Amanda Hof, executive director of Visit Howard County, right, answers a question during the State of Tourism panel March 9 at the BWI Business Partnership signature breakfast at Live! Casino and Hotel in Hanover. Participating in the panel discussion were, from left, Liz Fitzsimmons, managing director of the Department of Commerce Office of Tourism and Film; Kristin Pironis, executive director of Visit Annapolis; and Trish McClean, chief marketing officer of Visit Baltimore.

Remember when tourism professionals were just hoping to get back to the industry’s pre-COVID-19 economic impact?

Happily, those days are past. Today, industry leaders are hoping that 2023 numbers rise from strong 2022 levels that arose from the targeted wanderings of a pent-up public that was very hungry for, in a word, experiences.

Amanda Hof has proof. The executive director of Visit Howard County said, “The average visitor spend in Howard for 2022 indicates 2021 is the last year we benchmark to 2019. The average visitor spend from January to March this year is up 82%, so we’re headed in the right direction.”

A glance at Economic Impact of Tourism in Maryland – 2021, which was prepared for the Maryland Office of Tourism and released by Tourism Economics in September 2022, revealed a direct visitor spending impact of $16.4 billion generating a total economic impact of $26.4 billion in the state. That impact sustained 173,700 jobs and generated $2.1 billion in state and local tax revenues in 2021. 

Businesses bracing

While that’s happening, the moods of today’s economy point to a more regional, affordable approach to traveling, which looks to boost many bottom lines across the state.

In general, travel to smaller destinations “has been quicker to recover, while global travel to neighboring Washington D.C. and other international destinations has been much slower,” said Hof. But despite concerns of a recession and “the sting of inflation, people are still willing to spend on leisure travel.”

True, it’s been “an interesting time for all of us, due to the uncertainty that abounds,” said Kristen Pironis, executive director of Visit Annapolis & Anne Arundel County, who hailed the industry surge and the benefits of “revenge tourism.

“People want to get out after the past three years,” said Pironis. “What can be tough” for industry marketers is that “tourists are still planning vacations and trips, but later, which means shorter booking time. But they’re still taking off for the same length of time” to travel.

That good news has led local businesses “to increase staff for the rise in demand that’s expected before Memorial Day,” she said, as the break of spring means it’s time for outdoor concerts, festivals, etc.For instance, “Arts and cultural events are happening nearly every evening all summer long in Downtown Columbia, many of which are free,” Hof said.

“There are also numerous events and festivals scheduled in historic Ellicott City” and the rest of Howard County. Given its access to water, spring in Anne Arundel County is a busy time. “Our 500 miles of shoreline,” said Pironis, “is always our biggest draw.” 

‘Less concerned’

But today’s market is still affected by the lag in corporate travel, which affects what’s been dubbed the “bleisure” (business and leisure) sector. “Post-pandemic travel budgets are leaner due to the pandemic-born virtual alternatives,” said Hof, also citing the effects of “increased labor and operating costs” in that sector due to inflation.

Those issues, again, keen the focus on the region, as mid-year tourism means travelers visiting Baltimore City (and hopefully elsewhere in the state) for large-scale events like the Preakness Stakes, AFRAM, Artscape, the Baltimore Jazz Festival, etc., plus the neighborhood festivals that attract “tens of thousands of people,” said Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore.

Hutchinson cited a recent Longwoods International Travel Sentiment study that revealed that this year tourists are less concerned about gas prices, inflation and COVID-19, so his office anticipates “an increase in individuals visiting Baltimore.”

The Maryland Office of Tourism expects stronger numbers this year as well, especially due to a recent partnership with the National Park Service to conduct research on travel to the Chesapeake Bay region.

Liz Fitzsimmons, managing director of the office, also cited the “fun-sized” state’s highway access as another key to success.

“Our state’s small size in relation to our neighbors allows for easy and quick sightseeing,” Fitzsimmons said. “From Central Maryland, we can be in Western Maryland mountains within two hours or to (Ocean City) in approximately the same timeframe,” allowing for longer stays.

Main connections

All told, Hof said that a big part of what makes central Maryland so attractive is that important, mantra about location, location, location. “Maryland is the ‘mid’ in mid-Atlantic,” she said, “and in the middle of Maryland lies Howard County,” with its easy access to interstates 95 and 70, BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport and rail transportation.

Pironis concurred. She discussed how the VAAAC takes advantage of the straight shot from the beach up Route 50 by advertising in Ocean City at the end of summer to “catch people coming home from the beach,” she said, with its message delivered via boats, billboards and sand stamps; and in Philadelphia, with outreach from a mall that is located near at the Liberty Bell and City Hall.

“We don’t have the biggest budget,” she said, noting it totals $3.7 million, including $1 million for advertising. “We’ll never have as much money as Williamsburg and Charleston, but we do well with what we have. We still do local advertising, but these out-of-town blitzes really stand out.”

The overall feeling heading toward Memorial Day is one of optimism. “The numbers are rising and may top even the 2019 figures,” said Pironis, “though I think we’re in a completely different realm now. People want those one-of-a-kind trips and authentic experiences.”