As COVID recedes, local tourism industry adapts

Sarah Eames | The Daily StarBarnyard Swing owner Marcy Birch poses with the new gem-mining attraction at the Milford mini-golf course Thursday, May 6.

After the coronavirus pandemic upended the 2020 spring and summer tourism season, Otsego County is adapting its marketing and promotion strategy to pandemic-modified trends.

“We have had to pivot a lot during COVID and coming out of COVID,” said Cassandra Harrington, executive director of Destination Marketing Corporation, the nonprofit organization designated as Otsego County’s Tourism Promotion Agency. “Non-traditional lodging has gained in popularity. People feel like they’re a little bit safer traveling by way of individual home rental — Airbnb, (Vacation Rentals by Owner), etc.”

DMC research indicated an increased demand for outdoor recreation, road trips and experiential activities, Harrington said.

“People were pent up for months and they now want to get out outdoors, explore the outside. It’s kind of a lingering effect: something they were doing a year ago and are continuing to do now,” she said. “Sometimes that experience is just going to a remote location and not having to be on a Zoom call.”

A consumer traveler sentiment survey, conducted every week since March, showed a preference among respondents for leisure travel, Harrington said. 72% of respondents said they planned to take a weekend trip or getaway between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

“These are the people we’re interested in communicating with,” those who have signaled an interest in visiting small towns in rural destinations, Harrington said. “We’ve got what people are looking for.”

The DMC’s annual travel guide will go virtual this year in a magazine-style format, available at thisiscooperstown.com/brochure

Advertising Cooperstown as “America’s best small town for the arts, baseball, outdoor activities and craft beverages,” the guide will feature user-generated photos gleaned from Instagram, Harrington said. “It’s been fun to see other people’s perspectives from the area.”

The brochure highlights the area’s leading attractions in history, education and outdoor activities for all seasons, as well as options for motorcoach travel, event venues and vacation rentals.

“A lot of corporate meetings and weddings that have been put on hold for the last 15 months, we’re seeing an uptick in those, so we wanted to draw some specific attention to that,” Harrington said. “We’re trying to bring occupancy tax back to a normal level, to get leisure travelers in here and hopefully fill the beds that we know we’re all lacking now due to current announcements and adjustments to this summer’s forecast.”

An occupancy tax, also known as a bed tax, is calculated as a percentage of a lodging establishment’s listing price and appears as a line item on receipts. Revenue from occupancy taxes fund the promotion and marketing of tourism activities within the county.

Otsego County lost an estimated $5.8 million in tax revenue amid the pandemic, according to county treasurer Allen Ruffles. 

“I think this county struggles because it relies on sales tax more than any other county in the entire state of New York, and bed tax is a big part of that,” said DMC board member Marcy Birch. “It’s imperative that we all understand that.”

Birch, who owns Barnyard Swing, a mini-golf course in Milford, also operates three local short-term rental properties listed on Airbnb.

“Last year, when the baseball camps had to close down due to COVID, we closed down, too, because we weren’t sure that we were supposed to be open,” Birch said, but when informed by the county that overnight lodging establishments were considered an essential service, she reopened her rentals in July.

“Of course, every family that’s been cooped up in a teeny tiny apartment in New York City, they just wanted to come up and sit on a porch for a week,” Birch said. “In spite of COVID, we were full. It was incredible.”

The mini-golf course, not considered an essential business, was permitted by the state to reopen in July, Birch said, but such a delayed start to the season, combined with the cancelation of Hall of Fame induction activities and baseball camps, resulted in a 70% reduction in business for the year.

Birch said she’s more optimistic for the coming season.

“People are more comfortable getting out. They’re looking for things to do,” Birch said. “There’s still some hesitancy with mass transit, people aren’t quite comfortable with that yet. People will drive somewhere before they’ll fly or take a train.”

Loosening COVID-era restrictions across the country, in concert with the increasingly widespread availability of vaccines, is emboldening vacationers to travel more a bit more broadly than they might have last year, Harrington said, noting that DMC is starting to branch its marketing campaigns outside of the state.

This year’s campaigns will see a significant reinvestment in search engine marketing, which was suspended temporarily at the beginning of the pandemic, Harrington said. Search engine optimization is one of the industry’s more expensive marketing components, but also one of the most effective.

“Our goal for this campaign was to give our visitors the resources they need to make their trip-planning easy and to get them here, as opposed to trying to siphon them through our website first,” Harrington said. “We’re super excited about launching that campaign because we know this is what people are looking for.”

“The first thing people ask me is, ‘What is there to do for kids?’” Birch said. “They’re not looking for ‘wowee’ things; they want to go out on an hour-long hike, or sit by the water.”

“I don’t think we always know what we have,” she continued. “People might not know that there’s trail-riding right down the road, or Cooperstown Equestrian Park right around the corner. You kind of hear about the same couple of things.”

Otsego County is home to an eclectic mix of private and individually owned overnight lodging facilities, including both traditional bed-and-breakfasts and more contemporary, casual Airbnbs, Birch said, in addition to hotel and motel chains and nationally recognized lodging facilities.

“The idea that they’re all running around trying to figure out what there is to do right now — that needs to be streamlined,” she said.

Barnyard Swing will host a business brochure exchange from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, May 19. Local business owners and establishment operators are invited to exchange marketing information and swap local recommendations. The mini-golf course will provide free ice cream and beer tastings and free mini-golf games, Birch said, and the Green Cow will offer free hot dogs.

“I think people are rediscovering their backyards, and that’s kind of a neat thing,” Birch said.

Regional rental analytics, provided daily by Airbnb, showed a 631% increase in searches for overnight stays in the area as compared to this time last year, but Birch reported a decrease in the availability of local overnight rentals, surmising that many operators are unsure how to draw a broader crowd than the annual baseball market.

Harrington noted that many local establishment operators reported difficulties in finding workers to help clean, maintain and operate their properties amid the pandemic, which may also contribute to the more limited market.

Schoharie County, which also contracts with DMC for marketing services, saw a 75% increase in Airbnb rentals throughout 2020 and a corresponding increase in annual occupancy tax collections, Harrington said. “People are staying in Schoharie County sometimes when they want to go to Cooperstown and then crossing the border because that’s where the inventory is.”

“If you open, they’re going to go shopping, they’re going to eat at restaurants, they’re going to buy gas here,” Birch said. “That’s what we want to see.”

“I know that we’re a little bit panicked by the loss of revenue and all the cancelations that are flooding in, but I think if we all work together, share this brochure, generate awareness about thisiscooperstown.com and get everybody on board as a united front that we can certainly attract the leisure traveler and make up for all those losses,” Harrington said.

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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