Revenue from the hotel occupancy tax in Washington and Greene counties rebounded last year after pandemic-related shutdowns were lifted, but the figures still have not returned to the same levels as they were before COVID-19 took hold in the region.
The 5% occupancy tax on all hotel stays helps to fund tourism promotions in both counties, meaning the steep drop in revenue in 2020 stalled their marketing outreach and forced the agencies to recalibrate their approaches moving forward with hopes that the worst of the pandemic is now behind them.
“There’s no question COVID had a significant negative impact on hotel stays across the country,” said Jeff Kotula, who leads the Washington County Tourism Promotion Agency. “When the economy was performing well, we didn’t have those problems. When COVID hit, we wanted to rethink that and do more with less.”
Part of what helped the tourism agency continue through the economic downturn was that it’s wrapped into the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, which allowed it to keep administrative costs down. Kotula, who also is executive director of the chamber, said the vast majority of its hotel occupancy revenue comes from leisure stays, although they’re working to also boost business trips to the county.
“We’re continuing to invest in tourism assets,” Kotula said. “We have tourism grants we award each year. When revenue was down, we did scale back, but not to a significant level because we wanted to continue promoting (events and attractions) so when they came back, we were ready to go.”
Washington County received about $2.2 million in revenue from the hotel tax in 2019, but that figure dropped to barely over $1 million when shutdowns took effect in 2020. The number rebounded to about $1.5 million last year with hopes it will increase even more in 2022.
The agency typically awards one round of tourism grants annually – it just delivered $191,000 to 17 different organizations, including two $5,000 grants to the Observer-Reporter for upcoming events – but the bounce-back in revenue in 2021 will allow it to make three disbursements this year. The tourism agency also used the downturn to change its marketing approach and focus on social media and digital resources, Kotula said.
“We’re continuing to invest in tourism assets,” Kotula said. “We’re very fortunate because our tourism assets are very diverse.”
There is a monthly average of 50 locations that remit the hotel tax to Washington County, according to county revenue figures. Meanwhile, the number of properties in Greene County that pay the tax is smaller, with just eight included in the mix, according to JoAnne Marshall, who is director of the Greene County Tourist Promotion Agency.
Greene County also relies more heavily on the natural gas industry for hotel occupancy, so the ebb and flow of drilling in recent years may have more to do with its boom and bust market rather than the pandemic. The county received $166,889 in 2019, but revenue dropped to $99,386 in 2020. Both of those years, the occupancy tax was 3%, but the Greene County commissioners increased the tax last February to 5%, which accounts for a portion of the increase when the county received $143,329 through October 2021.
Marshall said county officials began noticing a revenue decline in late 2019, but because the natural gas drilling industry was able to continue working through the beginning of the pandemic, the larger drop-off was delayed for a few months until the summer of 2020.
“(The drilling) industry also kept working through the beginning of the pandemic which kept our occupancy higher in the first few months of the pandemic compared to those relying on leisure travel,” Marshall said. “I remember in April and May (2020) thinking our county was lucky compared to so many of my counterparts across the state that were shutting down their offices while also laying off staff.”
But the eventual loss in revenue did force the county to lay off one full-time position in the office, although there is hope that a new part-time employee will be hired later this year. The agency also did not print its annual tourism guide in 2021, but Marshall said they are bringing it back this year and plan to begin distributing it soon. The agency also expanded its online presence during the pandemic.
“You didn’t know when or if we could get back to normal, when regulations would be lifted or when people would go out,” Marshall said. “It forced us to look at more of our digital footprint and improve on social media, email marketing, website design. It’s always an opportunity to rethink.”
Fayette County also saw a drop in revenue in 2020, but its revenue figures boomed last year and exceeded its total income in 2019. That county received nearly $2.9 million in 2021 – up from $2.3 million in 2019 and $1.4 million in 2020 – with the help of various rental cabins around Ohiopyle and the prestigious Nemacolin resort in Farmington.
County tourism officials are now hopeful that many large-scale events that were canceled in 2020 and pared down last year will come back in full force as the pandemic eases.
“We cannot be continually recovering from the pandemic; we need to build upon the foundation for tourism’s expansion and look to the future,” Kotula said. “We continue to prioritize long-term growth and focus on investing in projects that encourage new economic and tourism development, attracts new visitors and increases quality of life for all citizens.”
Marshall is also looking forward to a return of normalcy this year with the expectation that the resumption of in-person classes and events at Waynesburg University and fans attending West Virginia University sporting events in droves will bring people to Greene County to stay overnight, helping to boost hotel usage.
“It is hard for tourism professionals to look beyond anything but a positive outlook,” Marshall said. “There have been ups and downs alongside adjustments for everyone, but I believe that we will all come out stronger.”