Before the pandemic, the Coachella Valley was seeing a record-breaking number of visitors (more than 14 million), supporting at least 53,000 tourism-related jobs and generating more than $7 billion in local economic impact in 2019, according to the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau. Likewise, Palm Springs International Airport served a record-high 2.6 million passengers and was on pace outperform that mark this year.
“When the BNP Paribas [tennis tournament] and Coachella and Stagecoach festivals cancelled their events in March and April,” says Scott White, president and CEO of the tourism agency, “it became clear that this was going to be a serious issue for our destination.”
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The CVB took the lead in communicating safety guidelines to local businesses and consumers and introduced the Safer Together, Greater Together pledge. More than 400 local businesses, venues, and attractions have signed on, committing to adhere to state, local, and industry guidelines to protect staff, vendors, and customers. The CVB uses the pledge in marketing campaigns to instill confidence in would-be visitors.
Prior to this shift in focus, the CVB had been working toward the objectives of its Destination Development Plan, which was designed to help the region recover faster during economic recessions than it did after the financial crisis of 2008. “It took tourism over seven years to recover,” White says. “That is too long.”
Drafted in 2016, the 10-year plan aims to increase visitation to 16 million by 2026 by expanding air service and working with local cities to attract major events that “align with [the destination’s] brand pillars” of health and wellness, arts and culture, and outdoor adventure. “A great example of this is the Ironman event,” White says of the triathlon scheduled for December. “La Quinta and Indian Wells worked together to secure an event that will positively impact our economy.”
The CVB has hired the consulting firm DestinationNEXT to “provide each city with ideas and best practices from around the world that may work here,” potentially curbing pandemic-related losses of an estimated $3.5 billion in revenues and 25,000 jobs in the region, according to the research firm Tourism Economics.
White is bullish on Palm Springs International Airport. “Travelers want resort-type destinations with wide-open spaces and outdoor activities,” he says. “Airlines are pivoting from international to domestic travel. We’ve been in multiple discussions with the airlines about new opportunities.”
At press time, popular flights — San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Houston, Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, and Atlanta — still available and JetBlue was preparing to begin service to New York (Oct. 8) and Fort Lauderdale (Dec. 17); Allegiant announced new flights to Boise, Idaho (Nov. 19) and Eugene, Oregon (Nov. 20); Alaska Airlines begins new service to San Jose, Reno/Lake Tahoe, and Boise in December; and Southwest announced year-round service to Palm Springs will begin this year.
“It took tourism over seven years to recover. That is too long.”
— Scott White on the 2008 financial crisis impact
“That’s destination development,” White says, adding the airport also received a federal grant of $5 million for terminal improvements as well as $11 million in CARE Act allocations.
But he’s concerned about the slow recovery of group business, particularly meetings and conventions, which account for 60 percent of the destination’s business. “It will be a long time before this segment recovers,” he says, “but the meetings and events industry is innovative and will adapt to the new environment.
“Every day, we move closer to living and working successfully with COVID-19. If we all adhere to wearing a mask, social distancing, and frequently washing our hands, we can successfully hold events in this environment.”
The area’s resorts, hotels, and meeting spaces appear ahead of the curve. Palm Springs Convention Center, for example, has become one of fewer than 50 facilities worldwide to earn GBAC STAR accreditation, awarded by the world’s leading cleaning industry association to facilities with highly skilled and trained cleaning professionals who follow a strict cleaning, disinfection, and infectious disease prevention program.
At the Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage, guests enter a “theater of cleanliness,” says general manager Kelly Steward. “You’ll see our ladies and gentlemen cleaning handrails and elevator buttons, or serving from a tray of masks for our guests who need one. We communicate with these thoughtful actions.”
The resort postponed the redesign of its rooms until next year. And, Steward says, the property also plans to add guest rooms, a ballroom, and an outdoor event space that overlooks the Coachella Valley.
Meanwhile, top local attractions such as The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, Sunnylands Center & Gardens, and Palm Springs Art Museum have tailored their spaces to reduce clustering of visitors and introduced timed admissions and stringent saftey protocols.
“We are very optimistic for our destination,” Steward says of the local tourism industry. “We want the world to know we are here and we are safe.”