Tourism is a huge industry in the Silver State, accounting for about a quarter of all jobs. When non-Nevadans think of the state, they think first of the Las Vegas Strip—but tourism is as important to the Truckee Meadows as it is to our neighbors in the south.
In 2017, more than five million tourists visited the Reno-Sparks area. It was the first time so many had since before the Great Recession. City officials said in the newspapers that the area was experiencing a tourism industry renaissance. This lasted a few short years before the COVID-19 global pandemic brought it crashing down.
Health experts and economists alike warn that the COVID-19 crisis is far from over. However, in northern Nevada, there appear to be signs that the tourism industry is primed to bounce back—and new CEOs for two of the region’s biggest tourism-related organizations are looking to the future, even as they’re learning the ins and outs of the Truckee Meadows.
In the air
Daren Griffin started his job as the CEO of the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority back in August, a time when the airport would normally be gearing up for the week of Burning Man and the huge number of tourists and tourist dollars that come with it. Instead, he walked into an airport that was operating at about 40% of its usual figures.
Looking back on his decades in the air travel industry, Griffin can’t think of anything that’s been as crippling as COVID-19.
“Think about 9/11—and 9/11 was a cataclysmic event for air service because air service was the weapon, if you will, and it … shook the industry to its core,” he said. “But the reality of it is, a week after its occurrence, airlines were back flying again—and Americans immediately resumed flying. There was some trepidation around safety, and, of course, we saw a lot of changes to our commercial air service system here in the United States after that. But that was a one-week hit. … But to basically have to shut down for a month, which is what happened in April, and then slowly come back and live off 30% or 40% of the passengers that you used to have, and we’re in month eight now … There is just nothing that compares to this in terms of economic impact.”
During the past eight months, Griffin said the airport has focused on a few different things—one of them being safety, and another business continuity. Pairing safety with travel promotion has been a delicate task.
“It is really challenging, and, you know, right now, it is about coupling the travel message with the safety message because airports and airlines have gone to extraordinary lengths to sanitize and clean the entirety of the process,” Griffin said. “So, it’s cleaner and safer now than it ever has been in terms of public health protections. If you take the masks and the social distancing, and a lot of the airlines are still keeping middle seats open, and Harvard did a study that showed the airflow inside an airplane is actually conducive to protecting you from the virus.”
No airlines have stopped flying to the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, though many of them make less frequent trips between common destinations. Some places where planes used to fly to five times a day from Reno are now a once a day occurrence.
Additionally, according to Griffin, while the airport has chosen not to fill some positions as they’ve become vacant, no one has been laid off or furloughed. He does, however, worry about others who work inside the airport but not for it.
“We’re working so hard to keep all of our businesses intact,” he said. “We still have all of our airlines, like I said, but we’re trying to hang on to every shop, every restaurant in the airport and when we come out of this to still have them all.”
To help keep these businesses afloat, the airport has been flexible and negotiated with them concerning rent and other fees.
“Those are our partners, and we’ve been great business partners for many years—and you’d hate to see the pandemic push somebody out of business in your airport community,” Griffin said.
Even though the airport has been operating at about 40% of its numbers from the previous year, Griffin noted that this is still around 10% better than the national average for airports. And with some common routes that had been suspendedcoming back on a trial basis in December, he’s hopeful those numbers will continue to improve.
“It’s just a question of can they generate enough revenue to cover their costs and start stimulating travel again as we turn the corner on this pandemic,” Griffin said of the airlines that bring passengers to and from Reno. “And that’s what we’re really aiming for knowing now that 2021 is going to be a very different year, and we see a light at the end of the tunnel. We want to be well positioned to offer as many flights and routes and destinations as we possibly can.”
Griffin said if the airport could reach 50% of its usual business numbers, it would make a huge difference.
“And I honestly feel like we will get back to that and then grow from there as people start taking those leisure trips and as more and more people come back to the region for their gaming and their outdoor adventures,” he said. “There are so many vacation and entertainment options here.”
Griffin said he believes the region is well positioned for a quicker comeback than most places for a few reasons. One is that businesses and people have been moving here from bigger places on a permanent basis. Another is that he sees the region as an attractive domestic tourism destination and thinks international leisure travel will take longer to bounce back. In looking toward a future with more visitors, and more potentially permanent residents, Griffin said collaboration with other organizations like the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN) and the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA) will be key.
Over at the RSCVA, a CEO even newer to his job than Griffin, feels very much the same way.
On the ground
Charles Harris started his job as CEO of the RSCVA earlier this month. He’d previously been the chief marketing officer and executive vice president of public affairs for Visit Anaheim. He said he loves the tourism industry and has always wanted to be at the head of a destination marketing organization. When he got the opportunity to do so with the RSCVA, he jumped at it.
“I think Reno has tremendous diversity of product between the gaming industry, the outdoors that surrounds the city, the technology companies that are relocating to Reno, the proximity of Lake Tahoe,” he said. “There are a lot of really special things that are happening and are available in the destination, and that appealed to me.”
Still, he knew he wouldn’t be stepping into an easy situation.
“The travel and tourism industry has been hit so hard by COVID. So, when you talk on a national level, we can talk about the impact that it’s had to destinations, to jobs, to communities,” Harris said. “But what we also see is that the travel and tourism industry is really resilient and will come back and is fighting to come back. It’s tough right now. It’s tough whether you’re in Reno or Anaheim or Chicago or Miami or Seattle. There are different challenges for each place.”
For now, the RSCVA and its partners like the airport, EDAWN and others continue focusing on promoting messages about safety. Harris said that for the time being, there’s an increased focus on promoting regional travel.
Based upon research he’s read, he believes it will likely take until the end of 2023 for tourism across the country to bounce back to pre-COVID, 2019 levels. However, Harris has also read research that indicates people are already willing to travel—that is, if they feel safe. According to Harris, it appears the safest places to many people’s minds are ones with a lot of outdoor space and opportunities for recreation.
“And Reno has tremendous opportunities with hiking and biking and skiing and the lake,” he said.
While Harris thinks it may take a few years for northern Nevada tourism to fully recover, he’s keeping his eye on the research and data upon which people in his industry rely and thinks, for now, that things look hopeful. “We’re right before the vaccine hits, in terms of when people can access it, and hopefully that will be a game changer,” he said.
“But I was looking at Longwoods International that, in our industry, does weekly intercepts of people. They asked travelers [if they have] travel plans in the next six months, and 62% of folks in their Nov. 18 survey said that they do.”