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Waco tourism head hopes for reopening but ‘competition will be fierce’

Waco tourism head hopes for reopening but ‘competition will be fierce’

From the Coronavirus latest: What's happening around Waco series

There is a date Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Todd Bertka would dearly love to make room for on his usually packed calendars, but no one knows it yet: the date city and state shelter-in-place and other coronavirus-related restrictions start easing.

Once that is known, and under what conditions a reopening can be made, local shops, restaurants, tourist sites and other businesses can start implementing plans to welcome back customers that are their life-blood.

“It’s hard to run a race when you don’t know the starting line,” Bertka said.

What is known is the reason why travel and tourism around the country largely has come to an abrupt halt: a pandemic that has caused more than 50,000 American deaths, forcing state and local officials to limit public gatherings, travel, sports, university and school operations, and more to slow the virus’s spread.

National Travel and Tourism Week, May 3-9, has provided a chance for the tourism and hospitality industry to sing its praises. This year, however, the song is one of survival and the industry’s importance to local, state and national economies.

Local shutdowns started in mid-March and wiped out a spring’s worth of tourist-drawing events and venues: Spring at the Silos, the Texas Food Truck Showdown, Brazos Nights concerts, Art on Elm Avenue, the Silo District Marathon; smaller concerts, festivals and sporting events; and Spring Break attendance bumps for the Cameron Park Zoo, Waco museums and other tourist sites.

Several Waco hotels have closed temporarily, with employees either furloughed or laid off.

Bertka did not say how many conventions booked for Waco have canceled in the last two months but pointed to 2019 numbers compiled by the Convention and Visitors Bureau that demonstrate tourism’s key role in the city.

  • With some 6,042 local workers, tourism ranks as McLennan County’s fifth-largest employer, accounting for about 10% of county employment.
  • Last year, Waco was third in Texas in hotel occupancy rates.
  • Visitors to Waco — some 2.4 million last year — spent almost $400 million in direct travel spending.

“We’d like to remind people that tourism is a major part of our way of life,” he said.

Part of this year’s travel and tourism messaging also will recognize the contribution made by the thousands of local hospitality workers with testimonials shared on social media.

The Waco tourism head remembers how the industry was hit in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks when airline travel plummeted and fears of terrorism chilled consumers’ willingness to travel and vacation. The impact of the coronavirus and COVID-19, however, is different, with multiple parts of the economy affected and simultaneously.

“This is unprecedented and uncharted for everybody,” Bertka said.

Still, he thinks it is possible, however slowly, for Waco to regain its standing as a Texas tourism magnet.

If businesses and public venues are allowed to expand their public access sometime in May with the appropriate social distancing and sanitation measures advised by public health authorities, Bertka sees the summer as a time to start a slow recovery.

As attractions, restaurants and businesses reopen, local residents need to rediscover and support them, rebuilding community confidence in going out. Out-of-town tourism will pick up more slowly with a new challenge for Waco tourism officials: other cities equally hungry to draw visitors their way.

“The competition will be fierce,” Bertka said.

Still, he sees Waco has advantages. Its central location and less reliance on air travel for out-of-towners make it a reasonable choice for cost-conscious tourists. Pursuing certification as a Texas Music-Friendly Community, a process started last year, would win visitors’ attention and help strengthen the local music scene. And the Waco Convention Center’s size makes it attractive to smaller conventions that now need more space because of social distancing measures.

Ever the optimist, Bertka is not thinking of last year as Waco’s golden past in tourism.

“Our goal is to return to our pre-COVID-19 levels of popularity,” he said.

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