Cristy Morrison said she thought the events of Sept. 11, 2001, would be the most detrimental to the tourism industry.
She was wrong.
Morrison, the president of Visit Stillwater, said the United States Travel Association is reporting seven times more of an impact on travel and tourism industry than 9/11. This is because not only have the coronavirus shutdowns affected travel, but also restaurants, museums and other tourist attractions.
“This is definitely not something that I thought that I would ever experience in my career or in my lifetime,” Morrison said.
Morrison has been in the hospitality industry for 25 years. Her opinions on the coronavirus shutdowns varies from day to day.
“Some days it hurts my heart more and some days it hurts my head more,” Morrison said. “There are very good people in museums and attractions and hotel and restaurant that are losing their jobs after very long and successful careers. Hopefully I will see them back in the industry soon.”
Most of the U.S. has practiced social distancing since the coronavirus shutdowns began. For Stillwater, guidelines came into effect March 18. This has caused a huge downturn in travel in the United States and has shut down restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions across the nation. Even as the state and city enters the beginning phases of re-opening non-essential businesses, the ramifications will be felt for a long time, and the impact is just being revealed.
Oklahoma is one of the only state that relies on sales tax to finance its local governments. Social distancing and a decline in tourism is going to have a long-term effect on Stillwater economics.
Morrison said the economy in Stillwater is definitely hurting because of the lack of tourism.
“Our occupancy in the hotels are in single digits, and that’s the case across the country,” Morrison said. “Thank goodness that we have very innovative, creative people in Stillwater in regard to many of our restaurants and retailers. They are finding ways to remain open to business, so that is helping.”
No one is sure what impact these shutdowns will have on Stilwater’s economy.
Chris Norris, chairman of the Visit Stillwater board, is expecting the worst.
“I kind of think you will see the results of what happened in April in July whenever sales tax numbers start coming in,” Norris said. “No one knows, but it is not going to be good.”
City Manager Norman McNickle said the sales tax collected for Stillwater in March will not be seen until June, so there is no good gauge on what the effect will be on city revenue.
“A lot of people might not think of (the city’s) two main sources of revenue, sales tax and sale in utilities,” McNickle said. “If you take all of the hotels and motels being down, and then the restaurants, they use a lot of electricity and water. That is all down, depending on the day and on the temperature.”
McNickle said the amount of electricity used in the city is down 8%-23% depending on the day, making city electricity usage average about 9%-10% a day.
Steps are being taken to prepare for the apparent loss in revenue for the city. McNickle said the City Council has gathered its department directors together and have asked them to curtail any expenditure that does not support a core service such as waste management, electric, police, fire and emergency management and others.
Two budgets have also been prepared for a 25% and a 40% reduction.
“We think it will have a serious effect on the city,” McNickle said. “If you think about it for a minute, if you just take the student body at Oklahoma State and a majority of those students are gone, you are talking about roughly 20,000-24,000 people. That is a big part of your population that would be spending money and paying sales tax on purchases if they were in town.”
Visit Stillwater and the Payne County Expo Center are beginning to put plans in place for after the social distancing restrictions are lifted.
Norris said it has been difficult to plan because of how unclear the future is.
“There is no blueprint for what we are going to do,” Norris said. “This has never happened before. We do not know how quickly we open.”
Visit Stillwater and the Expo center are working to reschedule some of the events that had to be postponed.
But, location limitations and uncertainty about the future is making it difficult to plan too far ahead.
“Some of our events have meeting space and things at Oklahoma State,” Norris said. “There is no way you are going to get that person back for short term, and I would think in the short term you are just going to try to do your best and try to get people in.”
Norris is worried about what people’s psyche is going to be like once the restrictions are lifted, and whether people are going to want to go to city events the first few months.
Campbell hopes to have the majority of postponed events rescheduled for later this year.
“A lot of people have got to have plenty of notice to host an event and plan an event,” Campbell said. “But we are still dealing with so many unknowns and we can (plan events), but then we do not know if it is actually going to happen.
“As far as in the future, we are going to have to book as many events as we can because we have got some ground to make up for this last month.”
The lack of tourism in Stillwater from Oklahoma State University sporting events and Stillwater’s city events has undoubtedly caused a big hit to the city’s revenue.
Morrison said tourism will play an equally important role in recovering the economy.
“The visitor development industry is critical to the recovery of the local economy,” Morrison said. “We need people and we need extra people in town spending money for sales tax, and we need sales tax expenditures so that the city can provide the services that we are accustomed to getting.”
Visit Stillwater has a plan it is calling the “comeback campaign” prepared for when the travel restrictions are lifted. Once Stillwater is able to open to travelers, its message will change from internally promoting Stillwater restaurants and services to outwardly encouraging visitors to come to Stillwater. Morrison said Visit Stillwater will also continue to work with restaurants and business partners, but marketing at that time will be focused on bringing in visitors.
Although these plans are being worked out for the future of tourism in Stillwater, Campbell said he is focused on the present.
“The events that we had scheduled for March and April, of course a lot of them canceled and are just going to look at next year,” Campbell said. “But a lot of them decided to just postpone (events) and see if we could see if they could get their event in (this year).”
Despite the potential impact all of the coronavirus shutdowns could have on Stillwater’s economy, Campbell said these shutdowns were necessary.
“This is something that we have, that I have, never personally experienced,” Campbell said. “Probably not many have, if any. We have got to be proactive on this or it could be really bad. I think Payne County as a whole has done a super job keeping this contained.”
Norris said he thinks the actions of the city were prudent and correct.
“I do think if something like this happens in the shorter term, as in five to 10 years, I think the country and the state will probably have a little better blueprint on what to do and what will work,” Norris said.
The tourism industry in Stillwater is ready to get back to some sense of normalcy once the coronavirus restrictions are lifted. Campbell said he cannot wait to get back in his rhythm.
“I think everyone is anxious to get back to some normalcy,” Campbell said. “This is something that takes everybody out of their comfort zone. We are definitely hoping that we can get to go as soon as possible.”
Norris is trying to stay optimistic on when everything will return to normal.
“Hopefully by Aug. 1 we will be back to normal,” Norris said. “Back to normal with Oklahoma State and looking forward to the 2020 football season and going from there. That will cure a lot of these problems. I think optimism helps a bunch.”
Stillwater Mayor Will Joyce said it is important to understand the significance of social distancing, and it is important to know that the more residents stay home, the quicker Stillwater will get through this pandemic.
“We are going to see the end of this,” Joyce said. “This will come to a conclusion. We will get to the point where we can resume mostly our normal lives. The better we do now of slowing the spread down and creating a more stable healthcare system for us to treat it, the better and the faster we are going to be able to come out of it in the end. It is just a matter of taking the precautions we need to make sure it happens, the being ready to go when we get to the other side.”