In March, Visit Frederick — the county’s tourism board — looked to have a great year. Restaurant Week went smoothly, and they were about to publish a new Visit Frederick guide.
Of course, all that changed when the coronavirus pandemic hit and closures swept the state.
John Fieseler, president of Visit Frederick, said the organization pulled as many of its advertisements as it could on short notice since people would likely not be traveling during the stay-at-home orders. The group’s revenue was also largely at risk, since about 85 percent of its funding comes from the hotel revenue tax, which dropped with the decreasing amount of hotel stays.
However, things started looking up once some executive orders were lifted and the good weather rolled around. In June, the Visitor Center reopened. By July, it saw about 50 percent of the visitors it had in July of 2019. But that number continued to decrease.
In August, the Visitor Center was 30 percent shy of its 2019 numbers, and in September, it was just 3 percent shy.
“So, having the facility open, letting people know that we got the hand sanitizer, we require masks, we put up sneeze guards and all that, I think people were comfortable with coming in,” Fieseler said. “And so it almost got back to normal by the tail end of summer.”
While the number of overall visitors was still down, the number of out-of-town visitors actually increased by September. Usually, about a quarter of visitors to the Visitor Center are local, looking for downtown Frederick gift cards or information on events.
“Since events aren’t happening, it’s actually reduced the percentage of our visitation that is local residents,” Fieseler said. “And of course we’re mainly here for visitors, so even when we’re within 4 percent of where we were last year, it’s actually a higher number of out-of-town people.”
Despite losing about $500,000 in revenue from the hotel tax, Visit Frederick made up for it by cutting salaries, furloughing part-time employees and seeking additional funding.
Visit Frederick received $300,000 in CARES Act funding to “re-market” Frederick as a new destination — one with many outdoor activities and safety measures in place. When doing research, Fieseler and his team saw that people who were traveling were staying within their region and looking for outdoor adventures.
They also placed safety in high importance. Visit Frederick placed its COVID-19 restrictions clearly on its website to make sure people know that the place they’re visiting is being responsible during the pandemic.
“So we’ve been changing some of the images we run to actually show people in masks ... and people do seem to feel comfortable with visiting our communities, so we’re very fortunate,” Fieseler said.
Now that the weather is getting colder again and people will spend less time outside, Visit Frederick will try to capitalize on the holiday season before January and February, which are always the slowest times for travel.
“Because of the large number of special events, we typically have during the holidays, but also the specialty shops that we have, we stay really busy here right through the holidays,” Fieseler said. “We’re hoping that even with the virus, that unique shopping experience, and the efforts that are being made to provide outdoor dining will continue to bring people here at least through December.”