(Air date: October 22, 2020)
The tourism industry has been significantly impacted by COVID-19. Today we hear from Xinyi (Lisa) Qian from the University of Minnesota Extension Tourism Center. We'll discuss the state of Minnesota’s tourism sector and how it is looking toward recovery.
In this special series, we are looking back on webinars and articles shared early during the pandemic and how that information needs to shift for our current reality.
“We need our local residents to be our best ambassadors.”
— Xinyi Qian
- Christy Kallevig, Extension educator
- Xinyi (Lisa) Qian, Extension educator and Tourism Center, tourism specialist
- Visit the Tourism Center’s web page to see a variety of resources and up to date information to support tourism across the state.
Read this episode's conversation below.
Note: Our Vital Connections On Air episodes are audio-based interviews. Written transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before referencing content in print.
Christy Kallevig: Hello, this is Christy Kallevig, host of Vital Connections On Air. We have been experiencing some really difficult things in the last few months, and we know that there are more challenges ahead. At the Center for Community Vitality, we have been working to bring topics and partners together through webinars and articles since the end of March, to get you the information that you need
Now, I'm going back to those educators and asking them for updates and insights on what we should be doing in our current context. I'm sharing small parts from these long conversations over the next several weeks so that we can listen, reconnect with ideas, and hopefully take the next small steps. Here is part of my conversation with Lisa Qian, the Extension educator and tourism specialist with the Tourism Center, as we reflect on the tourism industry in the Covid-19 webinar series she led earlier this year.
I want to talk first about the Tourism Center, because we haven't really [had] the opportunity to highlight the Tourism Center on our podcast before. And so tell us a little bit about the work that you do within that center, and how you're helping tourism across Minnesota.
Xinyi (Lisa) Qian: Sure, that's a very good question. And thank you so much for asking. So the Tourism Center empowers, supports and prepares the tourism industry and communities that engage in tourism for success, and also, sustainability. The Tourism Center has been doing all this great work for over 30 years now. We are engaged in applied research, responding to industry and our community's needs with applied research, and we also do a variety of programs, including the tourism assessment program At Your Service, which is a customer service training; Festival and Event Management an online course; and the growing tourism leadership webinar series.
We also do a variety of public engagement and outreach work, and very much aligning with Extension’s missions and on the strategies, and obviously most of the work is done in collaboration with our colleagues, both was in the Center for Community Vitality with colleagues from across Extension, and also across the University of Minnesota, and I was certainly also tapping to the expertise and a knowledge of industry professionals and a wealth of knowledge from the communities too.
Christy Kallevig: Let's go back to pre-COVID-19. What was the tourism economy looking like in early 2020? Was it a healthy, robust industry, or were there already some challenges kind of on the horizon that folks were concerned about, and then everything changed on them in the middle of March?
Xinyi (Lisa) Qian: I would say throughout 2019, and in the very beginning of 2020, the tourism industry in Minnesota was healthy, and our tourism promotion agency in-state Explore Minnesota Tourism does its own applied research of industry and also works with a research firm to understand consumer behavior: preference, motivation and satisfaction and so forth. All of these are public information publicly available on Explore Minnesota Tourism’s website and nationally as a whole, the tourism industry was also healthy.
For example, the hotel industry has seen continuous increase in revenue per available room, there was robust new development, and in terms of hotel properties, researchers have been looking at different segments of the market into proactive in developing new markets in meeting consumers need ... and I very much on from late spring to early fall of 2020, so that was it looked like pre-pandemic.
Christy Kallevig: What types of things do you think people need to hear or see to get excited about travel again or to feel comfortable about travel again?
Xinyi (Lisa) Qian: Yeah, that's a very good question, and I think I would like to answer it at a micro-level. So there are on three micro-level factors that we need to consider. The first and foremost is perception of cleanliness and a safety. It has to be in the primary concern among travelers or say potential travelers and STIS and travel and tourism entities for hotels to attractions is water and so forth. I believe all these entities are implementing protocols, cleaners, measures and actions, and these are science-based.
They may have consulted guidelines of the Center for Disease Control for prevention, working with a local public health office in consulting, probably industry specific guidelines or state level guidelines, and these are all done obviously, based on science, and it is extremely important. But at the same time, the other side of the coin is customers’ perception, customers’ perception in their level of comfort, and these are equally important.
And so the question really is, how do we communicate with the customers? What is our messaging, so that customers have perceive it as safe to engage with travel again? So safety and the cleanliness definitely is a very important factor.
Xinyi (Lisa) Qian: Now, you mentioned the resurgence of cases, that is an even bigger, higher level factor, and so states with a surge or a resurgence of cases — we've seen Florida closing down their bars and restaurants again, so certainly it will affect peoples’ travel plans or intention to travel, and I've also anecdotally heard someone I know who had to planned a trip to California over the Fourth of July and cancel the trip to the resurgence of cases in that state.
So the second macro-level factor is economic. We are in the worst recession that we have seen in the past basically 100 years, and it's a lot worse than the Great Recession, and in the travel and tourism industry, the unemployment rate hovers around 50%. And so these numbers are very dire, and so will take years to fully recover. Economic factors certainly need to be considered in terms of how likely people will engage in travel again, and that not only applies to individuals and certainly also applies to businesses, large educational institutions, and so the propensity to spend on travel, that will change.
And lastly, there is a wild card, a factor, which is pent up demand; it is real. We have been daydreaming. And so, for example, we have seen certain resorts, and beach hotels logging more than 80% of occupancy rates and so even during normal times, that is a very healthy occupancy rate that we are talking about. And then also folks are willing to drive their own vehicles for much longer distances, and we may even see a revival of the American road trip, like in the 1960s, and so there are push and pull factors and how it plays out, it may very much differ by region and by state, even by communities.
Christy Kallevig: I think it was really interesting speaking about seeing it differently by state or region or even community, you brought up that some communities maybe are not ready to have tourists come and visit and be moving around that community. How is that impacting the industry, and I'm thinking areas that are maybe more remote, that don't have the same access to healthcare, that they might be a bit more closed off? How is that impacting both those businesses within those communities and their brand, and then the industry as a whole?
Xinyi (Lisa) Qian: Yes, that's a very, very good question. In some of my presentations--because I've been presenting to different entities--what I said is taking care of the people, and when I say people, it includes your customers or travelers and includes your staff, and for some, tourism entities also involves volunteers. And you also need to take care of your local residents, and indeed the sentiment amongst a major minority of local residents is that we still do not feel very comfortable welcoming travelers into our community at this point.
And I believe it is a combination of looking at ... Again, the macro level factors going on in our community, in a state, in a region, and then also within a community, how destination marketing organizations and traveling towards and businesses communicate with local residents and work with local residents to address residents’ concerns, because the residents must love the community and be ready to welcome on travelers back as much as these destination marketing organizations and the businesses is in order for the community of the travel industry in that community to have sustained the success.
My ongoing anecdote is always, “Oh, have you ever stopped in a really rather small or maybe even remote community, comes a store at a gas station and a cashier looking on: ‘Why are you here?’
There is nothing going on here.” We need our local residents to be our best ambassadors and show enthusiasm. So I would say yes, when there was a resurgence of cases, we need to understand the worry, the concern, the fear, the anxiety. And at the same time, when the trend is going in a positive way, like we see going down of cases, it is gradually re-opening without a resurgence of cases, then it really is making sure you do the right thing with your cleaning and safety protocols, not only on paper, but also in action to a consistently and then also communicating with residents, this is what we are doing and why, and how we are making sure you are also safe as our guests.
Christy Kallevig: When I was visiting with Neil and Bridget, he brought up, I thought a really great point about businesses, just storefront businesses or restaurants reopened that we were all really excited about, or put a lot of effort into buying local, shopping local. As we were going through the shutdown, and Neil said that it was really important now for us to not let off the gas, that we needed to keep moving forward with that. I wonder how we can keep on the gas ... to use that phrase, what can we do to help these hotels and resorts reopen successfully?
Xinyi (Lisa) Qian: That's a very good question. I think the point that Neil mentioned is a good point because I think a lot of the travel and tours and businesses are also frequented by local residents, and so where we can continue to support/buy local, basically consume local, keep going with this trend or keep the gas on so that at least these businesses can still have guests who are local residents, so I think that is important.
Also, I think, say, for example, you and your family go on a vacation into this particular resort, let them know that you appreciate that all the effort that have been putting into making sure that you are safe, the whole place is clean, making sure that you are still enjoying yourself are having a great time as much as possible. I feel this type of message can be really affirming for the businesses to hear knowing that they are doing the right thing, and if you have any constructive feedback, any ideas and suggestions, also share with these businesses.
The ideas come from different people, so let’s crowdsource good ideas and not being shy, sharing these ideas in a gentle and very constructive way, and I believe businesses would appreciate it. And also, I've read news articles, for example, the Star Tribune, New York Times saying a lot of the retail entities have become the enforcer of wearing a mask in public, particularly public indoor space.
So you can support the businesses, for example, by wearing a mask and practicing physical distancing. I think these are what we can do to support tourism and travel-related businesses, hopefully to retain a business and to help them to recover.
Christy Kallevig: And let's talk about recovery a little bit. What are the really key strategies that tourism is considering as they look towards recovery?
Xinyi (Lisa) Qian: So recovery, first off, the reality is it will be quite a process, and will take quite some time in most immediate markets that we have already seen, indeed, is the drivable more local, or say in-state or a regional drivable market. Again, people are willing to drive their own vehicles for much longer distances, even to so-called “staycations.” So you don’t drive all that far, you may not stay overnight, but you get out and enjoy. Still try to have a good time.
So in terms of distance, the drivable markets, the closer physical distance to the destination, that's the first to recover, and then we have seen that. And also in terms of types of activities or attractions, it has been non-team outdoor recreation. And so outside, it's not indoor and it is non-team, so it's not a congregation of a lot of people, so it's still getting outside and joining in and appreciating nature. So this is to advantage of Minnesota because we are the state of 10,000 lakes. Natural assets have always been a major tourism asset in our state, and so this is a time to highlight or emphasize what do we have to offer in terms of non-team outdoor recreation. Even more than ever before.
I think for the longer-term recovery, it is important for destinations to consider what is the profile of the markets that may return in 2021? We believe 2021 is a crucial year or time period for sustained recovery, what is the national trend … what does the research tell us? And based on this research, what is the profile of these and market segments that may return in 2021, and at the same time, don't be afraid of exploring new market segments.
So, for example, we all know that the stay-at-home orders have created a lot of new digital natives, folks who previously had not been active online on the internet, they may still book their resorts by calling the operator, but now they have to do a lot of things online, and at least consider this question, “Are there any market segments that you can reasonably pursue to help you recover and renew your businesses?” I'm not saying that every business should do that, but at least consider this question so that you can make an informed decision.
Christy Kallevig: I hadn't thought about that digital native piece, the fact that folks are going to be researching and reaching out to resorts and that type of thing differently. That's really interesting.
Xinyi (Lisa) Qian: Yeah, yeah, and also maybe, for example, folks who previously had to be engaging in one particular set of activities, but due to the pandemic, for whatever reason related to the pandemic, now might be interested in exploring new activities, different activities, or different types of destinations. So these are also what we were to consider new market segments.
Christy Kallevig: Is there anything specific around retaining tours of businesses that our audience know about?
Xinyi (Lisa) Qian: I've also read some ideas out there in terms of what we can do to retain tourism businesses. I want to make it clear. They are not my original ideas. I read these ideas through various outlets, but I think that they are worth pursuing, for example, tax credits for businesses that need to redesign their physical spaces to make it possible for physical distancing and enhance safety and sanitization and to do employee training. In terms of all these new protocols, would it be possible to give tax credits for these endeavors?
And another idea is, for example, would it be possible to waive those fees associated with later property tax payments? This may not be applicable to our businesses, but it certainly can help those business owners who own their buildings. Another idea is, would it be possible to have temporary reprieves from paying the taxes associated with the Federal Employment Tax Act, so there’s only the employment insurance tax.
We all know that there is already the Paycheck Protection Program, the famous PPP. And so beyond these pillar programs, these very important programs, what else we can do, again, it goes back to if you have an idea and if this idea sounds at least somewhat feasible, is very much aligned with your peer businesses interests and desires to how you can best communicate to trade organizations at different levels, so that maybe the state government and at a federal level can provide support in that regard.
Christy Kallevig: Thank you to Lisa Qian for this conversation. I look forward to sharing more from our chat in a future episode. To see all of the resources available from the Tourism Center, visit www.extension.umn.edu/community-development/tourism. Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay up-to-date on new research and resources for communities and those who lead them.
We hope that you will join us for our next episode of Vital Connections On Air and please, stay well.
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Reviewed in 2020