210513ind tourism

Louise Bishop, executive director of the South County Tourism Council, is pictured outside her Charlestown office.

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. — The South County Tourism Council, which promotes 11 towns up and down the state’s southern coast, is pushing the area as a summer return-to destination spot as pandemic fears dissipate with the winter chills.

Louis Bishop, council president, told The Independent last week that the council is using over $360,000 in state-allocated funds from hotel-tax revenue to support its mission to advertise South County from New England to Washington, D.C.

“My goal is to bring people in as the go-to drive market,” said Bishop about the emphasis that South County is only a few hours car ride away from anywhere in the Northeast – and well worth the trip.

It’s been a tough year for tourism-related businesses throughout the county. Early spring signs, say executives of tourism councils and chambers of commerce, indicate a strong rebound.

Many bellwether businesses such as rental agencies, boat sellers and retail businesses echo the same sentiments.

Bishop pointed out that some of tourism council’s data on private home rental shows an increase over 2019 and 2020 already. “I am anticipating good solid numbers in that category as the season develops,” she said.

Her findings mirror the national data collected by Phocuswright, a firm that studies trends in the travel industry.

Consumers, when asked late last year whether they were more or less confident that travel would be safe in the new year — compared to how they felt during the height of the pandemic — expressed confidence.

Nearly 50% of U.S. respondents said they felt more confident it would be safe to travel, the firm reported.

That number is expected to grow as more people became vaccinated against COVD-19 and had the itch to plan a summer vacation.

Raising the flag

To help put South County in front of those making summer plans, the council — established by state law to promote tourism — has contracted for seven digital billboards from New York to Washington, D.C.

It also has teamed up for an advertising effort with WGBH in Boston to tap into the Massachusetts market of day-trippers, people wanting weekend getaways and traditional summer vacationers.

In addition, the council has also placed online digital ads on national magazine websites and dipped into some radio advertising as well, she said.

Bishop said the council is also using gift baskets with various advertisements and discount cards to lure people to the region. They are given to chambers of commerce to use for promotion and one special effort focused on fundraising for the Chorus of Westerly.

As one of the 11 towns in the council’s region, Westerly and its attractions, such as the chorus, can be a drawing card for visitors who buy a gift basket, she said, adding that this effort brought about $4,000 to the group.

The chorus includes in its membership one-third children ages 8 – 16 and two-thirds adults of all ages. Adults rehearse once a week for two hours. Children rehearse twice a week for one hour and attend an eight-day music camp directed each August.

Outlook on the summer

“From all we hear, people are feeling safe and want to come back. Hotels put safety first and people will come back. This is without question. We are another drive-to market,” Bishop said.

This is a marked contrast to her assessment last July, when South County saw a resurgence in hotel and other lodging numbers in mid-summer after a fall in early spring when the pandemic and accompanying restrictions were flattening the tourist industry.

At that time, South County, like Cape Cod experienced, an unexpected influx of people – after massive cancellations of accommodations bookings in March and early April.

Vacationers just want to spend time here, perhaps a short drive from their homes elsewhere, and enjoy a traditional summer vacation, Bishop said last July with some caution that “it is still a mixed bag of issues.”

This year that is not her view or that of others who promote the local tourist economy.

Kristin Urbach, executive director of the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce, said, “Our local economy will experience a burst after May 28 as regulations become less restrictive for social gatherings, events, dining, and more!»

“At the NK Chamber of Commerce, that also serves as an official tourism center, we’re experiencing an increase of tourism related inquiries,” she said.

CBNC recently reported that COVID vaccines, flexible cancellation policies and people yearning to break free from home are creating expectations for a booming summer travel season already appearing through reservations in the national travel industry.

A survey from research company Toluna indicates Americans are gaining confidence to travel with each passing month, with 27% comfortable to travel in April and 42% by July.

Joseph Viele, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, reported that his members feel good about a strong season ahead. They are buoyant by a corona virus vaccine helping to ease fears, he added.

“We already are seeing signs of life in businesses. There are more people in restaurants and some of the state’s restrictions have eased and that is making for a better business climate,” he said this week.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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