SAN MARCOS – Driving around San Marcos on a warm spring weekend you would typically see kayakers and swimmers enjoying the crystal-clear San Marcos River, families enjoying a Glass-Bottom Boat Tour or taking a train ride through Wonder World’s petting zoo, and the parking lots at the outlet malls absolutely stuffed with travelers from all over the world. The downtown district would be a hub of activity with art markets, outdoor concerts, busy restaurants, festivals, lively nightlife, and boutique shopping. Most importantly, people would be out and about.
But this isn’t a typical spring in San Marcos.
COVID-19 has spread far and wide around the world causing all tourism to come to a screeching halt, San Marcos included. Parks along the San Marcos River have been barricaded. All events have been cancelled or rescheduled for later in the year. Downtown is eerily quiet. Attractions have shuttered their doors, including the largest outlet shopping center in the United States. Texas State University has moved to online, including orientation sessions scheduled for the summer months which helps keep San Marcos hotels full.
The San Marcos Convention and Visitor Bureau (SMCVB) is the official destination marketing organization for San Marcos and is completely funded by Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT). Their job is to get people to visit San Marcos with the ultimate goal being visitors staying in local hotels, while also spending their money at San Marcos attractions.
“Right now, all of our advertising is paused, but we have to get people to visit as soon as it’s safe,” said Charlotte Wattigny, SMCVB Innovation Manager. “You have to advertise to get people in the hotels and that HOT money then funds not only future advertising efforts but also local arts, culture, and events. We have to be ready to hit the ground running.”
Of course, the economic hardships resulting from COVID-19 are being experienced on a global scale. The canary in the coalmine for the SMCVB was a post shared to a tourism industry Facebook group by a San Francisco Travel Association employee on March 13, 2020.
“Because of COVID-19 we are in full crisis mode. All city-wide conventions have canceled through May and leisure visitation has cratered. Hotels are reporting occupancy below 20%, some are even considering closing up shop… What we are experiencing here will likely spread to the rest of the country. Please prepare yourself. The work we do to help the recovery will be of the utmost importance.”– Unnamed San Francisco Travel Association employee
The day after the San Francisco post, March 14, Hays County saw the first presumptive positive COVID-19 case and coordinated with the City of San Marcos to declare a state of disaster on March 15. Hays County issued a Stay at Home, Work Safe Order on March 26, which declared food supply businesses and hotels, among many others, as essential businesses and allows them to remain open.
“Our Google Analytics for March and April look like a roller coaster,” said Wattigny. “One day there’s a spike in interest and the next it’s drastically down. The best we all can do is just take it day-by-day and try to plan for recovery.”
Hotels, like lots of other businesses in the hospitality industry, have had to lay off or furlough employees in order to keep afloat with exceptionally low occupancy.
“We saw the furloughs coming. There was no way we were going to remain open with less than 10 rooms occupied,” said Ricky Galindo, furloughed Hilton San Antonio employee. “With each restriction put in place we saw a dip in reservations. It was like watching a car drive off a cliff.”
Conventions and group events are a large source of income for hotels, which have been postponed or cancelled for the foreseeable future. An Oxford Economics study predicts the travel industry to see losses that far exceed that of any other sector and that there will be a $400 billion decline in travel spending in the US in 2020.
“I’m trying not to think about what the industry is going to look like after this,” Galindo said. “I’ll be interested in seeing how long it takes us to go from a complete ghost town back to where we were just a few months ago.”
With no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, however far away it may be.
“We are hearing visitors are looking for smaller destinations without large crowds that are closer to home so they can drive to it,” said Wattigny. “This is good news for San Marcos considering we have always been a drive market that’s largely driven by nature tourism. You can socially distance yourself on trails or the river while also enjoying some freedom after being cooped up for months.”