The novel coronavirus has slowed travel all over the world, and Williamson County’s tourism economy will likely take a big hit as well.
Tourism and hospitality is big business in the county. According to Visit Franklin, the organization tasked with promoting Williamson County as a tourism destination, more than 1.7 million people visited the county in 2018, and visitors spent an average of $1.3 million per day.
In 2018, arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services generated almost $1 billion in the local economy, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Visit Franklin CEO Ellie Westman Chin said the organization has been calling hotels, restaurants and shops in Williamson County for more than a week, asking how the coronavirus is affecting the local hospitality industry.
“It is definitely going to affect it,” she said. “What it will be eventually, I don't want to forecast that. It's such a rapidly changing scenario, day by day, it's difficult to do that. As much as we can compare to Sept. 11 and what happened after the 2008-2009 recession, this is so different because it is worldwide.”
In the last few days, Westman Chin said lots of groups have started to cancel their plans to travel to Williamson County.
Last year, Williamson County’s hospitality industry had a terrific spring break season, Westman Chin said. The county had an average hotel occupancy of about 80% around spring break. Visit Franklin was expecting the same if not better for the 2020 spring break season.
Hotel occupancy data for March won’t be available until at least mid-April, but the increasing number of coronavirus cases — eight in Williamson County as of March 12 — makes it unlikely that the county will see high hotel occupancy.
However, Williamson County could make up for those lost visitors later in the year if the disease outbreak dissipates quickly.
“We're probably going to take a dip in March. April is an unknown,” Westman Chin said. “What we're doing right now is planning for when we see that light (at the end of the tunnel). We are going to come out strong.”
The virus also puts Visit Franklin in the odd position of promoting tourism to Williamson County at a time when the Centers for Disease Control is warning older people and those with underlying health issues to avoid nonessential travel, and asking all travelers to take extra precautions to avoid spreading the new virus.
Westman Chin said the health of people living in the county is obviously a top priority, so they have changed their messaging. Lauren Ward, the Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Visit Franklin, said the focus is now on getting visitors to come later in the year.
“We're trying to get people to think long term," she said. "We're not necessarily going to push the message of come visit us immediately. Everything we're going to be doing is going to be more on a branding level right now, and talking about visiting us in the summer and the fall.”
In addition to checking on hospitality businesses, Visit Franklin has also been passing on information about how to cope from the U.S. Travel Association and Destination International, a professional organization for tourism marketers.
One potential piece of good news for the local hospitality industry: Most visitors drive to Williamson County, rather than flying. That could make it easier for Williamson County’s tourism industry to bounce back after the virus becomes less of a risk.
While she acknowledges that the next few weeks or months may be exceptionally difficult for the truism industry, Westman Chin is optimistic about the future.
“Americans don't stay down for long. They like to travel. They like to get out and meet people,” she said. “I feel like once it's lifted, people will be visiting again.”