High Country Host regional welcome center

North Carolina High Country Host operates the Official Regional Welcome Center located on Highway 321 between Boone and Blowing Rock, within view of N.C. Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost Exit 291.

BLOWING ROCK — It is no secret that the travel industry in North Carolina has been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but as new data continues to be released to the public, consumers and industry leaders alike are now able to more accurately assess the damage.

In a presentation given to High Country Host member organizations by speaker and travel industry expert Berkeley Young, Young was able to shed light on just how big of a hit the travel industry took during the inception of the coronavirus crisis and what other factors of the economy were affected.

According to Verisk Financial, the travel industry was the most severely impacted area of the economy as travel bans and stay-at-home orders were established across the country. By the beginning of April, consumer spending in businesses such as travel agencies, airlines, lodging and transportation had decreased by as much as 92 percent compared to consumer spending statistics just two months prior.

The economic collapse resulted in an unemployment rate of 51 percent for workers within travel-related careers, which was more than double the national unemployment rate at the height of the Great Depression.

“I’ve heard people try to compare what we’re going through to 9-11 or to the 2008-2009 recession, but there’s a big difference with this. In those situations, the entire economy was affected. In this situation, the travel industry was affected far worse than any other sector of the economy. In fact, there are some sectors of the economy that are doing OK and have functioned throughout this,” Young said.

Examples of industry that have performed well during the COVID-19 pandemic include streaming services, coworking software, pharmaceutical companies, health care, home fitness, consumer companies, industry, online shopping, retail and trucking and shipping companies.

“As we reopen, and as we invite people back, I want you to take heart that there is a huge pent-up demand for people who want to come to the High Country, and you don’t have to deep discount or cut prices to get them to come. They want to come. They’ve been held up at home for a long time. Many of them are not in a challenged situation economically,” Young said.

According to The New York Times, airline travel increased by 125 percent in May, going up from 95,161 flights per day in April to 212,580 flights per day by mid-May. Airlines accompany about 2.4 million air travel passengers a day on average. By that same token, weekly occupancy in the Southeast rose above 30 percent at the beginning of May, whereas it failed to do so during April when stay-at-home orders were still in effect.

Additionally, the national unemployment rate fell from about 15 percent to 13.3 percent in May as approximately 2.1 million people returned to work. However, COVID-19 cases have spiked in some areas as the economy begins to reopen, forcing states such as Florida, Texas and California to once again shut down bars. Moreover, Young stated that it is imperative that businesses maintain a heightened sense of consumer health and workplace sanitation as visitors return.

“When we open, all data is showing that they’re ready to come as long as we let them know they’ll be safe when they get to us,” Young said.

Young described the reopening phase from May and beyond as “playing the long game.” Young expects that the summertime will make for a healthy summer leisure travel season, which the High Country is ripe to reap the benefits of. Young also expects companies to start rebooking group and business flights in the month of June as companies push convention dates into the fall.

“I was on a call two weeks ago with a bunch of researchers, and (a researcher from Orlando) told me that almost all convention business in Orlando had been canceled for the summer, and that it is all booked for September through December. He said they literally had no convention meeting space available (through those months). Everything is booked solid,” Young said.

Young warns travel companies not to go back to business with the expectation that the industry will return to normal soon, however, noting that outbreaks of coronavirus are expected to flare up well into next year and businesses should prepare and implement its cancellation policies.

“In all the research from the last three to four years, the demand for the great outdoors, wide open spaces, people coming for great experiences — especially in urban areas — is huge, especially coming off of quarantine. The High Country has what people want,” Young said.

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