Hotel occupancy tax revenue in Washington and Greene counties rebounded last year after pandemic-related closings were lifted, but numbers still haven’t returned to the same levels as before the COVID-19 does not take hold in the region.
The 5% occupancy tax on all hotel stays helps fund tourism promotions in both counties, meaning the sharp drop in revenue in 2020 has stalled their marketing reach and forced agencies to recalibrate their approaches to moving forward with the hope that the worst of the pandemic is now behind them.
“There is no doubt that COVID has had a significant negative impact on hotel stays across the country,” said Jeff Kotula, who directs the Washington County Tourism Promotion Agency. “When the economy was doing well, we didn’t have these problems. When COVID arrived, we wanted to rethink that and do more with less.
Part of what has helped the tourism agency continue during the economic downturn is that it is integrated with the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, which has allowed it to reduce administrative costs. Kotula, who is also the chamber’s executive director, said the vast majority of its hotel occupancy revenue comes from leisure stays, though they are also working to boost business travel in the county.
“We continue to invest in tourism assets,” Kotula said. “We have tourism grants that we give every year. When revenue was down we reduced, but not to a significant level because we wanted to keep promoting (events and attractions) so when they came back we were good to go.
Washington County received about $2.2 million in hotel tax revenue in 2019, but that figure fell to just over $1 million when the closures went into effect in 2020. The number rebounded to around $1.5 million last year with the expectation that it will increase even more in 2022.
The agency typically awards a series of tourism grants a year – it just awarded $191,000 to 17 different organizations, including two $5,000 grants to the Observer-Rapporteur for upcoming events – but the rebound in income in 2021 will allow it to make three disbursements this year. The tourism agency has also taken advantage of the recession to shift its marketing approach and focus on social media and digital resources, Kotula said.
“We continue to invest in tourism assets,” Kotula said. “We are very lucky because our tourist assets are very diversified.
There is a monthly average of 50 locations that remit hotel tax to Washington County, according to county revenue figures. Meanwhile, the number of properties in Greene County paying the tax is smaller, with just eight included in the mix, according to JoAnne Marshall, director of the Greene County Tourism Promotion Agency.
Greene County is also more heavily dependent on the natural gas industry for hotel occupancy, so the ebb and flow of drilling in recent years may have more to do with its boom-and-bust market. rather than with the pandemic. The county received $166,889 in 2019, but revenue fell to $99,386 in 2020. Both years the occupancy tax was 3%, but Greene County Commissioners raised the tax last February at 5%, which is part of the increase when the county received $143,329 through October 2021.
Marshall said county officials began noticing a drop in revenue in late 2019, but because the natural gas drilling industry was able to continue operating until the pandemic began, the biggest drop has been delayed for a few months until summer 2020.
“(The drilling industry) also continued to operate during the onset of the pandemic, which kept our occupancy rate higher in the early months of the pandemic compared to those dependent on leisure travel. “Marshall said. “I remember back in April and May (2020) I thought our county was lucky compared to so many of my counterparts across the state who were closing their offices while laying off staff.”
But the eventual loss of revenue has forced the county to lay off a full-time position at the office, although there are hopes a new part-time employee will be hired later this year. The agency also didn’t print its annual travel guide in 2021, but Marshall said it’s bringing it back this year and plans to start distributing it soon. The agency has also expanded its online presence during the pandemic.
“You didn’t know when or if we could get back to normal, when the regulations would be lifted or when people would come out,” Marshall said. “It forced us to look more at our digital footprint and improve social media, email marketing and website design. It’s always an opportunity to rethink.
Fayette County also saw a drop in revenue in 2020, but its revenue numbers exploded last year and exceeded its total revenue in 2019. This county received nearly $2.9 million in 2021 – up from $2.3 million in 2019 and $1.4 million in 2020 – with the help of various rental cabins around Ohiopyle and the prestigious Nemacolin Woodlands resort in Farmington.
County tourism officials are now hoping that many large-scale events that were canceled in 2020 and scaled back last year will return in full force as the pandemic subsides.
“We cannot continually recover from the pandemic; we need to build on the foundation of tourism expansion and look to the future,” Kotula said. “We continue to prioritize long-term growth and focus on investing in projects that encourage new economic and tourism development, attract new visitors and improve the quality of life for all citizens.”
Marshall is also looking forward to a return to normalcy this year with the hope that classes and in-person events resume at Waynesburg University and fans attending West Virginia University sporting events in droves will bring people to Greene County to stay overnight, helping to drive hotel usage.
“It’s hard for tourism professionals to look beyond a positive outlook,” Marshall said. “There have been ups and downs with adjustments for everyone, but I believe we will all come out of this stronger.”