Local tourism industry braces for unknowns


For businesses and organizations whose livelihoods depend on attracting visitors to Dubois and Spencer counties, the mounting unknowns of an extended period of social distancing and self-isolation could spell trouble for local tourism.

Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari is a regional hotspot responsible for bringing in about a million guests — most of whom live in the Midwest — every year. Leadership understands and supports the widespread precautions that are being encouraged at this time for COVID-19. Still, from a business perspective, those safety measures have caused a disruption in the momentum necessary to prepare the parks for a long season.

Leah Koch, the parks’ director of communications and a fourth generation owner, explained that time during this part of the preseason is valuable.

“That’s two weeks of training we don’t get to have,” Koch said, referring to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s stay-at-home order. “That’s two weeks of maintenance that we don’t get to have. So, it makes a huge impact.”

Holiday World is set to open on Saturday, May 2. Koch declined to speculate if attendance numbers could be in jeopardy in 2020, but she did explain some of the challenges the business is currently juggling.

“Even if we could miraculously make that date, some things are just not going to be available,” she said.

Parts for rides are shipped from across the country and globe, which has thrown more hitches in the theme park’s plans. For example, the trains for The Voyage, a popular roller coaster at the park, are in Pennsylvania, and the team that was working on them has closed shop while distancing orders are in effect.

Those trains were already on a tight timeline, and Holiday World has a process of commissioning and testing them for hours on the tracks before undergoing a state inspection.

Koch said leadership has decided to “not overreact to any one piece of information, so we’re kind of trying to ride things out for a little bit longer. And kind of just see where this changing, constantly-shifting landscape takes us before we make that determination on whether we’ll open late, and if so, when that date will be.”

She later said: “There’s so many unknowns out there that it’s hard to make a prediction about how any of this is going to play out within the next week, let alone a couple of weeks.”

Kevin Manley, executive director of the Dubois County Tourism Commission, explained that from a tourism aspect, perhaps the most startling aspect of distanced world can be found in a shift in predicted hotel usage.

According to information he’s received from large hotel chains, the occupancy rate at establishments across the country for the next three to five months could be at 10% or lower.

“And that basically is almost a complete shutdown,” he said. “Normally ... I think the industry averages about 65%.”

By December, the hotel chains are predicting occupancy could be around 35%. Manley recognizes those are just predictions, and if the virus is squashed quicker than expected, those numbers could rise dramatically.

“You just don’t know what to expect,” he said. “You don’t know how quickly it can go away.”

In the interim, activities across the county are being cancelled. The visitors center is in contact with event coordinators to discuss happenings eight weeks out. Those events provide a great amount of economic impact, Manley said, and without them, the local economy is experiencing a loss.

According to the latest data from Rockport Analytics, in 2018, the economic impact of tourism in Dubois County was $91.1 million. Sports tourism is huge for our area, Manley said. A full story on how that industry could be impacted can be found here.

A local bed and breakfast is also feeling the effects of the COVID-19 precautions. Winfield West Bed & Breakfast is still open on West Sixth Street in Jasper, but its rooms sit unoccupied, save for an occasional business guest.

“I don’t know what to say except it’s certainly affecting us, and everyone, I think, negatively,” Fred Tone, co-owner of Winfield, said on March 18. “Most of our calls, instead of calling for reservations, they’re calling for cancellations. And there’s just no reason to come here, because everything is closed.”

His wife and fellow co-owner, Regina, said the establishment has “nothing on the books for this month,” and “almost nothing” for the month of April. The bed and breakfast’s May and June schedules are beginning to disappear as well.

The Tones are prepared to live meagerly if it comes to it. And if the effects of the health advisories linger for much more than a couple months, “we’re all gonna have to hope for some kind of a bailout,” Regina said.

“We’re hoping this is going to be a short-lived thing,” she said earlier this month. “But it doesn’t look like it. How we’re gonna survive, I don’t know. We’re very small — we only have four rooms — but this is our livelihood.”

In a March 29 Facebook message, the Tones wrote that the cancellation of many kinds of events is hitting the small business.

“It is not just tourism guests, brides are rescheduling their weddings, large groups have cancelled birthday celebrations, family visits etc.,” they wrote. “We do still have a few business guests who have to be here for work. We will remain open and provide a safe environment and stay for anyone who needs to be here in Jasper. We are staying optimistic in hopes that things improve in a few months.”

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