The focus now is on the future— and recovering what was lost

If you wanted to get a snapshot of how much the coronavirus impacted tourism in our community, you just had to drive through downtown Lynchburg this spring. Many popular restaurants were closed. No crowds were waiting to see performances at the Academy. Hotels were open, but most of the rooms were empty. It was such a disappointing sight following a strong tourism boom in the Hill City over the past decade.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the tourism industry was among the hardest hit sectors of the economy—both statewide and here at home. According to a National Restaurant Association survey in April, 94% of Virginia restaurants had to lay off or furlough workers. Hotel occupancy rates in Lynchburg dropped from around 70% to 24% during the stay-at-home order. A survey by the Virginia Tourism Corporation found that half of respondents reduced their workforce with 4 in 10 having to close down completely.

In terms of rebuilding, the bad news is that the road back won’t be short.

“I think it’s a 12-month period [to recover],” said Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association. “I think it’s going to take awhile for business travel to recover, people to feel comfortable going back in a restaurant.”

But the good news? There’s lots of it. Not only is Lynchburg’s economy resilient, our tourism industry’s momentum is as strong as ever.

“We are going to have to focus on the next few months to get as many of our local and regional businesses stabilized,” said Lisa Meriwether, Tourism Sales Manager for the Lynchburg Office of Economic Development and Tourism, while adding, “Lynchburg is still open for business. It just looks different.”

When the stay-at-home order hit, restaurants had to quickly change their business models and shift to takeout and/or delivery.

Dave Henderson, owner of The Water Dog, recalls what it felt like to immediately close and furlough 40 employees while he figured out what to do. “It was with a heavy heart. I didn’t know what the next steps were,” said Henderson. “All I could feel was that I needed to do something.” He ended up reopening a couple days later for takeout service with only seven employees.

During Phase 1 of Virginia’s reopening plan, Henderson and other restaurant owners received guidelines from the governor’s office on how they must operate. But he was already one step ahead and had worked out a deal with the city’s Parks and Rec department to extend his patio into Riverfront Park, allowing more space between customers.

According to Meriwether, restaurants might have to get creative to get people to return. She believes it might take good deals or packages with local hotels to encourage more foot traffic.
Also, moving forward, restaurants have learned they must be very communicative—especially on social media—about their public health practices. Ensuring cleanliness will be a big factor in gaining customer confidence back.

Something positive also emerged from the restaurant closures—it brought the local restaurant community together. Henderson started a Facebook group called Lynchburg Restaurant Owners Coalition, where dozens of restaurant owners and operators are doing what they can to make sure everyone can rebuild.
“It’s been really refreshing to see many of these owners come together and really looking to support one another,” said Henderson.

Lynchburg area hotels offered an alternative for residents who needed a break from the stay-at-home order. But besides some stir-crazy people and a little bit of business travel, most rooms went unoccupied. The process to get back to full occupancy will be slow.

Virginia tourism officials believe it’s going to start with people traveling to visit their family and friends, whom they haven’t seen in months. “People will continue to travel. People are addicted to it,” Meriwether said.

Dennis Marcinik, general manager at The Virginian Hotel, believes postponed events such as graduations and weddings will help fill rooms.

“No one has a crystal ball to see what business will look like,” he explained, but added that, “People are still going to get married; people are still going to have meetings.”

Marcinik says after a slow March, business started to pick up in the latter half of April. All of the hotel’s restaurants remained closed, but they offered a free continental breakfast delivered to guest rooms.

He says he was able to gradually bring back furloughed staff as more people came to stay there.

Marcinik says as part of being a Hilton luxury brand, their staff is very diligent about cleaning and sanitation processes. He says they are all anxious to be busy again, but acknowledges that might take a while.

“I don’t think anyone is expecting the nation to be back where we were. That’s not going to happen in July. Probably not in August,” said Marcinik.

Getting people to feel comfortable sitting right next to someone in an 835-seat theater could prove to be a challenge. That’s why the Academy Center of the Arts has had to change how they provide entertainment to the community. The historic theater, which just opened in December 2018, had to close temporarily in March.
“The initial period was just emergency mode,” said Executive Director Geoffrey Kershner. “One of our primary means of operating and primary revenue streams is selling tickets. And that quickly became
a liability.”

They had to pivot to delivering entertainment digitally. Acts performed on stage in front of an empty theater, and the performances were broadcast on the Academy’s website and Facebook live. They offered a wide range of educational programs online as well.

Many other cultural organizations—the Lynchburg Museum System, Amazement Square, and Lynchburg Public Library to name a few—also shifted quickly to virtual offerings using multiple platforms.

For Kershner, it was about staying relevant “We’re trying to be as visible as possible. We know it’s not a replacement for what we’ve lost, but it keeps us visible during a time when we could easily disappear,” said Kershner.

The Academy’s rebuild plan starts with the educational programming. In June, when Virginia moved into Phase 2 of its reopening plan, the center could reopen its art gallery and education rooms.

When it comes to reopening the theater, Academy officials have been talking with the health department about the proper safety measures to take, including changes at the box office and concession stands.

Many shows have been pushed back, but Kershner says it has been easier than expected because artists and agents are being understanding and flexible.

“One of the good things is we’re all in this together,” said Kershner. “Everybody just wants shows to happen at some point.”

While “at some point” is vague, there is a clear role we can all play in rebuilding the local tourism industry. “Now is the best time to be a tourist in your own backyard,” said Meriwether. “We need to trade fear for optimism. Let’s stop being afraid. Let’s be optimistic about our future.”

Pivoting During the Pandemic
When restrictions began, these businesses were intentional about their next move

The owners of Nomad Coffee launched a spin-off of their business called Nomad Movies, a way to bring a drive-in movie experience to communities as social distancing became a way of life.

Custom Embroidery and Screenprinting off Timberlake Road started taking orders for custom printed face masks.
Nonprofit makerspace Vector Space on Fifth Street wasn’t able to hold classes or events, so they shifted their focus and started using 3-D printers to make personal protective equipment for the local medical community.

When hair salons were forced to close, Sage Tryall Salon decided to use the time to remodel. No additional chairs were added but instead, the salon expanded so that there would be more space in between customers.
La Caretta also took advantage of the downtime to tackle some remodeling projects, including one at the Timberlake Road location to provide a larger indoor waiting area that would make customers feel more comfortable.

Magnolia Foods on Rivermont Avenue restructured the inside of their eatery into a mini–grocery store.
The Forest-based Brauburgers took curbside service to a new level by offering a drive-through. Customers didn’t have to call ahead and could order and receive their food upon arrival.

Well established as a catering company for larger events, Avenue Foods switched gears and started making family meals for to-go.

By Scott Wilson