In the past, Lancaster County’s tourist industry usually entered the fall travel season brimming with confidence.
But this year, with COVID-19 still creating havoc after devastating tourism here in the spring and summer, there’s a different vibe emanating from some of the county’s major tourist businesses -- uncertainty.
Nobody knows how three critical factors will play out: the course of the virus, state restrictions on businesses that are intended to contain it and the willingness of out-of-town families to come here for a vacation.
That uncertainty prompted Dutch Wonderland to close for the year after today, Labor Day, rather than continue operating on weekends, and hosting Halloween and holiday events. Uncertainty also persuaded American Music Theatre to stay dark through year-end.
For tourist businesses that chose to stay open, there’s an extra layer of uncertainty, the kind that comes from wondering how newly tweaked operations will perform in this unique environment.
The county’s biggest tourist attraction, Sight & Sound, is crossing its fingers that a new initiative -- a pay-what-you-want live broadcast this Labor Day weekend of its current show, Queen Esther -- generates badly needed revenue.
Strasburg Rail Road is hoping that an encouraging initial response last month to a downsized version of its most popular event, A Day Out With Thomas, is repeated when the special festivities return twice this fall.
Another local landmark, Mount Hope Estate & Winery, likewise is wondering how well its pandemic-prompted adjustments to its biggest gathering, the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, will be received.
How successfully Sight & Sound, Strasburg Rail Road, the Renaissance Faire and other tourism-related businesses adapt to attract interest this fall is no small matter for Lancaster County residents.
The vitality of local tourism is important because the industry is a pillar of the county economy. At full health, the industry draws nearly 9 million visitors annually who spend $2.2 billion, sustaining 17,000 direct jobs at hotels, restaurants, attractions and the like.
This year, though, local tourism will post drastically lower numbers.
Edward Harris, the new president and CEO of Discover Lancaster, a nonprofit tourism promotion organization for the county, is cautiously optimistic that a gradual improvement in visitation seen here over the summer will carry over to the fall.
The steady progress is reflected in the county’s hotel occupancy rate, as tracked by lodging-data firm STR. From its nadir in April, when the rate was 74.7% below April 2019, the deficit narrowed month by month. In August, the occupancy rate was 29.7% below the August 2019 mark. Traffic on the Discover Lancaster website is following the same pattern.
“We’re hopeful that this rebuild will continue into the fall and the holidays. Autumn is traditionally a good time for the industry here,” Harris said.
Discover Lancaster will do its part to spur the comeback, he indicated. “We’re going to do everything we can to promote the fact that we do have (tourism) businesses that are open and safe as we head into the fall months.”
Making that “Safe & Open” marketing campaign possible is a grant of up to $815,000, allocated by the Lancaster County Commissioners out of the $95 million the county received from a federal coronavirus relief bill, the CARES Act.
The $815,000 must be spent in August and September on attracting visitors here from a 75-mile radius of the county, Harris explained.
The money has allowed Discover Lancaster to produce five promotional videos to be shown as television commercials, on Discover Lancaster’s website and on its social media.
“There’s an emphasis on outdoor activities and the harvest, which dovetails well with travelers who want to be in wide open spaces and fresh air,” Harris said.
The grant also is paying for Discover Lancaster to hire drivers for 16 cars, wrapped in Discover Lancaster graphics, that serve as moving billboards as they drive around Philadelphia, Baltimore and Wilmington, Delaware.
Discover Lancaster is tapping its own budget to sponsor the inaugural Lancaster County RV Show at Clipper Magazine Stadium from Friday through Sept. 20 and the popular Lancaster City Restaurant Week from Thursday through Sept. 20, believing those events will draw out-of-town visitors.
Too many unknowns
Dutch Wonderland, however, decided not to wait and see how the fall unfolds.
The children’s amusement park on Lincoln Highway East announced two weeks ago that its abbreviated 2020 season – it didn’t open until July 18 – will end today.
“With the uncertainty over what impacts COVID-19 might have as we enter the fall and winter, and with schools back in session and the weather turning soon, we believe the best plan for the long-term is to end our season on a high note on Labor Day,” said Jeffrey Eisenberg, director of marketing.
Eisenberg declined to disclose attendance figures, but he said the park will operate a mere 52 days this year, roughly a third of the 143 days in 2019. Daily attendance was capped at 50% of capacity, a ceiling that was reached twice.
“Anecdotally, I know we made a difference to those guests who did visit the park this summer and we are happy that we provided some good family memories in the midst of this pandemic,” he said.
American Music Theatre on Lincoln Highway East has opted to stay dark through the end of the year, canceling its popular Christmas show, for the same reason, as LNP | LancasterOnline reported two weeks ago. It’s been closed since mid-March, when the pandemic arrived.
“After much discussion, research and due diligence, we feel it to be the most prudent way forward considering the outstanding uncertainties amid the COVID-19 pandemic," AMT Director of Operations Brandon Martin said in a press release.
"This has been an incredibly difficult decision to reach, but it is one made both out of an abundance of caution for our patrons, staff and performers, and in consideration of the financial risks of mounting a production of this scale in the current climate in which we find ourselves."
But Sight & Sound, which presents original theatrical productions of Bible stories, has chosen a different tack.
The Strasburg-based company’s challenges began when it had to delay the March 14 debut of its new show, Queen Esther, due to the pandemic. The show finally premiered July 30, but with limited seating to create state-mandated social distancing.
Sight & Sound knew the seating restrictions would put the show in the red. Its Queen Esther performances are in a 2,000-seat theater that’s on average 25% full; the percentage fluctuates due to the size and number of groups. Sight & Sound needs a half-full house to break even, a threshold that was lowered by cutting expenses, including the layoff of 53 employees here.
Dean Sell, Sight & Sound’s director of brand development, explained the decision to launch the show knowing it would be unprofitable. The root of the rationale, he said, is that “first and foremost, we’re a ministry.” He added:
“We believe in the mission that we’re called to do. We believe the show is meant to be seen right now. We believe in providing employment for as many people as we can. We’re hopeful that restrictions will change, consumer confidence will change and, by having been open, we can easily start to accommodate more people in our theater. But they’re big unknowns.”
Meanwhile, Sight & Sound – the county’s most popular tourist destination, which expected to draw 900,000 visitors to see Queen Esther this year -- rolled out two initiatives to generate revenue in fresh ways, knowing that the company can’t keep operating at a loss forever.
It’s launched Sight & Sound TV, an online streaming service for videos of its past shows, and it unveiled a pay-per-view version of Queen Esther this weekend. The show was broadcast live from the Strasburg theater on Friday; a video of that performance was aired twice Saturday and twice Sunday.
Sight & Sound priced the performance as a “pay what you want” event, with a suggested minimum price of $25. Sight & Sound needs 20,000 purchases, or roughly $500,000, just to break even on the project, due to the cost of cameras, crews, cabling, streaming technology and other expenses. Sight & Sound, of course, wants to do better than break even.
“It would be a huge glimmer of hope for us, should this become something that’s significant enough for us” to offset its recent losses, Sell said.
Yet despite the hurdles that Sight & Sound is facing, and no indication of when they could end, employee spirits are high, he said.
“Even though life isn’t the way it was doesn’t mean that our attitudes or our approach to life have to be reflective of the challenges around us,” Sell said. “We can choose to be optimistic and to be full of hope for what’s coming in the future.”
Changing with the times
Strasburg Rail Road is another business that’s adapting to the times, following state regulations that limit its passenger cars to 50% occupancy and attendance at special activities to 250 people.
For instance, the railroad replaced its Day Out With Thomas event, which drew 4,000 to 6,000 people on a Saturday, with the smaller Thomas & Friends Train Rides, which were held on three days during the week of Aug. 24. The four daily rides drew nearly 800 people some days. They’ll be repeated during a week in September and a week in October.
“We were really pleased because it seemed like it was what people were interested in doing. We emphasized that this was a safe way for people to come out, enjoy the ride, and have an opportunity for kids to see and experience the characters, but not be in an overcrowded environment or have to be there all day…,” said Steve Barrall, vice president.
“We want to provide something our guests are pleased with, so they can go away and say, ‘Hey, even in the middle of 2020, of all years, we had a great time on the Strasburg Rail Road.'”
The railroad also is more aggressively marketing the opportunity to charter cars for small, special events such as weddings and parties, and is organizing activities such as photo shoots of its historic inventory for the first time.
Barrall said the railroad has seen visitation slowly grow from a third of 2019’s turnout when it opened in late June to 50% to 60% of last year’s level by mid August. But Barrall said the railroad has stopped fretting over comparisons to 2019. What matters is the present.
By the end of the summer, the scaled-back passenger rides, plus the railroad’s freight service and mechanical shop, were generating enough revenue to keep the proverbial doors open, in part because the railroad has trimmed expenses, he said.
“It’s not necessarily ideal. We’re a privately held company so we want to be as profitable as possible. But that would be sustainable for sure,” Barrall said.
As to what might happen this fall, when weekend travelers make up the vast majority of visitors, Barrall said, “Your guess is as good as mine. … We continue to be optimistic. We feel that we’ve proven over the last several weeks that we have what people are interested in, and we can provide an experience that’s safe but yet still rewarding.
“I think the fall will be good,” he said. “But it’s going to be another chapter. It’ll be a little different.”
Looking for laughs
Mount Hope managing partner Scott Bowser isn’t counting on the 40th annual Renaissance Faire to achieve much financially. He’s just hoping the Faire, which began Saturday, achieves something psychologically.
“One of the most important things we need to do is to entertain people. People need to laugh and smile and have a good time. That’s what we provide,” Bowser said, though this season it will be done via “more stage shows and less street interaction.”
Bowser also thought it was important to have the event so the public doesn’t forget about either Mount Hope or the Faire.
His financial expectations are minimal. With this year’s event trimmed from the usual 13 weeks to nine, and state-mandated limits on occupancy at 50% of capacity, Bowser figures attendance will be more like the first Faire than last year’s record-setting 39th, which drew 193,000 visitors.
“Our internal goal is probably 25% of that…,” he said. “It’s certainly not going to be a normal Faire season by any stretch.”
But Bowser agreed that there’s no way of knowing how the retooled event will pan out. “When you have to open under a whole different set of rules and regulations, sure. Unfortunately, there’s no trial run.”