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You could feel the tension when Joe D’Alessandro, the head of the San Francisco Travel Association, the city’s travel and tourism organization, opened its annual Annual Visitor & Lodging Forecast Forum on Wednesday morning.
This meeting typically includes hundreds of executives and employees of the city’s biggest industry, tourism and hospitality, all gathered in a large hall to schmooze, pat themselves on the back for a job well done in the previous year, and hear predictions for the coming year.
But this year, that meeting was starkly different. There was no crowd, no schmoozing or handshaking. And the gathering was not in a large hall. Instead, it was a virtual event. And the news was as stark as the setting.
“For 11 straight years, we’ve gathered here to report on record numbers. But not this year. The evolving coronavirus situation makes 2020 a difficult year to project. COVID-19 has affected every sector across the globe, and the hospitality industry is among the hardest hit. Our research suggests that recovery to pre-COVID-19 levels could take until 2025. We’ve never experienced anything that comes close to this,” said D’Alessandro.
In 2019, more than 26.2 million people visited San Francisco, spending nearly $10 billion. More than 86,111 jobs were supported by tourism in San Francisco. In 2020 and beyond, those numbers could be cut by at least half, if not more.
The travel association is projecting a total of 12.9 million visitors to the city for 2020, down 53% from 26 million in 2019. Visitor volume is expected to recover to 18 million in 2021, but will still be down 30% compared to 2019. The gains will come from mostly domestic travelers, while international travelers will take a lot longer to return.
Total spending by visitors is should reach $3.1 billion in 2020 – not bad, but not anywhere near last year’s $10 billion record. That’s a 67% drop. Visitors will spend about $5.5 billion in 2021, up 77% compared to this year, but down 42% compared to 2019.
The most significant devastation is in citywide conventions, the lifeblood of hotels, restaurants, transportation providers and others. And the staggering losses will extend well beyond this year. According to the association’s Brett Allor, San Francisco’s 231 hotels offered 34,600 rooms, pre-COVID-19. Currently, 52 hotels (with 13,800 rooms) are temporarily closed in the city, with most in the upscale and luxury category.
After filling a record 1.2 million convention room nights last year, 2020 will likely close on a mere 122,000 convention nights. To date, 40 groups have canceled citywide events in 2020 and 2021, representing a loss of over $697 million. Ouch. That’s bad for the travel business, but also devastating to city coffers, kept flush with hotel occupancy taxes.
While some meetings can still take place with special socially distanced protocols in place, San Francisco Travel says that “normal” operations won’t return until at least the latter part of next year, and only if a vaccine is available.
Remember what it was like to walk the streets of San Francisco and hear tourists gawking in at least five different languages along every block? Not this year. And not for a while. With quarantines, bans and other impediments to travel firmly in place, the city will welcome just 969,000 international visitors this year, a decrease of 67% over 2019. San Francisco Travel expects that number to increase to 1.6 million in 2021, but that will still be down by almost half compared to 2019. International visitors are usually big spenders, too, but this year, they’ll only spend $1.4 billion, down from the $5.1 billion spent in 2019.
Prior to COVID-19, 44 international carriers served San Francisco International Airport. The number has dwindled to just 19 carriers currently, with most offering just a few flights per week, according to Melissa Andretta, the airport’s director of international marketing.
Among all the grim news, there’s hope for a recovery … eventually. Many speakers feel that the release of pent up demand for travel, once a vaccine is developed, could hasten a return to “normal.” But until then, it’s going to be a difficult slog for the city’s hospitality industry, and the city overall.
Chris McGinnis is SFGATE’s senior travel correspondent. You can reach him via email or follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Don’t miss a shred of important travel news by signing up for his FREE weekly email updates!
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