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FairfaxBusinessDespite challenges, Fairfax tourism czar relentlessly upbeat

Despite challenges, Fairfax tourism czar relentlessly upbeat

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The COVID-19 pandemic still is wreaking havoc upon the region’s hospitality industry and full recovery may be a good distance off, the president and CEO of Visit Fairfax told Greater McLean Chamber of Commerce members Aug. 19.

“Travel and tourism during any crisis are the very first to feel the effects and the last to come out of them, because they’re discretionary spending,” said Barry Biggar, who addressed chamber members during a “virtual” gathering.

“The pandemic has been going on well more than a year, with no end in sight,” Biggar said. “The industry will take quite a while to come back.”
The region was coming off of nine record years when the pandemic struck, and the consequences were harsh, he said.

Travel and tourism was a $26 billion-per-year industry in Virginia in 2019 and that got chopped to $10 billion in 2020, Biggar said. Thirty-five percent of Northern Virginia’s 62,000 jobs lost during the pandemic were in that industry, he said.


Travel and tourism formerly employed about 32,000 people in Fairfax County, but 12,500 of those jobs got axed during the crisis. The next most affected sector, healthcare services, suffered 6,200 lost jobs, Biggar said.

Hotels especially have been hard-hit. Unlike some vacation destinations, which rely on leisure travelers, the Washington area counts on business and government travelers to fill its hotel rooms from Mondays through Thursdays, Biggar said. There has been some leisure travel locally, however, and that has proved a saving grace, he added.

Biggar predicted it would be at least mid-2022 – and perhaps sometime in 2023 – before business travel recovered.

“If they’re not going back to the office, you can be assured they’re not traveling,” he said.

During 2020, the area’s hotel industry saw $525 million in revenue opportunities “lost forever.”

“It’s gone,” Biggar said of hotel dollars.

From March through May 2020, monthly hotel occupancy declined 50, 78 and 74 percent, respectively. Occupancy currently is hovering above 50 percent, but that’s barely the break-even point for most hotels, Biggar said.

Many hotel owners were unable to take advantage of federal assistance because their properties, though independently owned, are part of major chains such as Hilton, he said.

Restaurants also have suffered staggering losses. One local chain at the depth of the pandemic laid off about 1,800 of its 2,000 workers.

Visit Fairfax publicized area restaurants’ offerings, such as takeout and delivery meals and alcohol to go. While county officials loosed zoning requirements on outdoor dining and alcohol to go during the pandemic, business advocates are going to press the General Assembly for legislation to make those modifications permanent, Biggar said.

Many local restaurants are back to 85 to 90 percent of their pre-pandemic business, but there are some wrinkles in that bounce-back story.
Restaurants typically get by on just a 5-percent margin and many finally are having to pay back expenses deferred during the pandemic, he said.

Staffing shortages also exacerbate matters. If restaurants don’t have an adequate number of employees available, it’s tough for them to fill 100 percent of their seats, Biggar said.

The Visit Fairfax leader remained upbeat, however, for the region’s long-term prospects.

“We’re just going to have to wait it out,” he said of the pandemic. “I’m exceptionally optimistic we will come back better than we were in 2019.”

Biggar pointed to some recent local successes, such as the openings of the National Museum of the United States Army in Fort Belvoir and the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial in Lorton. The upcoming opening of Capital One Hall in the McLean/Tysons area also will give the region a needed boost, he said.

“We’re still on a roller coaster,” Biggar said. “So let’s all just smile, get in the front seat of this roller coaster and just ride it out and keep an optimistic view as we look toward the future.”

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