Domestic and international tourists spent about $128 million in Orange County in 2020, a 47.7 percent decrease from 2019, according to a press release from the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.
The 2020 visitor spending represents a tax saving of $78.88 per Orange County resident. The press release also said the statewide rate of visitor spending decreased by 32 percent.
Laurie Paolicelli, executive director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, shared how during years before the pandemic, the Bureau would receive around 2.5 million visitors. In 2020, she said that number dropped significantly.
“Our marketing took a very different turn," Paolicelli said. We basically marketed and said don't visit yet, stay home and wait till it’s safe."
However, Paolicelli said the Visitors Bureau has adjusted to the current circumstances by increasing marketing both in-state and regionally to help ensure "consumer confidence." With this adjusted plan, she said the bureau hopes to see the amount of leisure tourism — which includes visiting for food, athletics, live music and arts events — rise while still allowing corporate travel to recover.
Local hotels such as The Carolina Inn and the AC Hotel Chapel Hill Downtown have begun to see a return of leisure travel this year.
Heidi Werner Dawson, director of sales and marketing at The Carolina Inn, noted how weddings and sporting events have contributed to the return of their leisure business rates. She also stressed the importance of the return of corporate travel to bring overall numbers back up.
But Werner Dawson said The Carolina Inn will likely not receive the complete return of that sector of business until fall 2022.
“We used to be a big place where people had pharma conferences and technology conferences, and I think that’s the one piece of business we're waiting to return," Werner Dawson said. "I think that’s going to be very dependent on not only the vaccine percentage here in the United States, but around the world.”
Rhonda Beatty, director of the UNC Visitors Center, said the return of in-person classes at UNC, as well as many other annual University events, has also contributed to the return of local business and institutions.
The UNC Visitors Center surpassed its pre-COVID-19 visitor rates this year. In 2019, the UNC Visitors Center had 8,521 guests, compared to the 14,293 guests since its reopening in February 2021.
Beatty said this growth can be attributed to moving the center's headquarters from the Morehead Planetarium to a location on Franklin Street.
Dwight Bassett, director of economic development for the Town of Chapel Hill, said the town gradually took a different approach to supporting local business. In May 2020, the town began planning the ReVive Recovery Grants to provide support for start-up companies and small businesses in the area.
Bassett said 30 percent of the ReVive advisory board's members are women and 30 percent of them are members of underrepresented communities.
“We’re really proud of that because it sort of focuses all of our work through a lens of inclusion and equity,” Bassett said.
Bassett said the advisory board met from September 2020 to February 2021 to determine ReVive's logistics. He said the plan was also intended to target at least 20 percent minority-owned businesses, and, so far, the current applicants have surpassed that number.
“We lost a lot of money and a lot of jobs," Paolicelli said. "Now what we’re starting to see is the tables are really starting to turn back to normal."
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