As more newly vaccinated tourists eagerly make travel plans for the summer and fall, Rhode Island’s tourism and hospitality sector has been brainstorming ways to keep attracting visitors year-round.
Leaders in the tourism and hospitality industry from Newport and across Rhode Island joined government representatives and industry experts in a virtual meeting Thursday evening to discuss how the travel industry in Newport can better recover from the pandemic. These virtual meetings are a part of a series of meetings the governor is holding with various industries called Community Conversations.
“Newport is open for business, everybody should know that,” Rep. Lauren Carson (D-Newport) said at the beginning of the meeting. “It’s really busy in town, let me tell you, there’s traffic all over. Even on a Monday and Tuesday night the streets are filled, so I really think people are looking forward to coming back from Rhode Island.”
The Facebook livestream began with a presentation on the current status of the tourism industry, led by travel statistics firm Tourism Economics President Adam Sacks. Sacks gave several data points indicating a “summer mini-boom” for the U.S. economy, including rising rates of vaccination and job openings across the country in what Sacks described as the “best case scenario” in terms of their predictions for economic recovery.
Sacks said 80% of travelers in the U.S. say they are ready to travel, and the Rhode Island specific data shows steady improvement in monthly travel spending from last fall, outperforming the U.S. average in recovery rate. Given the size of the Rhode Island economy dedicated to tourism and hospitality, Sacks said encouraging the accelerated recovery of the tourism industry in the state is important to recovering fully from the pandemic by 2023.
“Leisure hospitality historically has been a driver of economic growth and job growth in the state before this pandemic began, and so it’s an industry that we want to continue to foster and continue to look to as a driver of economic growth,” Sacks said. “The only way that we get economically full in Rhode Island is by fully restoring the travel industry where leisure and hospitality job losses have been center. The only way that economic recovery happens is if we get a travel recovery because so many of the jobs lost in Rhode Island have been related to travel.”
One of the key takeaways from Sacks’ presentation and the following panel of industry leaders was the importance of attracting visitors to Rhode Island year-round to create a sustainable tourism economy.
“As you think about the recovery for Rhode Island, I would encourage you to ensure that marketing and aggressive marketing of the state is a key part of it, because that is one of the most important levers that you have at your disposal to inspire and to cause people to make decisions to travel to Rhode Island as opposed to your competitors,” Sacks said.
In a pre-taped video that played after Sacks’ presentation, Discover Newport President and CEO Evan Smith said the state should consider expanding its contract with travel public relations agency NJF, as travel publicity is “one of the strongest ways of attracting clients at this time.” As a long-term investment in year-round tourism, Smith said the state could assist in marketing Newport and other municipalities as a destination for business meetings and conferences.
“The state could do more to promote this as a place for meetings because that’s what brings business here Sunday through Thursday night, and frankly the meetings and conference market is strong during the non-summer months when executives aren’t on vacation,” Smith said. “When you’re looking to build business other than June through September, the meetings and conference market is one of the best things to invest in.”
During the panel moderated by R.I. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor on ways to encourage growth in Rhode Island’s tourism sector, 1696 Heritage Group Vice President and Newport resident Keith Stokes said that, given about half of the visitors to Rhode Island come from nearby New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, the state should focus efforts on investing in attractions for visitors who have the ability to come back on a repeated basis and setting itself apart from nearby destinations.
“Studies have consistently shown that heritage tourism visitors spend more time and more money on attractions, so that’s the type of quality visitor that we should be attracting and we should be entertaining for long term and repeat visitor business,” Stokes said. “Newport, Bristol and Providence together, and more, insisting on regional colonial structures than any cities in America — more than Boston, more than Charleston, South Carolina. So, having these assets gives us an ability to brand and market those assets, particularly over the next several years when in 2026, the United States of America will be celebrating its 200 anniversary of its founding. What better place to go to learn about early America to interact with existing historic structures and attractions, but in Rhode Island.”
Stokes said one of the benefits of Rhode Island’s size is the ability of the state to build up its heritage attractions and beaches and market them as integrated and packaged experiences, such as encouraging Newport Mansions visitors to spend a day at Slater Mill in Pawtucket.
With the new HBO series “The Gilded Age” currently filming at the Newport Mansions, CEO and Executive Director of the Preservation Society of Newport County Trudy Coxe said Rhode Island’s presence in the show will be marketed extensively by the television network, which could give a boost in tourism from fans of the upcoming show and its predecessor Downton Abbey.
“If we start thinking proactively about how we capitalize on the work that HBO does and the work that I think will be successful by Lord (Julian) Fellowes, we are going to see a lot of interest in people learning more about the Gilded Age, and this is the place they’re going to go,” Coxe said. “They’re going to come to Rhode Island, so we have to be prepared for that.”
Coxe also thanked Pryor’s grant program last year for financing the Christmas lights at the Breakers in December as it attracted “tens of thousands” of people to Newport to view them.
“There have been a lot of silver linings to the pandemic,” Coxe said. “I believe it really has made us all think much more creatively, much more like the Cornelius Vanderbilt ‘s of the world with entrepreneurship and just more smart.”