Local tourism experts discuss changes in travel industry post-pandemic


Shoppers pose for a photo during Girlfriends Weekend in downtown Holland. This year's event brought dozens of women to the area, highlighting a marked increase in weekend visitors.

Shoppers pose for a photo during Girlfriends Weekend in downtown Holland. This year’s event brought dozens of women to the area, highlighting a marked increase in weekend visitors.
Girlfriends Weekend

HOLLAND — Few industries have been hit harder than travel during the pandemic.

While predicting long-term change is nearly impossible, as the vaccination rate increases across the state, local experts are turning their attention toward post-pandemic shifts.

For example, Holland Area Visitors Bureau Executive Director Linda Hart has noticed a stark change in the activities visitors are choosing.

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“I think we’re going to see a continuation of outdoor activities post-pandemic,” Hart said. “The activities offered outside are different than when we were growing up, but restaurants and breweries are trying to find a way to keep people safe outside. I think we’re going to see record numbers in our parks, people bicycling, people going to the beach.

“I know different communities implemented different strategies, whether it was an outdoor igloo or a heated downtown. I think outdoor dining on Eighth Street, allowing restaurants to expand their footprint, that’s going to continue, at least throughout the summer and definitely into the fall.”

Shoppers pose for a photo during Girlfriends Weekend in downtown Holland. This year's event brought dozens of women to the area, highlighting a marked increase in weekend visitors.

Shoppers pose for a photo during Girlfriends Weekend in downtown Holland. This year’s event brought dozens of women to the area, highlighting a marked increase in weekend visitors.
Girlfriends Weekend

Already, with restaurants enclosing sections of parking spaces, downtown Holland is experiencing an increase in traffic.

“It’s jamming down here on the weekends,” Hart said. “It’s good to see.”

And that traffic could increase further with the addition of a social district — a specified area where restaurant patrons can enjoy alcoholic beverages while socializing and exploring.

“We’re looking at doing a social district in Holland,” Hart said. “It’s something we’re having conversations about.

“It’s a safe way to get people into the community to enjoy it. We’ll have to see how the process goes, but there was a lot of favorable feedback from downtown merchants and restaurants.”

Hart believes sanitation will remain a major concern of visitors to the area, even after the pandemic ends.

“With the merchants in our community, visitors want to make sure they’re maintaining safety standards,” she said. “We did it well last summer, and we did it well over the holidays, and even when we went backwards as a state, that safety helped us maintain shoppers and visitors downtown.”

When it comes to overnight travel, changes in the way employees interact with symposiums, conferences, and day-to-day work schedules may affect hotel occupancy levels.

“People are still weary of doing online meetings,” Hart said. “But I think we’ve also realized that it’s extremely efficient. I think in the future, we’ll see a lot more hybrid conferences and symposiums. I think there’ll be an element of in-person but also online options. I think that could impact us.

“On the other hand, a lot of companies still have employees working from home. I think that’s going to be the new normal across the board. People can work from almost anywhere. Take the family, go work from this town or this town, where the family can do things while mom or dad are working.”

The spring weather in May 2020 enticed dozens of people to walk through Windmill Island Gardens to view the tulips.

The spring weather in May 2020 enticed dozens of people to walk through Windmill Island Gardens to view the tulips.
[Brian Vernellis/Sentinel Staff]

In January 2020, hotel occupancy rates in the area were 42 percent.

“That’s pretty good for January,” Hart said. “And it was mostly corporate business.

“This year in January, that number was 28 percent. We forecasted a low number. That was a little lower than maybe we wanted, but I think we rallied better in February.”

In February 2020, occupancy rates were 52 percent. This year, that number was 38 percent.

Suburban Inns CEO Pete Beukema experiences those occupancy rates firsthand.

Beukema’s organization owns and operates several hotels in the Holland area, including the Courtyard by Marriott on Eighth Street, CityFlatsHotel on Seventh Street, and the Holiday Inn Express and the Hampton Inn on Felch Street.

“I do think we’ll see a big potential change in corporate travel,” Beukema said. “Corporate travel is our bread and butter. We’re slowly starting to see them re-engage.

“Right now, our anticipation and hope is that we start to see corporate travel rise this summer and really rise in the fall at a noticeable level.”

A note placed on a bed at the Hampton Inn of Holland on Felch Street notes, "Even though we're apart, you're in our hearts." The note marks a shift in front desk service during the pandemic.

Beukema noted cleanliness will remain an important topic for guests.

“I think a lot of the cleaning protocols that we’ve implemented will hang around for quite some time,” he said. “Our industry was pretty clean to begin with, but a lot of the partnerships we’ve made will probably continue.

“The truth is, the way we interact with other people will probably change for quite some time. The days of cramming twelve people into an elevator are probably over. It’s going to be maybe six people max, just because of people’s hesitations. I think that’s a behavior that will potentially change over time, but not in the short-term.”

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Beukema expects to see some semblance of normalcy return in terms of breakfast options.

Linda Hart
People can work from almost anywhere. Take the family, go work from this town or this town, where the family can do things while mom or dad are working.

“We’re hoping to see the breakfast buffet return a bit with sneeze-guards and sanitation to protect guests,” he said.

“The brands have not made significant changes to the way new breakfast areas are being constructed, so that leads me to believe they’re expecting those to return to normal as we’ve experienced in the past.”

In the short-term, Beukema expects to see an influx of travelers eager to escape their homes.

“There’s a lot of pent-up demand in terms of leisure,” he said. “I know my family is chomping at the bit to travel again.

“I think that’s a common theme throughout the industry. People want to get out.”

— Contact reporter Cassandra Lybrink at cassandra.lybrink@hollandsentinel.com. Follow her on Instagram @BizHolland.

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