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Tue, May 11

Better days ahead: Williams tourism begins to rebound

Ginger Mann and Alexis Vantlin work the front desk at the Best Western Plus Inn of Williams April 9. The hotel has seen a steady increase in business since early 2021. (Wendy Howell/WGCN)

Ginger Mann and Alexis Vantlin work the front desk at the Best Western Plus Inn of Williams April 9. The hotel has seen a steady increase in business since early 2021. (Wendy Howell/WGCN)

WILLIAMS, Ariz. - One year after COVID-19 basically shut down the travel industry, data is showing that recovery is beginning to pick up.

Data from STR, a company that provides analytics and marketplace insights, shows a resurgence in leisure travel demand and early signs of the return of business travel.

The biggest surge in travel has been seen in the recreational vehicle industry.

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Grand Canyon Railway RV Park in Williams. (Photo/GCR)

According to RV Industry Association, there were a record 48,286 RVs shipped in February 2021. That’s an increase of 30.1 percent compared to the 37,113 shipped during February 2020.

“Outdoor recreation is driving everything,” said Front Burner Media CEO Heather Hermen, marketing consultant for the city of Williams. “Our outdoor spaces are being loved to death.”

The National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds estimates that more than 53,000 new RV sites will be built across the country this year to attempt to accommodate the demand in reservations.

Although the RV industry has shown strong growth throughout the coronavirus pandemic, most travel industry professional acknowledge that the hotel industry has suffered more than most.

Hotel occupancy rates dropped to 22.2 percent in April 2020 according to STR.

Hotels in Williams have struggled to keep their doors open during the pandemic with many unable to retain their staff, let alone make mortgage payments because of the historic drop in travel demand.

“We started the year (2020) off great, like everybody else,” said Jennifer Milner, general manager of Best Western Plus Inn of Williams. “It was a normal year and then March came around and it was a totally different story.”

Milner said nearly half of the hotel staff was laid off as reservation cancellations rolled in.

“Our phone rang off the hook and it was all for cancellations,” she said. “We didn’t even want to answer the phone anymore.”

However, Milner said the hotel was able to rehire its staff with the help of a Paycheck Protection Program loan.

“We ended up hiring everybody back,” she said. “Our staff were off just a couple of months at the most.”

The Williams Best Western was fortunate, however, an Oxford Economics study revealed that hotel employment decreased from 2.3 million jobs in 2019 to 1.8 million in 2021. They expect that the industry will not recover to 2019 levels until about 2023.

Milner said things have looked brighter at the hotel since January of this year.

“We had a great January, probably one of the best Januaries we have ever had since I’ve been here,” she said. “February and March were also great turnouts.”

Milner said what has changed is the type of visitor coming to Williams.

“We haven’t been getting reservations ahead of time,” she said. “Everybody’s been booking when they travel — they just show up in Williams and now need a room. That is the opposite of what we normally see.”

Milner said she believes people are beginning to feel more comfortable traveling, but are still unsure of what tomorrow will bring. They are hesitant to make future plans.

“We used to sell out weeks in advance and now we will still have 20 rooms left in the evening and they are all filled by morning,” she said.

Milner said reservations for the summer have begun to pick up, but not anywhere close to the rate of previous years.

Hermen said although the hotel industry is slow to recover, the state of Arizona has seen an uptick in vacation rentals.

I think (tourism) is going to back to the way that it was, it’s just going to be a different kind of visitor with different expectations,” she said.

Arizona has seen a significant decrease in international visitors, but is beginning to make up for it with domestic travelers, Hermen said.

“Obviously we don’t have international visitation like we had, we were really trending high with the Asian market, and that’s changed completely.”

Travel industry professionals are hopeful that travel demand will return to normal as vaccination rates increase and people feel more comfortable returning to travel.

“As people begin to think about their spring and summer vacations, RV trips continue to be the preferred way to travel for millions of Americans,” said RV Industry Association president & CEO Craig Kirby.”

Kirby said the industry remains on track to build more RVs in 2021 than any previous year.

“People want that space, which is a good thing —they’re discovered the beauty of Arizona,” Hermen said.

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