Nevada’s tourism industry has been hit hard by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Some 300,000 Nevada residents filed jobless claims during the first month of the state’s nonessential business shutdown.
That figure would normally be typical of the number of requests made in a full calendar year. The state’s unemployment rate reached 16.8 percent by late April, the highest in Nevada’s history.
Local and state tourism authorities are feeling the pinch and responding with salary cuts, furloughs and some layoffs. Recently, the Nevada Division of Tourism was among agencies to lay off workers.
Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs Brenda Scolari issued a statement:
“The Nevada Division of Tourism is entirely funded by state lodging tax and draws nothing from the General Fund. At this time when the public cannot travel, and there is dramatically reduced funding, we are forced to make some very difficult decisions. We have ceased international marketing, paused domestic advertising, and postponed our rural marketing grant program. Like nearly all destination marketing organizations in the country, we have made deep cuts across all programs, and can no longer sustain our current staffing levels. This is truly an unprecedented time for the travel industry, and we can only hope that recovery is imminent, and we can soon restore the level of programs and service that have benefited statewide tourism for so long.”
In a Facebook post, longtime local journalist and Public Information Officer for the state’s museums Guy Clifton said he was among the people who lost jobs.
“Well, when it rains, it pours,” Clifton wrote. “I’ve been laid off from the Department of Tourism after 3-plus years. Promoting our museums, arts council and Indian Commission and working with the professionals there has been a highlight of my life. Stay tuned for what’s next.”
According to the department’s Chief Communications Officer, Bethany Drysdale, Clifton was one of eight people recently laid off.
“It is not likely that the positions will be reinstated until the economy fully recovers, if at all,” Drysdale said. “The rest of the staff will be taking a 30 percent pay cut in the form of furlough days, indefinitely. We hope this will allow us to avoid any more layoffs, but as we are entirely funded by lodging tax, it really depends on when visitors return to Nevada and how quickly the economy can recover.”
[Disclosure: Drysdale has been a contributor for This Is Reno.]
Among the agencies to have lost one of the eight positions was Nevada Magazine. Megg Mueller assumed the role of executive editor for the publication just days before Governor Steve Sisolak’s order to shut down nonessential businesses—combining her previous editorial job with that of publisher. She said laying off one of her seven-person staff was terribly difficult.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever had to lay anyone off,” she said. “You know, we’re such a small staff that it was just—it’s like family. And I know this is nothing new or unique, but it was so gut wrenching to say, ‘In the midst of all of this uncertainty and turmoil that we’re all going through, I now have to lay you off.’ But budgets just—they don’t lie. Numbers don’t lie, so decisions had to be made.”
The person Mueller let go had previously done advertising sales for Nevada Magazine.
“It was [a job] that could be folded into someone else’s position—within the best that any of us get to do doing two positions for one salary or three positions for one salary, and you make time for it. I mean, it’s shades of 2008 all over again, frankly.”
Struggling, but optimistic
The state’s tourism department isn’t the only one feeling the pressure. On Monday, the Carson City Culture and Tourism Authority announced that due to the decrease in revenue caused by the coronavirus it would be suspending all 2021 fiscal year merit pay increases for the tourism employees and making a 5 percent cut to salaries for staff and 10 percent for the executive director, beginning with the next pay period and continuing through the first quarter.
In the Truckee Meadows, the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA) has had to furlough workers, implement pay cuts, and encourage early retirements.
“We’ve furloughed 25 positions out of 55,” said Ben McDonald, Senior Communication Manager. “And some of those we just didn’t hire back. We had some attrition; I think four or five positions. And then some of the others. … As recently as of a couple of days ago. We might be up to 26 because I think one more person took advantage of the voluntary retirement program.”
The RSCVA offered eligible employees who’d been with the organization more than 15 years a 10 percent bonus to take early retirement.
“And then … staff took a 10 percent pay reduction, and the executive staff took a 15 percent pay reduction,” McDonald said.
The RSCVA contracts with a company called ASM Global to operate four different properties in the valley, including the Reno Events Center, the National Bowling Stadium, the Reno-Sparks Convention Center and the Reno-Sparks Livestock Events Center.
The RSCVA doesn’t produce any events itself, but it does provide marketing and support services for the operation of events ranging from meetings and conventions to sporting events. According to McDonald, nearly all events scheduled through June have been either cancelled or postponed. In the meetings and conventions markets, though, he said the RSCVA has been fairly fortunate.
“Most events are postponing as opposed to cancelling, and that’s beneficial for a number of reasons,” he said. “One, you know, hopefully we can still bring those people to town—eventually. … And then, also, for our meetings and conventions department, the sales department is currently targeting other group events from larger destinations who have had to postpone and may not get that space back.”
McDonald said that typically large events that may have been slated to take place at venues in places like Vegas may be downsized due to social distancing requirements, and that these changes could make some of Reno’s venues good alternate spaces for them.
We’ve been able to put money in the ‘Rainy Day Fund,’ and, now it’s a rainy day.”
The agency is looking at major budget cuts for the coming fiscal year, which begins in July.
“We’re looking at about a 50 percent cut to our budget in the next fiscal year, but we cut more than that out of what we had left for this fiscal year, starting in March—$7.6 million was more than 50 percent of our remaining operational budget for the rest of the fiscal year, no doubt,” McDonald said.
According to McDonald, for the RSCVA, the reopening of casinos will be important to recovering from the pandemic.
“Once they say, ‘Go,’ once they open the casinos, that’s why the RSCVA exists—to bring in overnight visitation to Washoe County,” he said. “So we’ll be back on that mission and doing it as responsibly as [we] possibly can, because we understand the continued health and safety implications for people coming into the area. We take that very seriously.”
Boom and bust on the Comstock
In Virginia City, the situation is unique. The historic gold mining town sees an annual boom and bust cycle in its almost entirely tourism-dependent economy.
“We see things get kind of quiet in the winter and then kind of pick back up,” said Deny Dotson, Virginia City Tourism Commission Director. “This is kind of looking like an extended winter, I guess. We’re hoping—we’re optimistic that as we go through the summer, we’ll be able to get back to somewhat of consistency. I don’t know what that’s going to be. We’ll kind of wait and see.”
So Far, Dotson said, he’s not had to lay off any of his seven-person staff, which is also responsible for operating Piper’s Opera House, the Virginia City Visitors’ Center and the sale of passes to some of the town’s attractions.
“Over the last four years, we’ve been able to put money in the ‘Rainy Day Fund,’ and, Jeri, now it’s a rainy day,” Dotson said. “So, we’re using those funds to help keep up some of the stuff that we’re doing. We’ve made some pretty good cuts, though. We’ve really anticipated it dropping off dramatically, and we’re being responsible with it.”
Dotson said what’s happening with the coronavirus a few months from now in the fall will make a bigger difference for the fortunes of Virginia City than the summer months just ahead.
“For us, remember, the fall is our big tell-all with all of our big lineup of major events,” he said. “Summertime, we don’t have a bunch of big ones. We just kind of rely on regular vacation traffic, if you will. But it’s the fall which will be critical for us.”
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.