the industrialist who built the home on Tompkins Street that is now the museum.

Lane said many people are coming from Ithaca or the New York City area.

“They go online, see the house, read a little bit about us and are intrigued,” he said.

However, while business has been good for the 1890 House, hotels like the Holiday Inn Express on Locust Avenue in Cortland have seen a decline in stays because people aren’t traveling to the area for many of the events that would have taken place late-spring and over the summer.

“The travel industry has been one of the hardest hit industries during the COVID pandemic,” said Meghan Lawton, executive director of the Cortland County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “According to US Travel, since the beginning of March the pandemic has resulted in over $386 billion in cumulative losses for the U.S. travel economy and travel spending in NYS in particular is down 73% YOY (year over year) since March 1.”

Hotels in particular are taking a drastic hit.

“At the height of the pandemic, many of our lodging properties decided to close completely and those that stayed open were reporting 5% to 10% occupancy,” she said. “Properties here in Cortland have reopened now and are reporting higher traffic, but most are still experiencing half of the occupancy they typically see.”

Holiday Inn Manager Theresa Williams said Monday the hotel saw some parents visit their children at college.

“What we don’t have is the typical sport teams we were seeing every weekend,” she said. The annual state high school soccer championship didn’t take place; baseball was canceled in June and July; there was no spring lacrosse.

The hotel sees some patrons from business travel. “We do get some tree cutting services,” she said, and flaggers for some of the road construction going on.

But as for families visiting — they just aren’t seeing them — and she expects it to stay that way into next year, meaning business is about one-third of normal.

Typically, the county collects $550,000 to $650,000 in occupancy tax dollars each year. This year, it can expect to collect half that, Lawton said. That won’t affect next year’s tourism marketing grants, but it will take a bite from 2022.

“So, while we will see a big hit to the available dollars in 2022, we know that this hit is coming and we are able to prepare for it,” Lawton said.

Lawton said the bureau has not stopped promoting activities in the county, but has changed its messaging — several times in fact.

“One of the best things about Cortland County is our abundance of outdoor activities, no matter the season,” Lawton said. “Travelers are currently searching for places that they can visit in a safe way, and this translates into hiking, biking, kayaking, skiing, snowmobiling, etc. These are all activities that we offer here in Cortland County, and our office has been pushing out safe adventure travel.”

One of those adventures is the Experience Cortland GeoTour, a GPS-based scavenger hunt that takes participants to 20 historic sites across the county.

“We have seen a dramatic increase in visitors coming here specifically to do the GeoTour this summer, because it is a safe, socially distant activity,” she said.

Lawton said the bureau is also pushing to have people plan visits post-COVID.

“We know the traveler is still out there, and still wants to visit, and we will be here ready and willing to safely accept them when they travel again,” Lawton said.

City Editor Kevin Conlon contributed to this report.