Summer is here and many coastal small businesses are grappling with how to get tourists back, while maintaining public safety, in the midst of an all-consuming pandemic.
In mid-June, San Diego Tourism Marketing District awarded $32.3 million in funding for destination marketing programs for the 2021 fiscal year that began July 1. Those funds will be given to and administered by, the San Diego Tourism Authority.
With these funds, SDTA plans to support tourism recovery by focusing on marketing campaigns targeting a leisure audience in the drive market. The campaigns, labeled as “Happiness is Calling You Back,” will attract drive-in visitors using images of wide-open spaces and outdoor recreation. San Diego Tourism’s strategy also will include a “Stay Diego” campaign encouraging residents to have staycations.
Drawing tourists back, and getting them to stay and spend, won’t be easy. But Elvin Lai of San Diego’s hospitality industry, who serves as vice-chair of the San Diego Convention Center Corp. and president of the San Diego County Lodging Association, has a plan.
“How we get tourism back in San Diego is by showing tourists that San Diego is a clean and safe place to come to,” said Lai, noting all tourist-oriented San Diego organizations are working together to “enhance health protocols to make sure employees, as well as guests, are safe through cleaning protocols, social distancing and sanitation stations.”
Lai said there is one basic, key component to San Diego’s safety-first approach to luring tourists back.
“We’re telling people when you come to San Diego, you have to have a mask,” he said. “If you don’t have a mask, we’ll give you one, and that we also have hand sanitizer. Just help us help you.”
Asked how the local tourism industry is dealing with visitors from COVID hotspots like nearby Arizona, Lai replied: “We’re treating everybody the same: with caution. We want everyone, whether they’re from San Diego or Arizona, or somewhere that’s never experienced COVID, that we’re going to welcome you into our home as guests, give you the same sanitation protocols required of everyone else, and ask you to wear a mask and have hand sanitizer. We want to protect you and protect others.”
It’s been a trying time for Sara Berns, executive director of Discover PB, the beach community’s business improvement district. Especially so given that, while South Bay remains the epicenter of San Diego County's current coronavirus outbreak, cases increased most rapidly during the last half of June in other areas, most notably Pacific Beach, according to a KPBS analysis of case data.
Pointing out “the majority of our brick-and-mortars make money during the summer for sure,” Berns predicted foot traffic and outdoor dining will likely determine how successful – or not – independent beach businesses will be the rest of this summer.
“Foot traffic drives business, hospitality drives retail and retail drives the service providers … they all feed into each other,” Berns said.
Berns’ job duties have been changed by the pandemic.
“At first it was all about the business loans,” she said. “Then it was helping businesses with their unemployed staff. Then it turned into closings, then how businesses were going to open under the new normal. Then it was re-openings. And now it’s, ‘Here we go again closures.’”
During the pandemic, Discover PB has been printing health protocol signs, creating Instagram ads, and distributing gift cards from small businesses to try and put a little money in their pockets.
It’s a tough situation, but it could be worse.
“I don’t think anybody in PB is worried about not being busy right now,” said Berns. “Our biggest concern is capacity. We’re really pushing for not just outdoor dining for restaurants, but outdoor shopping for retail in the public right-of-way. We’re waiting for the city council to put out a policy that will relieve some of the permit requirements for doing parklets, and letting merchants expand into the parking spaces in front of them.”