SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial kick-off to summer, but Santa Barbara's tourism rebound has already officially begun.
Hotels are filling up again for the holiday weekend and through most of the summer, especially on weekends, as pandemic concerns continue to wane in California and the United States.
"It's night and day," Tom Patton, general manager and partner at Ramada by Wyndham Santa Barbara, said of the difference between January and now. "Things are just in a much different position today than they were even a few months ago."
Hotels near the waterfront are some of the biggest winners so far. Some managers say their room rates are already back to pre-pandemic levels, and some believe pent-up travel demand will make this summer even busier for bookings than 2019.
Patton points out that while hotels across the South Coast are in a much better position now, beachside hotels likely have an even bigger advantage at the moment.
“When the leisure travelers come to Santa Barbara, that’s where they head first,” he said. “So the hotels down there see the biggest return and then they start to filter out towards the Goleta area.”
The Santa Barbara area at large seems to have had a bit of a head start on other vacation spots looking for travelers to return, given its easy location for drivers between San Francisco and San Diego, its outdoor activities and weather plus food and wine scenes.
Still, now destinations across the country are competing for travelers. More people are going on vacation as vaccination rates rise and COVID-19 cases continue to drop.
“Now everybody, for the first time probably ever, is all marketing for the same guest at the same time,” Patton said. “So it’s imperative that we continue to market our destination. make people understand why they should come here.”
Hotels are still facing other headwinds. A tight labor market has left all in the hospitality industry looking for more workers. Large conferences and business travel have not yet returned like leisure travel has, and international travel is still at a near standstill.
Even so, hotel managers and others in the South Coast hospitality industry are universally feeling much more hopeful.
Visit Santa Barbara president and CEO said just as much in a statement, reacting to the current state of the industry heading into Memorial Day weekend:
We’re pleased to report that bookings have been improving at South Coast hotels during the past month, with weekly occupancy averaging between 63 and 71 percent—one of the strongest runs we’ve seen since last year.
Memorial Day is the kickoff to the summer season, which is the most popular time of year for travel, both in Santa Barbara and throughout the U.S. While regional hotel performance data is not available in advance, many local hotels have been telling us that they’re seeing strong bookings for this weekend and are hopeful for the first time in many months.
We’re expecting a much-improved turnout for the holiday weekend compared to last year’s Memorial Day weekend, when occupancy averaged only 46 percent. It’s a little poignant to think back to that time, when just 46 percent weekend occupancy seemed like an achievement, since travel had been so dismal. It even dipped down to 13 percent weekly occupancy last spring. (This year, Memorial Day falls one week later than in 2020.)
Local businesses are heavily relying on this weekend and, more importantly, the subsequent summer months to make up for the precipitous drop in travel we saw all year long.
As hopeful as this is, the South Coast is still rebuilding mid-week travel, group and meetings travel, and visits from out-of-state residents, which are critical segments that have been missing. Visit Santa Barbara is marketing and advertising to these markets, now that vaccinations are more widespread and travel restrictions have lifted. The new flights from Southwest, along with Chicago service from United and San Diego service from Alaska Airlines that will launch in June, are going to be an important part of the mix to bring back more out-of-state visitors. Our data shows that these visitors tend to stay longer and provide more economic benefits to our local businesses.Kathy Janega-Dykes, President/CEO of Visit Santa Barbara