Past Octobers have offered plenty of invitations for Waco visitors, both in and out of the city: the Heart O’ Texas Fair and Rodeo, Magnolia Market’s Silobration, the Waco Cultural Arts Fest, Baylor University football games, the Ironman 70.3 triathlon, the Waco Wild West Bike Tour and more.
Led by the HOT Fair, which could push 200,000 visitors given 10 days of clear weather, the collective October attendance for those events could add up to more than 300,000 people even with some counted in multiple events.
The confluence of seasonal events made October second to March in terms of tourism and event attendance, with March getting the edge in large part because of school spring breaks enabling more visitors and shoppers to come to Waco.
That was then. This is now, because of state, local and organizational restrictions aimed at limiting spread of the coronavirus causing COVID-19: The HOT Fair and Rodeo is reduced to the One HOT Rodeo and joint youth livestock shows by the HOT Fair and State Fair of Texas that are not open to the public. Silobration is canceled. The Ironman event is canceled. Waco Cultural Arts Fest’s component festivals are either canceled or virtual. Baylor home football games, barring more last-minute cancellations, are capped at 25% seating capacity.
October is proving a season of tricks and no treats, an Oktoberfest without a fest, pumpkin spice consumed more at home and in the car rather than in restaurants and coffeehouses.
Five months ago, with Waco schools, restaurants, tourist sites, theaters, performing and sports venues and many businesses and shops shuttered by a countywide shelter-in-place order, a regular October seemed like hope on the horizon.
A summer surge in COVID-19 cases and stubborn case and hospitalization numbers that have not returned to spring levels, however, have kept many COVID-19 restrictions and measures in place, including a ban on most public events.
Six months after COVID-19 started to show up in McLennan County, there are 487 active cases and a death toll of 117.
“We’re still in the infancy of the rebound. It’s not going to be a quick rebound for anybody,” said Todd Bertka, director of the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This is lasting longer than we all thought it would.”
COVID-19 restrictions have now been in effect during the two peak periods of Waco tourism and event attendance, affecting the local economy and revenues from sales and hotel occupancy taxes.
Still, there are more sounds of life from a quiet October than were heard in March and April. Waco’s hotels are all open and operating after some had temporarily closed in late spring. Restaurants have been welcoming onsite diners, although occupancy limits were rolled back to 50% from 75% last week because of several days of high COVID-19 hospitalization numbers in the five-county state Trauma Service Area that includes Waco.
Shops and retail businesses, including downtown’s Magnolia Market at the Silos, have opened their doors to customers.
Downtown businesses and restaurants aren’t seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but where they are is not pitch black, either, said Megan Henderson, executive director of City Center Waco.
“Businesses are open, mostly, and they’re seeing people, mostly, and being operational is everything,” Henderson said.
The sales tax revenue those businesses generate for the city is less consistent than other tax revenue streams under normal conditions, and Waco officials were particularly cautious in estimating sales taxes for the budget year that started Thursday. They projected a 5% decline for the year, Budget director Paul Diaz said.
“We’ve been pretty conservative in our forecasts,” Diaz said.
Last year, the city brought in $3,343,871 in sale taxes, trailing collections from December, March and June and accounting for about 7.5% of the year’s total.
Overall, about 75% of sales tax revenues come from retail sales, about 10% from food and restaurant sales, and manufacturing and information services split the difference, Diaz said.
A greater hit is expected in the hotel occupancy taxes. Last year, the city received $4,617,066 in hotel occupancy taxes. In the city’s current budget, only $3,045,856 in hotel tax revenue is expected.
Even with its big crowds absent, October may continue a slow return to a new normal.
Visitor traffic at Waco tourism sites is slowly rebounding, though far from the averages of previous years. The Waco Convention Center and Visitors Bureau reports 96,618 people visiting the city’s tourist attractions in August, the highest level since March but a little more than half of the 178,954 who visited in August 2019.
Last October, Waco tourist sites logged 186,482 visitors and attendance still is far from the city’s past averages, when the months of April through July would see a monthly average of more than 200,000 people.
Hotel occupancy, too, is slowly coming back. Local hotels showed a 57.1% occupancy rate in August, still below the high 70% monthly rates of the year before and early 2020, but much better than the breath-taking April low of 29.5%.
Bertka said that if the September and October occupancy numbers continue the trend, that will be good news.
“If we’re in the 60 to 65% range, that’s a victory for us,” he said, adding that Waco is again back above the state average.
Convention center business is still in a slump as is air passenger traffic, as both industries are nationally. While event attendance is important to Waco tourism, Bertka said it rests more on Baylor students, parents and visitors; the Cameron Park Zoo; and Magnolia Market at the Silos.
With coronavirus concerns impacting tourism across the nation, the Waco director feels the city is in a good position to make a play in cautious times. It is within driving distance for many state residents looking to escape cabin fever with a day trip. It is more affordable than larger cities, and Waco’s moderate size may make it seem safer for those worried about COVID-19 contact.
The city tourism department is pushing to spread the word about Waco attractions. One effort, capitalizing on the city’s recent certification as a Texas Music Friendly City, will start at 4:30 p.m. Sunday with the debut of the television series “Texas Music Cafe: Destination Waco” on KXXV-TV.
Tourism marketing director Carla Pendergraft said there is anecdotal evidence to a slowly rebounding visitor population, including more traffic downtown, lines outside Magnolia Silos Baking Co., and more tour vans making the rounds.
Henderson, with City Center Waco, however, said it is the hometown customers who provide the core of downtown business support.
“Extra people can give you extra good days, but the bread-and-butter are the people who live here,” she said.
Even with no big October events to attend, there are plenty of reasons to come downtown and support local business, she said.
“It’s a great time to be outside. That’s the reason that all those things are in October,” Henderson said.