Newport’s Standing as a Vacation Destination Is in Trouble
No industry has been more impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic than travel, and for the seaside town of Newport, the impact is jeopardizing the city's future. While last summer’s visitors filled the streets and created the impression that the city was busy, “busy” doesn’t always translate to good business. Tourists visiting the city by the sea surely gave hope to small business owners, but these visitors did not spend nearly as much money as was needed to help keep businesses afloat.
Tourist numbers didn’t even come close to 2019 summer numbers, estimated at over 500,000 visitors, spreading fear about this upcoming summer season. Like most vacation destinations, the summer season is the peak of Newport’s year and brings in a large share of boardwalk businesses’ annual revenue. However, as summer tourist trends change for the worse, small businesses are finding that they can’t rely on once-profitable months to bring in big revenue.
Busy-ness Doesn’t Mean Business
The 2020 tourist season didn’t earn enough to provide substantial relief to Newport’s retail, restaurant, and event sectors as caused by the drawn-out quarantine that’s put many businesses in holes they can’t escape. In Newport, it’s estimated that the daily average spend from one tourist is $127 per day. However, some sectors are experiencing growth: Outdoor recreational activities like golf, fishing, and hiking which all allow visitors to remain socially distanced and enjoy their time are thriving.
While this industry growth gives the city a glimmer of hope, these activities are only available for a few months out of the year. Autumn and winter sales are plummeting as cruise ships, bus tours, and inside events are taking hits that usually balance the city’s revenue.
Weddings, conferences, and events have all been backed into a corner, leaving many looking for ways to stay optimistic as the new year begins. These three sectors combined are responsible for more than 60% of Newport County’s economy, according to Evan Smith, the CEO of Discover Newport.
Wedding venues like Regatta Place and OceanCliff typically have 200 weddings scheduled between the spring and fall seasons, which attract over 1,000 guests every weekend. These guests not only bring business to the venues themselves but also to the city as a whole. The increased presence of visitors once created a positive ripple effect that splashed into hotels, restaurants, and gift shops. But now, both wedding venues have had to lay off most of their employees; they’re operating with 20% staff, and business is down 90%.
Cultural attractions are also seeing a 60–80% decline in visitors; most notably is Newport Mansions, which welcomed 85% fewer guests in 2020 than the year prior. City staples like this are threatened by capacity limits indoors as well as vacationers not having their discretionary money to spend.
How Are Local Businesses Adapting?
Smith says businesses in the area, while in survival mode, are getting creative to draw consumers in a safe, socially responsible manner. New outdoor seating, redesigned interiors, online menus, takeout ordering systems, and luscious landscaping to accommodate and attract visitors are all solutions that restaurants, hotels, and cultural attractions are implementing to survive this pandemic.
Small business owners are uncertain about these solutions solving the issue, but they’re holding out hope as they do everything they can to stay in business.
“We usually work all summer and into fall to create our war chest that pays for winter through the St. Patrick’s Day parade, but we don’t have that now, so it will be a different winter. It’s easier to plan for the worst and have it be better than that. So, we have to expect that the way things are today will be better one year from now — but if it’s not, we have to be ready,” said Brad Cherevaty, a local business owner.
Real Estate Remains a Bright Spot
One sector that continues to flourish during this pandemic is real estate. Sales soared throughout 2020, increasing by 10.9%, largely due to work-from-home policies that pushed interested buyers to seek out Newport’s natural beauty and seclusion from busy cities.
“It became clear three weeks into quarantine that people were buying homes at an accelerated rate, despite the low inventory. I have never seen multiple-offer situations like this,” said Leslie Hogan of Hogan Associates Real Estate. “40% of adults ages 18–64 worked at home, and higher-income workers are more likely to be teleworkers, so luxury homeowners are moving. Almost everyone I know who had a second home here has been here since March, which made them think about being here more often.”
One thing is for certain: Newport’s charm and appeal to tourists isn’t going anywhere. The real question is how long it will take for the city to bounce back from the 2020 slump? But, as quarantine continues, so will people’s yearning to get out and travel. Newport residents, business owners, and city officials are anxious for life to get back to normal so they can continue to welcome new visitors with open arms and showcase the charm of their seaside city.