Last year, nearly 10,000 people attended Anthrocon in Pittsburgh, an event that generates millions in economic impact for the region. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

‘New Normal’ Might Lead Tourists to Unlikely Destinations

“An important, sad, announcement” is the headline on the Anthrocon.org website. The next few paragraphs go on to explain why its annual convention, Anthrocon, planned for the first week of July in Pittsburgh, had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anthrocon, the world’s largest annual convention for “furries,” people who dress up as anthropomorphic creatures, has been held in Pittsburgh annually since 2005. Without it, the local economy will lose just under $10 million the event generates through its almost 10,000 attendees.

And it is just one of many such events that will not be taking place as scheduled.

“We’ve had 193 events canceled so far this year, and that only includes business and sports events in which VisitPittsurgh is involved. It doesn’t include professional sports,” said Jerad Bachar, CEO and president of VisitPittsburgh, the city’s nonprofit tourism organization. “That is a $100 million loss for us, which is huge.”

“Huge” might not be big large enough to summarize the impact COVID-19 has had on the U.S. tourism industry. “Staggering” or even “tragic” may be better terms.

Statistics from a United States Travel Association report by Oxford Economics on tourism in the U.S. show the bleak picture:

  • A 45 percent decline in tourism overall for 2020
  • An 81 percent drop in revenue over May and June alone
  • Losses of $519 billion by the end of the year
  • A loss of $80 billion in tax revenue

Tourism isn’t only suffering in Orlando, Florida, New York City, Los Angeles and warm vacation spots known for beaches and resorts. It is taking a beating across the entire country.

“Unfortunately, that situation is no different in Kansas City, where more than 48,000 people rely on tourism for a paycheck,” Jason Fulvi, president and CEO of VisitKansasCity, said. “We’ve had to make some difficult but necessary decisions in regards to personnel, but I truly think we’ll be able to emerge from this as a stronger organization on the other side.”

A sign inside Pittsburgh International Airport welcomes visitors arriving for the 2019 Anthrocon convention. This year, the event is canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

To outsiders, Fulvi’s optimism may seem unwarranted, but he and Bachar believe that non-traditional regions are positioned to rebound from the pandemic faster than well-known travel markets.

“There is definitely an opportunity for alternate cities,” said Pittsburgh’s Bachar. “That is something groups are looking at from the standpoint that this is a market that, thankfully, is not a hotspot (for the virus) and we have a smaller population. We’re not saying that to the organizations, but the organizations are looking at cities like us because it is a perceived safer market.”

Fulvi concurs.

“Destinations like ours have a unique advantage following times of crisis, and we saw it with the economic downturn and after 9/11,” Fulvi said.

“At its heart, Kansas City is a safe, approachable and welcoming destination. It’s easy to get to from either coast, accessible in a day’s drive for more than 55 million Americans and boasts a tremendous value. We’re working on some initiatives that would communicate our ongoing commitment to cleanliness and safety. We hope to share more soon.”

In addition to trying to save third- and fourth-quarter business by coming up with different ideas like “hybrid conferences,” which are part traditional and part virtual, convention and visitors bureaus are working with their regional hotel properties to lower the anxiety level of prospective guests.

“Safety is what is important,” Bachar said. “We are working with the health department to come up with health and safety guidelines for properties. We believe that will give our clients confidence that the precautions we’ve put in place will protect them and their guests.”

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