WINCHESTER — The Northern Shenandoah Valley's tourism industry has been spared from the worst economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why? Location, location, location.
Winchester-Frederick County Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Justin Kerns said this week the coronavirus has largely curtailed business travel and large weddings this year, taking away key sources of revenue for local hotels, restaurants and attractions.
Compounding the problem, Kerns said, is a drop in the annual migration of "snowbirds" — people in colder Northeast states who escape winter's chill by driving to Florida. Since Winchester and Frederick County are on Interstate 81 halfway between New England and the Sunshine State, a significant number of those travelers spend a night in the Winchester area.
But Winchester is also situated within a three-hour drive of several urban areas including Baltimore and Washington, D.C. After six months of social distancing, Kerns said, many stir-crazy metropolitan residents "are looking to go somewhere. They're trying to get out."
The Northern Shenandoah Valley, with its abundance of outdoor recreational and cultural activities, fits that bill to a tee.
"The pandemic has created a problem and a solution at the same time," Kerns said. "We were hoping to see that, but we didn't know. No one has ever been through this before."
Kerns said he recently went to the Family Drive-In movie theater near Stephens City and encountered a woman who had driven all the way from Washington to see the show.
"She just wanted to get away," he said. "First time here, first time at a drive-in, and she brought her whole family."
While 2020 won't come close to generating the same travel dollars as a typical year — last year, tourism brought in nearly $280 million for Winchester and Frederick County — Kerns said day trips and overnight stays are at least easing the financial sting felt by hotels, restaurants, theaters, museums and other hospitality enterprises.
Will that be enough to keep those businesses going until the pandemic ends?
"I hope so, but we don't know," Kerns said. "It's this great unknown that everybody is living in right now."
The Convention and Visitors Bureau knows that travel predictions for this fall and winter are grim, but Kerns said those projections are based on national trends that don't necessarily represent the Northern Shenandoah Valley. For a clearer picture, he checks in weekly with local hospitality businesses to see how they're holding up.
"The forecasts look good for us right now, but we don't know what December is going to look like," he said. "I wish I could forecast it better than that, but we just don't know. Educated guesses are the best we can do right now."
Kerns said leisure travel always declines in the winter months due to cold temperatures and the omnipresent threat of snow and ice, but he is cautiously optimistic the drop won't be as severe this year because people who were denied summer vacations are itching for things to do.
So far, Kerns said, "It's not as bad as what we prepared for, and our lodging numbers are significantly higher than state averages.
"Leisure travel is really the most desirable travel we have because people come here to have experiences and spend money, versus people who are just passing through on business," he said. "That's really good for our local businesses, so we're just trying the best we possibly can to keep them coming."