UPPER MERION — 2023 was a good year for tourism in Montgomery County — a year that saw tourism rebound — coming very close to pre-pandemic levels.
At the end of fiscal year 2023, which ended Sept. 30, the county’s hospitality industry had reached 98.9% of pre-pandemic levels. Visitor spending in the county topped $1.6 billion — up 14.4% over the previous year.
The agency that leads the promotion of Montgomery County as a destination is the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board. A private, nonprofit membership-based sales and marketing organization, the board actively promotes the Valley Forge Area and Montgomery County and its member hotels, restaurants, attractions and services.
It works to fill the county’s more than 9,400 hotel rooms by attracting meetings, sports, tourism and leisure businesses.
Mike Bowman is the president and CEO of the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board. He recently sat down with MediaNews Group to talk about the recovery and how the industry, visitors and his agency have changed in this post-COVID era.
How Bad Did Things Get During the Pandemic?
When COVID-19 struck early in 2020, there was an immediate impact on the hospitality industry. Restaurants shut down, attractions closed, hotel occupancy plummeted, and weddings and meetings were canceled.
“We were coming off a great 2019. We were having a great first quarter (of 2020). We went from 60% occupancy to 2% overnight. We hit bottom quick,” Bowman said.
From there it was a gradual recovery as some of the restrictions began to ease.
“We got into 2022 and got a surge that carried us forward. Then we started seeing families getting together again, and the weekends started to click. I’m very encouraged,” he added.
“I would say the business is back and it was a very, very good year for Montgomery County. But the business is different,” Bowman said. “For example, our mid-week corporate business is still rebounding. We’re not where we were in 2019, because of work from home for many companies.”
Over the last four or five months, he said, there has been an uptick in the corporate business on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
“I think Thursday has become Friday for people. Monday is ‘let’s get ready for the week,’” he said, adding there is also an uptick at Philadelphia International Airport on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Bowman added that leadership of the county’s hotels is also seeing that mid-week increase.
Bowman said it’s taking a while for that segment to rebound fully because work from home is still part of the business climate.
One area that came roaring back in fiscal year 2023 was the youth sports segment — setting a record this summer.
The county hosted 35 sporting events with record-high attendance, generating more than 85,000 total room nights, resulting in $23 million in economic impact, up 19% over last year, the tourism board said.
The U.S. Youth Soccer Eastern President’s Cup, held June 16-20, was the single largest sporting event to ever come to Montgomery County, according to the agency’s annual report. The tournament generated 5,000 room nights and $5 million in economic impact.
In 2024, the county will play host to the YMCA Gymnastics Nationals — an event Bowman said should be an event larger than the soccer tournament.
Sports contributes more than 70% of the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board’s total group business. Six years ago, Bowman said, youth sports-related bookings were 28% of the agency’s group business.
Also performing well is weekend leisure.
“The weekend business has been incredible. We had a really strong summer, softened up in August, then bam, we had a good September and October,” Bowman said. “The wedding industry, reunions and family gatherings are really strong.”
Occupancy at the county’s 83 hotels, Bowman said, is still down a point or two from 2019 levels, but rates were up, with a daily rate of $133. He said the hotels’ margins were down during fiscal year 2023 because of the cost of goods.
The properties are producing more than $200 million in hotel room revenue, a 9% increase over 2022, according to the VFTCB’s annual report. In June, hotel revenue was the highest ever, reaching $29.3 million and an average daily rate of $147.
Bowman said there was a time, maybe seven or eight years ago when it was harder to sell weekends than weekdays.
“The weekend business all year from 2022 into 2023 has been unbelievable for most of the hotels,” he said. “When you look at our indicators for the region we’re outperforming — with momentum — most of the suburban counties.”
What Has Changed?
When it comes to visitors, Bowman said there has been a shift in their behavior. He said there has been an increase in businesses located on “main streets” in the county, as more visitors look for that experience.
“They (visitors) want to sit on a bench and have an ice cream cone. … We’re seeing a large uptick on Thursdays on social media and the website — especially from women looking for things to do for families for the weekend. They are going out,” he said, adding visitors are also looking for value.
For the venues — the hotels, restaurants and attractions — Bowman said things got “pretty rough” for them during the pandemic, but they are doing better now than even six to 12 months ago. He said adding technology has helped — things like visitors settling checks at the table, or checking into a hotel via their phones.
“There has also been a lot of learning on how do we find and retain our people. A lot of hotels are investing in helping with tuition reimbursement and other things to keep people — because turnover costs a lot of money,” Bowman added.
The Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board has shifted to meet the new “norm” for the hospitality industry.
Since the pandemic, the agency’s staff has gone from 31 to 22. The youth sports team added two positions, as did marketing, according to Bowman, who said the agency shifted focus to “quality from quantity, to bring in the right, smart people.”
He added that the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board has refreshed its marketing, with its social media strategy and digital marketing efforts making emotional connections and focusing on things to do.
“Our TV campaigns are pretty funny, we’ve added humor to them,” Bowman said. “They have a great message — we’re using a lot of fun and humor in what we do, saying ‘hey, come on out.’ And people are responding.”
What About the Future?
“I’m very optimistic for Montgomery County — I feel really good,” Bowman said, adding that he expects the hospitality industry will still be a different business.
Bowman expects that in fiscal year 2024, the economic impact of the hospitality will surpass 2019’s $1.7 billion.
“I am excited about the business,” Bowman said.