THE WASHINGTON POST – On a sunny Tuesday at White House Gifts boutique, cousins visiting Washington DC from Oregon admired cherry blossom mugs left over from last spring. A couple from Florida, who came to town to escape spring-breakers, purchased hats and magnets with the Washington skyline.
For the first time in a year, Jim Warlick felt life in his store.
“Once you get the second shot it’s like, my God, we are going back. It’s a great feeling,” he said, pulling down his mask for a quick sip of water.
But the shop wouldn’t be fully back to normal until tourism ramps up enough for Warlick to rehire some of his beloved staff.
That meant that while Warlick was back in action, Nelly Kassembe, one of his former employees, was sitting at her dining room table an hour away, still unemployed and juggling her crying infant with her first-grader in need of help with virtual school. She missed her job, missed Warlick and her co-workers, who felt like family after nine years in the building on the corner of G and 15th streets.
“It’s like I could see where I was going and all of the things I was learning in the company,” Kassembe said. “Now it’s like everything stopped and I don’t know what the future is going to hold.”
For a year, the coronavirus pandemic kept tourists and business travellers alike away from the nation’s capital. Their absence bankrupted hundreds if not thousands of businesses, sent unemployment soaring and zapped the vibrancy of a city known as a global destination. And now, as the overall economy is slated for booming growth and visitors slowly return, businesses that depend on travel such as White House Gifts may be some of the last to fully recover. For many of the district’s employees, leaders and experts warn, that may mean a frustratingly slow return to normal.
Before the pandemic, the district’s population swelled by around 500,000 people each work day, with about one-third of that growth attributed to tourists, conventioneers and business travellers, according to the city’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer. Over the past 10 years, an increasing share of the jobs in the Washington region have been in the hospitality sector, with about 14 per cent of the city’s workforce coming from hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues and other related industries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That growth helped propel the district into some of its most fruitful years, but it also set up the city and its employees for a steep fall when the pandemic all but prohibited travel.
The first known case of the coronavirus in the Washington region arrived two weeks before tourists would have poured into the district to lay eyes on the cherry blossoms in peak bloom.
Gift shops had stocked up on petal-themed T-shirts and mugs. Tour groups were scheduled back-to-back with eighth-grade classes from across the country. More than 70 per cent of the city’s hotel rooms were booked in the first week of March.
The loss of cherry blossom season alone cost the city an estimated one million visitors, according to Destination DC, the non-profit organisation that promotes the city. The resulting economic hole only deepened over the past year, with visitor spending down USD5.3 billion from mid-March 2020 through January 2021 compared to the same period one year earlier, per Tourism Economics. And major conventions – which, along with business travel, are responsible for almost 37 per cent of the economic impact from visitors – were almost all cancelled.
“The district’s economy is largely dependent on its destination status,” said Executive Director of the DC Policy Center Yesim Taylor. “When that goes away, it’s not easy to replace.”
The city’s hospitality workforce has borne the brunt of the economic losses generated by a lack of visitors. Food service, accommodation and amusement sectors in Washington together lost 36 per cent, or almost 29,000, of their jobs between December 2019 and December 2020. The number of people employed by hotels in the district alone fell by almost 6,000 over the course of the pandemic.
Thirty-eight-year-old Patricia Namyalo from Arlington, Vancouver, spent three years working as a front-of-house waitress at YOTEL Hotel on Capitol Hill. March, she said, is typically when business picks back up after a dry holiday spell.
When her hotel closed last year, Namyalo was behind on her cable and electricity bills with just USD700 left in her bank account. She spent the past year trying and failing to find another job in the industry.
“Imagine you lose your job at a time you think you’re going to get back on your feet,” she said.
Namyalo caught the coronavirus in February, still unemployed and without health insurance. She decided against going to the hospital to avoid hefty fees and instead endured a three-and-a-half week illness at home.
“I have saved every penny possible,” she said, still coughing from the aftereffects of the virus. “It’s just like now we have to focus on what we need and completely cut out what we don’t need.”
It has been a year since she bought a toy for her eight-year-old daughter.
Local leaders fear that the staggering losses to the hospitality industry may position the district for an uneven recovery period where the city’s white-collar workers rebound more rapidly than their blue-collar counterparts.
In the past, DC leadership has pointed to hospitality job offerings to show that there are pathways to the middle class for residents without college degrees. But now, a lag in recovery for hotels and other travel-related businesses may exacerbate inequities in Washington by keeping thousands of residents out of work while government and other private-sector employees settle into a new and flourishing normal.
“The hospitality industry serves a critical function in our economy, and we need to see it come back not just for the leisure traveller, but also for the business traveller,” said Deputy Mayor for planning and economic development in the district John Falcicchio, “That’s how we get our residents back to work, recover and then once again grow in the District.”
Chief Executive Officer of Destination DC Elliott Ferguson said it probably will take more than 18 months before visitor-related revenue returns to pre-pandemic levels in the district. He expects the long recovery in part because of the region’s dependence on international travel. Visitors from China have historically had the largest economic impact on Washington and may not return in full for years, he said.
As of February 13, the running 28-day average occupancy rate for hotels in the District was 44 per cent, according to global hospitality data and analytics company STR. Hotels tend to need at least 55 per cent occupancy to break even. And up until last weekend, when bookings spiked, tour bus company BigBus had seen only three per cent of its pre-pandemic numbers.
Industry executives also are eagerly awaiting the revival of the Smithsonian. The 16 free museums and the National Zoo are centrepieces for tourists and have been closed for more than a year. And although district guidelines allow for museums to operate, Smithsonian leadership has yet to set a date for re-opening.
“It’s a problem in DC that the Smithsonians aren’t offering an opening date yet,” said President of Go Student Tours Kate Scopetti. “That’s discouraging a lot of people.”
In an average year, Scopetti’s student tour operation books more than 300 group tours to the district with at least 30 concentrated around the cherry blossoms. This year – while bookings have skyrocketted in jurisdictions with sweeping re-openings – she did not book a single tour to the district in March.
School groups, she said, have begun to book for 2022.
Falcicchio also highlighted the Walter E Washington Convention Center as integral to the local hospitality industry’s comeback. The Convention Center, which turned into a field hospital when the pandemic hit, previously hosted everything from international policy conferences to presidential inaugural balls. Such big-ticket events tend to attract hundreds of thousands of people to Washington, selling out hotel rooms and injecting local restaurants with business.
In 2020, the district lost USD370 million in economic impact from cancelled conferences, according to Destination DC. And even with the vaccine rollout underway and an end to the pandemic in sight, the city has already lost 23 major group events in 2021, which would have brought in more than 319,000 hotel room reservations and an economic impact of USD216 million.
“The hospitality industry serves a critical function in our economy, and we need to see it come back not just for the leisure traveller, but also for the business traveller,” Falcicchio added. “That’s how we get our residents back to work, recover and then once again grow in the district.”
As the weather turns warmer and the cherry blossoms pepper the city with pink, there are signs of hope that visitors will soon return.
Last year, the cherry blossom festival marked one of the more challenging moments for the district when, amid a surge in coronavirus cases, residents clamouring to see the iconic trees were met by authorities closing all access to the Tidal Basin to prevent the spread of the virus.
This year, Tuesday evening at the Tidal Basin might as well have been a pre-pandemic summer Saturday. Picnics abounded on grassy lawns. Hammocks swung between trees. Children in strollers let their ice cream drip down their chins and pool above masks.
Samya Ida, 26, and Anais Leary, 27, came dressed for Instagram with a photo spot across from the Lincoln Memorial in mind. When the friends, both students from France studying at Georgetown Law School, arrived to see their first cherry blossom festival, they were shocked by the swarms of people around them.
“We have a lot of anxiety being here,” Leary said.
“We really did not expect so many people, especially because it’s Tuesday,” Ida added. “But it’s really beautiful and we are doing our best to keep our distance.”
The masked friends walked toward the glistening waterfront, as a family beside them pulled down their masks and smiled for a group shot.