Local tourist attractions plan return

WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS – For Mary Kay Wydra, the president of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, 2020 was not a good year.

“It was challenging year to say the least,” She told Reminder Publishing.

Tourism is not only big business for the commonwealth, it’s big business for Hampden and Hampshire counties.

According to the state-wide 2018 statistics (the latest available) from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism (MOTT) Direct spending was $24.2 billion; State and local taxes: $1.6 billion; Jobs supported: 153,200; Wages paid: $5.6 billion; 27.6 Million Domestic Visitors: 1.8 Million Overseas Visitors; and 700,000 Canadian visitors.

Looking locally, In Hampden County there was a payroll of $138.9 million with 3,500 people employed. The amount spent by visitors was $578.2 million. For Hampshire County those figures were $34 million for payroll; $148.5 of expenditures; and 1,000 people employed.

Hampden County is home to major tourist attractions: The Springfield Museums, MGM Springfield, The Basketball Hall of Fame, the Big E complex, Bright Nights at Forest Park and Six Flags. To the north, Wydra noted the importance of the Yankee Candle flagship store.

On Feb. 8, Gov. Charlie Baker loosened some COVID-19 restrictions. Restaurants, close-contact personal services, movie theaters, casinos, office spaces, places of worship, retailers, driving and flight schools, libraries, arcades, fitness centers and museums have all been operating at a maximum capacity of 25 percent since Dec. 26. Now, 40 percent is allowed. Indoor performance venues and many recreational businesses are still closed though, until state health officials see even more progress in the decrease in infection rates.

Some local attractions are planning to a return to more normal conditions. The Big E announced Feb. 5 in a press release, “Planning is underway by Eastern States Exposition and the New England 4-H community to create programming and opportunities for the youth organization to grow and thrive while keeping participants safe under COVID-19 protocols.”

The fair, one of the largest in this country, was cancelled in 2020.

Gene Cassidy, president and CEO of Eastern States Exposition (ESE) was quoted as saying in the release, “During this unique time in our history, ESE is doing all it can to support and provide an appropriate venue for youth and agriculture, the core of our mission.”

Additional details have yet to be announced.

One attraction apparently did do well last year: Bright Nights at Forest Park. In its February newsletter, Spirit of Springfield President Judith Matt wrote, “Thank you to all who made the Bright Nights at Forest Park 2020 season such a great success and safe for all. The attendance was overwhelming.”

Final attendance numbers have not yet been released.

Wydra linked recovery from the effects of the pandemic to the effort to vaccinate the general public and hopes to see an uptick in business activity sometime this spring as more people receive the inoculation.

She admitted, though, “No one has the playbook in front of them.”

Wydra added, “The health and safety concerns are not going away for a while.” The third quarter of this year is when Wydra sees the opportunity for substantial recovery.

She said the local tourism industry “came to a screeching halt” in March of last year and then “bottomed out” in April 2020. There was a some improvement in August in room occupancy.

The pandemic is “forcing people to be really creative as their go about their business” she said. Local museums have offered online programming as well as kits to bring home to children.  

There was such an impact on the sector the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development (EOHED) through MOTT has solicited grant applications for The Travel and Tourism Recovery Grant Program for FY21.

“These funds are dedicated to marketing projects that support the My Local MA campaign, enhance tourism recovery and have the potential to increase non-resident visitation. MOTT will endeavor to assure broad geographic diversity among grantees,” according to a statement released by MOTT.

Wydra said, “Without tourism there will be no complete economic recovery.”