Hospitality industry aims to maximize demand before summer ends
In Santa Barbara, tourism is one of the region’s largest economic sectors generating a lot of revenue. COVID-19 has decimated a huge portion of those tourists, however, as travel restrictions and general worriness has limited those seeking the beautiful Santa Barbara sunshine.
Nevertheless, over the past few weeks the hotel industry is seeing a steady increase in reservations.
“Absolutely, we are seeing more people wanting to come in,” Teresa Stiff, general manager of the West Beach Inn, told the News-Press.
Ms. Stiff, who has been the general manager since 2001, noted that she’s seen people excited to go to a hotel, even if it’s just for a weekend. Most visitors are more local, as people are doing less airline traveling.
“It’s almost like they are desperate, they’re just exhausted and they’re just fed up and they are relieved that we are open,” Ms. Stiff said.
While the relief is nice, she added that revenue is not where it would be for a normal summer month. Ms. Stiff pointed out that typically, summer months are when hotels see a lot of business.
She estimates that they are making a bit more than 50% of what they would normally be making.
Still, while the revenue might not be up to usual demand, Ms. Stiff is happy with the way her hotel is currently operating.
“We were open the entire time and at the beginning we wouldn’t even fill up 10%, or five, of our rooms at one time. Now, we are filling up at least 30 rooms at a time, and we have even been selling out some weekends,” Ms. Stiff said.
Kathy Janega-Dykes, president and CEO of Visit Santa Barbara, noted a similar trend.
“We’ve seen a slow and steady increase in hotel stays over the last few weeks, which has been encouraging, but South Coast occupancy, as of the latest report, was at 51%, compared to 88% this time last year,” Ms. Janega-Dykes told the News-Press in an email.
“That said, compared to performance in some of the other California destinations that Santa Barbara usually competes with, such as several Southern California beach towns, we’re doing moderately better.”
While the hotel is not offering its usual brunch breakfast or other amenities, Ms. Stiff still believes people will be pleased with the service.
“I mean, I am still so blessed, our place is still great. I really like our place because we’ve never gotten into the resort fee, parking fee, Wi-Fi fee. It’s just room and tax so we have always been refreshing and our regulars are excited to come here,” she said.
Cleaning has also been a big part of any business during this time. For West Beach Inn, it has added more sanitizers for guests to take with them and will spend extra hours cleaning common areas and rooms.
Overall, Ms. Stiff is happy with the small revival in her hotel and hopes to continue seeing the trend upward.
“I’m always a very positive person and I know that we will guide our way through this situation,” Ms. Stiff said.
“I’m not looking to go back to normal. We’re going to have a new normal and I’m willing to adjust and be flexible with change and I already see optimism, it’s not so bad. We also live in paradise so I feel very blessed.”
For Visit Santa Barbara, a destination marketing organization for the Santa Barbara South Coast, its goal is to get people to visit the city, and stay at nice hotels like the West Beach Inn.
When the stay-at-home order was lifted on June 12, Visit Santa Barbara gradually returned to marketing the region, primarily through social media platforms, with a focus on encouraging safe and responsible tourism. Santa Barbara also has a ton of outdoor activities people can enjoy when they visit.
“Throughout this period, the vast majority of hospitality industry businesses have painstakingly followed the cues of our public health officials and implemented protocols so they can operate safely, even as official orders have changed and evolved over time. So, in that sense, visitors should feel comfortable going just about anywhere in Santa Barbara that has been allowed to be open,” Ms. Janega-Dykes said.
She added that she knows how crucial this time period is for Santa Barbara and the local hospitality industry.
“This is a critical, make-or-break window for Santa Barbara. Our goal is to stimulate the return of responsible, overnight visitors as much as we can and support our hard-hit businesses, realizing that in the near term, it’s unlikely our hotels will see a return on par with last year’s occupancy levels. At the same time, we’ll continue to closely monitor conditions on the ground and continue to be a good partner to our health officials and the community at large,” Ms. Janega-Dykes said.
In fact, highlighting how important these months are, just this past week, the city announced that it collected approximately $15.1 million in Transient Occupancy Taxes for the 2019-20 fiscal year, nearly $5 million less than the anticipated budgeted amount.
Over the past three fiscal years, Santa Barbara collected an average of more than $1.8 million in TOT revenues. It collected just $849,715 in TOT revenues this year.
“When we estimated what the losses were going to be, we estimated $5.4 million at the end of the year and we are coming pretty close to that,” said Jennifer Tomaszewski, interim finance director for the city.
“I was actually surprised at how close we were able to estimate that so I’m proud of that. I wish we were wrong and the numbers were better obviously but it’s just tough.”
Ms. Tomaszewski added that in preparing for these losses, the city laid off several hundred hourly workers and departments implemented 5% cuts for the upcoming fiscal year.
“We do also estimate that we’re going to be dipping into our reserves as well for both (fiscal years) 20 and 21,” Ms. Tomaszewski said.
“We estimate about $2 million in losses for fiscal year 20 and we absorbed most of that with less with the cuts that we’ve taken. So we (expect) much more drastic cuts in fiscal year 21.”
Measure C, a one-cent general purpose sales tax to increase the funding for roads and vital infrastructure and programs, has taken the biggest hit since sales tax has been impacted, Ms. Tomaszewski said.
“We did delay some of our overlays so that’s going to be our streets,” she said.
“More in fiscal year 21, it’s going to be more of a pause to see how we’re doing and how sales tax ends up. We do have online sales that are going to help soften the blow to sales tax but we just won’t know those numbers for another three weeks for how the year ended for our sales tax. So that’s kind of our next big number that we’re waiting to see.”
While times are down for most states and cities, including Santa Barbara, Ms. Tomaszewski is still confident the city is doing everything it can.
“I would say that we have a really great team here at the city, a lot of hard working dedicated people who really care and have gone above and beyond to try to work our way through this and to help the community as best we can,” Ms. Tomaszewski said
“We’ve just had to become very flexible, very fast and I think that that’s probably going to continue on through the next year or two, we’re going to continue to look at other ways we can better serve the public.
“But yeah, it’s not been easy. It’s not easy for anybody right now.”