It is a spectacular sunny day on Seattle’s waterfront and there should be thousands of people within sight of Andy Lipscomb’s iconic Frankfurter stand near Pier 55.
“Instead there’s 10s of 10s,” Lipscomb jokes as he sticks his head out of his service window and looks around.
Welcome to Tourism Season 2020, the coronavirus edition. From a public health standpoint and beyond, these are unsettling times. And there is great uncertainty and worry in Seattle’s sprawling travel industry.
In the coming weeks, The Seattle Times will explore what tourism will look like as we gradually emerge from coronavirus lockdown. We’ll look at how to travel responsibly and safely amid a pandemic, and we’ll explore staycation options and re-examine the great American myth of the road trip.
This week we’re taking a macro look at Seattle travel.
And while there’s lots of doom and gloom in the Seattle travel industry, there are positive things going on as well. Tourists are still trickling into Seattle in twos and threes, which is better than nothing. And locals are helping to fill the gap, as the crowd at Pike Place Market the last couple of weekends showed.
“I don’t know how to phrase this, because I don’t want to say it was busy, but it was busier than it has been,” said Mary Bacarella, executive director of Pike Place Market. “And it has felt good with people coming down here.”
Most days of the week, however, the flow of visitors is a single-digit percentage of the usual flood. King County drew a record 21 million overnight visitors last year, according to Visit Seattle president and CEO Tom Norwalk, with the bulk of them arriving between May and September. An additional 20 million made day-trips here from within the region to attend games, concerts and other events.
With the Alaska cruise season canceled, air travel greatly reduced and access to many attractions restricted, tourism-related businesses and the thousands of employees who depend on them for seasonal employment have largely written off this summer. Billions of dollars instantly vanished. Poof.
Their lone hope is for a bit of a bump in the fall, by which point King County may have progressed farther into Gov. Jay Inslee’s phased reopening plan.
“We want to make sure that our city is ready to welcome and greet people and our region is ready to host people again,” Norwalk said. “So that’s going to take time. And so I think we’re kind of saying post-Labor Day is probably our timeframe. We’re thinking that, all things considered, if we can move correctly and safely, that’s when things will start to pick up.”
For reference, Labor Day is usually the last-call announcement for Seattle’s tourism season, so … yeah.
“I’d say we make more than 50% of our income” from May through September, said Lipscomb, who owns the Frankfurter stand and also runs a mobile food operation and the waterfront candy shop Frankly Sweets.
“We’re normally at Chateau Ste. Michelle for concerts or I’m at the Bite of Seattle or the [Northwest] Folklife Festival,” Lipscomb said. “We do all the festivals around the city. We don’t have any of those this year. You’ve got nobody here, no concerts at the winery and no festivals. It’s like we’re getting hit from all sides. So it’s going to be a different year, for sure. We’re going to be down huge.”
Several waterfront business owners interviewed by The Times say they will limp through this year with a combination of payroll protection help from the government, pivoting to new products and services, and austerity measures like workforce reduction and reduced operating hours. But many are nervous as new cases of COVID-19 continue to cause spikes around the nation in places like Oregon, Texas and Florida.
“The biggest thing for us is if the (virus) season starting in November is bad and then we get locked down again, there’s no way we’d make another winter,” Lipscomb said. “And that’s the biggest concern for everybody along here. I know we wouldn’t survive if we have another four months of lockdowns in the wintertime. So by flu season, we’ve got to figure something out.”
The big picture
Until COVID-19 shut things down, Seattle’s tourism numbers had been tremendous over the last decade, with pretty constant growth.
Those 21 million overnight visitors last year — a record — were responsible for spending $8 billion in King County, Norwalk said. Tourism is the state and city’s fourth-largest economic driver.
“So it is a large industry and it’s not a singular industry, per se,” Norwalk said. “It’s made up of a lot of components from arts and culture, restaurants, meetings and conventions, airlines and the cruise business, all of that is part of the reason visitors want to come. It’s a much larger industry than a lot of people think, and there are a lot of pieces to it that are what’s made Seattle so dynamic. And every one of those segments went away on March 1.”
There are huge red numbers everywhere. The Washington State Convention Center, as an example, has lost every major booking through the end of the year, except for one. That’s on track for a loss of $248 million in economic impact just from the three dozen or so conventions that won’t happen this year, like Emerald City Comic Con and PAX West.
The loss of the Alaska cruise season will be especially devastating. Like Norwalk, Bob Donegan, president of the Ivar’s chain of restaurants, closely tracks tourism numbers. And he has a few doozies.
“So the Port has calculated, based on a number of economic impact studies, that every time a cruise ship docks in Seattle, which was scheduled to be 235 times this summer, it spends $2.4 million buying supplies,” Donegan said. “Flowers, wines, fruits, vegetables, seafood, oil, cleaning materials, all that kind of stuff. That’s purchases in the city. That’s not including labor on the cruise ship. So you take that $2.4 million times 235 cruises, and yeah, it’s a big economic driver for the city.”
More than 1.3 million visitors stepped on or off cruise ships in Seattle last year. Hundreds of thousands more fly in to attend events at the convention center. Those important drivers symbiotically fed the waterfront and Pike Place Market, which drew more than 6 million and 15 million visitors last year, respectively.
“And consistently over the past 20 years, about 54% of the annual visitors to the waterfront come in June, July, August and September,” Donegan said. “So those are the months that waterfront businesses and the aquarium cover their costs, and then the rest of the year they typically lose money.”
Nathan Bainbridge, owner of Premier Meat Pies at Pier 54 and Seattle Center, says those tourists follow a predictable path, dropping dollar bills at every stop. Many of the city’s cruise tourists spend two extra days in town.
“A lot of Budweiser comes out of that thing,” Bainbridge says, pointing to the beer cooler. “Before they go on the cruise through the Inside Passage up to Alaska, they’ll hang out in town and they’ll go to the Space Needle — closed. They’ll go to MoPOP — closed. They’ll go to the different venues — closed — or go catch a Mariners game — closed. Go see a Sounders match — closed,” Bainbridge said.
The tourism life cycle has ground to a halt.
Do the pivot
The trick to surviving the pandemic is twofold, Bainbridge and his colleagues are discovering. First, they must figure out the CARES Act and all available programs from the city, county and state.
He has secured a grant from the city and is participating in federal relief programs, too. It requires one to know the difference between PPE and PPP, not to mention lots of other inscrutable topics, “which is very challenging to understand if you’re not an accountant and just a restaurant owner.”
Bainbridge also feels tapping into the business community and creating solutions together is important. His landlords have been understanding with rent as some months have gone unpaid. And he’s working with other businesses to create new opportunities. For instance, Argosy Cruises passengers disembark in front of his store. Their tickets will get them a discount.
“I think there is a growing consensus in the city that we’re kind of all in this together,” Bainbridge said.
Angela Shen, owner of Savor Seattle, a food and cultural tour company, is using that idea to help pivot her business away from the financial edge. Her company is stuck in a bit of tourism double jeopardy. Not only are there few feet on the ground to take tours, but the idea of resuming their small-group, carefully curated tours that focus on restaurants in and around Pike Place Market seems like a distant prospect.
“We’ve been watching the trends internationally and in other parts of the country and really understanding the science behind how viruses work,” Shen said. “And, maybe this is very pessimistic, but we’re in a business that brings groups of strangers together every day across the world to partake in breaking bread together, which is a very intimate, shared experience. And we think we need to wait, unfortunately, specifically for food tourism. A lot of infrastructure has to come back before our business can function again.”
Shen returned more than $200,000 in tour reservations and laid off 12 employees just days before she was set to hire 18 more for the summer season.
“I went through so many phases of like ugly crying … that was just so soul-crushing,” Shen said.
But once she wiped away the tears, she made a bold decision. She ditched the idea of conducting any tours in 2020. Her tours are mostly based around Pike Place Market, and so she decided to begin marketing a box with items from Market vendors instead.
The idea caught on right away, and not just locally. In the first 13 weeks on offer, the boxes generated $500,000 in direct sales to local businesses and $25,000 to the Pike Place Market Safety Net Fund at $5 donated per box.
When the Black Lives Matter protests began, Shen created a box with items from Seattle’s community of Black-owned businesses. The company sold 600 in the first 72 hours, generating more than $7,000 in donations to the BLM organization. She’s started a solidarity challenge to generate more charitable giving and envisions boxes that honor the city’s women-owned businesses or top chefs, among other ideas.
She has rehired 20 employees to help fill the demand and said the business is two to three times bigger than the tour operation ever was.
“We’re still being ambassadors of the Seattle food scene, just in a different way,” Shen said.
With any luck, these unnerving scenes of vacant tourism destinations won’t last all summer. Now in Phase 2, King County is opening up and more people will cautiously be venturing out — with masks on in public for now.
The hope is that Western Washington residents will fill the void left by all those distant travelers who won’t be coming. Many tourism-related businesses will gratefully welcome them.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we had about 35 to 40 essential businesses that were open — the fish, the meat, takeout, curbside, that sort of thing,” Pike Place Market Executive Director Bacarella said. “But now we’re getting our other small businesses back, opening up for the public, for the locals, for the tourists. And, also, the farmers have started back. They’re here on Thursdays and Saturdays at the moment, and we are working on getting our crafters and our buskers back, too.”