Philly Tourism Leader: Some City Hotels Will Be “Suspending Operations”

Visit Philadelphia CEO Jeff Guaracino says the hit to Philly’s tourism sector from coronavirus is “massive.” But he believes the industry can rebound quickly.

philadelphia tourism

Philadelphia tourism is going to take a hit from coronavirus. Photograph by J. Fusco for VISIT PHILADELPHIA

Jeff Guaracino has been the CEO of Visit Philadelphia, one of the city’s two major tourism organizations, since 2018. Guaracino previously served as head of Welcome America and the Atlantic City Alliance. He spoke with Philly Mag about the impact of coronavirus on tourism and hospitality.

How much of a hit has tourism taken?
It’s massive. We know that visitors spend $33 million a day when they’re here. And we know 73,000 Philadelphians depend on the hospitality industry [for their livelihoods]. This is unlike anything that I’ve been through before. I worked through 9/11 and 2008. And in 2012 I went to Atlantic City [and we dealt with] Hurricane Sandy. But this once-in-a-century pandemic – I think we won’t see the depths of the impact for some time.

Just to take one step back. We often talk about economic impact and jobs, how many hotel rooms, conventions, etc. We’ve decided it’s about people. I’m born and raised in Philly. My mom was a single mom working in the casinos in the ’80s. For me and for many of us, it’s personal.

This is going to be a long-term recovery. We’re not just talking about the health crisis, which will get managed by the experts who can do that. It’s going to take a couple of years to rebuild the industry. And we’re a much bigger industry now than we were previously. We’ve been growing. There are more hotels. There are more jobs. There are more restaurants. There are more attractions. So the drop is a bigger drop.

Do you know how much hotel bookings are down?
We have a rolling count of hotel-room nights lost. Really what’s happening right now is that a series of hotels [in Philadelphia] will be suspending operations. Hotels are not going to be closing, but they’re going to suspend operations. When, for public safety, people are asked to stay at home, and shops and restaurants and travel are restricted, there’s just not a lot of demand. The suspending of operations, I suspect, will continue to happen.

Any specific hotels?
I don’t want to point out one particular hotel.

Are you confident they’ll eventually start operating again?
I think the hotels will without a doubt come back. What we learned after 9/11 and 2008 is that the travel industry tends to rebound quickly. Some of the data I’ve seen – when the health crisis passes, leisure tourism might actually increase. People might not being going to Europe. They might not to be going to Asia. They may choose not to take a cruise vacation. But they’re going to travel. And there’s a pent-up demand, which we’ve seen historically through these major issues. So there could be more than 15 million incremental domestic leisure trips this summer by people who might have taken another type of vacation — we might able to introduce an affordable, accessible vibrant Philadelphia to them.

Will that shape Visit Philadelphia’s marketing?
Without a doubt. We have a short-term marketing plan. How do we continue to share the positive stories even when the news is tough? How do we continue do what we do best at Visit Philly? But also, how do we plan for a recovery? Right now we’re working on a summer recovery tourism marketing plan. Hopefully we’re past this [by then].

How do you know what travelers are interested in?
We are doing a ton of new research now in real time because we’re trying to understand what are we really dealing with. [We have consultants] doing some really sophisticated social and media listening for us. [Another consultant] is doing a consumer sentiment survey, both nationally and in our key markets like New York. We just got the first baseline in. Because we’re going to need to understand what’s the psyche of the tourists we want to bring back. What kind of trips are they going to be looking for?

What’s that research showing?
The first piece of insight that came out this week was that people said, in New York, that it would take them a couple of months to start traveling again. It’s going to take a little time for people to get back into the saddle of travel. Now that’s just one benchmark. I think all of us are thinking, okay, as soon as it’s over, everything will go back to normal. But I think we have to think about things in short-term and long-term [phases].

Are you optimistic about help from the government?
I’m very encouraged. I’ve been watching or attending the press conferences that the Mayor and Brian Abernathy have been doing. They’re moving really really quickly. When they said there’s no playbook for this,  they’re right – there’s no playbook for this. And looking at how our state and region are coming together under the toughest of circumstances, I think that people are doing a really great job.  I think the $2 trillion federal relief bill is really really important to helping the hospitality industry. We’ve been really engaged in that.

It’s going to be a team effort. And Philadelphia is a good team. I’m glad to be on the Philadelphia team. When I look around my home town, people really care. I think when we get on the other side of this, you’re going to see a stronger, better Philadelphia.

How is Visit Philadelphia doing operating as a virtual organization?
Zoom for us has really been great technology. Every morning at 9:30 we have a staff meeting, and at 4 o’clock we have another staff meeting. Here’s what’s great: we have discovered so much more about our colleagues than you would know. Because every morning you’re in their house. Who has dogs. Who has cats. Their significant other is walking by. What’s on their walls. Some people have a morning look and an afternoon look. [laughs] We now know more about each other’s lives. There’s always a silver lining.