Each May, the City of San Luis Obispo usually welcomes tourists eager to dine at local restaurants, hike the surrounding hills and stroll through the Thursday night farmer’s market. This year, the beginning of summer in San Luis Obispo looks a little different – and a lot less busy.
When shelter-at-home requirements went into effect in mid-March, visitors stopped traveling to San Luis Obispo, according to City tourism manager Molly Cano. At that same time, the city ceased all promotions of San Luis Obispo as a travel destination with no date for when it would begin those efforts again, she said.
With May marking the beginning of a roughly six-month period of steady tourism, the lack of visitors in town is becoming even more apparent to local businesses and city organizations.
“Typically, during this time of year, [hotels are] usually around 70 percent occupancy,” Cano said. “Where we’re at right now is approximately 15 to 20 percent occupancy, so it’s a dramatic change to the guests that are staying here.”
Cano noted most people staying in local lodging are involved in essential services like healthcare and construction — not staying for leisure travel.
The depleted tourism rates have strained business-as-usual. One of the city’s newest hotels, Hotel SLO, which opened October 2019, ceased bookings altogether.
The hotel halted both the restaurant and hotel room bookings March 22, 2020, and laid off most employees, according to Hotel SLO’s general manager David Smith. In the meantime, the hotel provides a quarantine space for employees in need and plans to reopen bookings for essential workers in late May. Only time will tell when the hotel will welcome tourists again.
Not only is the lack of tourism a hit to hotel finances, but Smith explained that it has an effect on those who work in the hospitality business who truly find joy in being around people.
“The void is felt deeply just by not being able to socialize and be around people that are interesting, that have traveled the world, that have insights,” Smith said. “These wonderful exchanges aren’t taking place anymore, and it’s sad.”
Other lodging locations, like the SLO Brew Lofts, have continued operations. According to SLO Brew Lofts’ hospitality manager Casey Sperbeck, however, most guests are either locals or participating in a “staycation.”
Though still open, the property — which houses five vacation rentals — has still felt the negative effect of shelter-in-place orders on business. Over the seven weeks, since the ordinance first went into place, the SLO Brew Lofts have had no bookings. Now, with bookings slowly picking up, Sperbeck says they are taking extra precautions for guests and making sure there is at least a 48-hour period between each stay.
The loss of tourism is also financially impacting local businesses and the city as a whole.
This year alone, the city was on track to bring in around $8 million in transient occupancy taxes, the taxes people pay when they stay in hotels. Cano explained how this money, which makes up about 10 percent of the city’s general fund, goes directly back into city operations like infrastructure improvements and public safety.
She also said for every $1 generated from sales taxes, 72 cents on the dollar comes from people who do not reside in the city of San Luis Obispo, including folks who are staying overnight and those visiting for the day from the surrounding Central Coast community.
“Tourism is so important to our community, and we know that it’s important to our economy,” Cano said. “But what is more important is the need to make sure our community is safe and healthy in order for us to operate in the same means.”
As the city prioritizes the safety of San Luis Obispo residents, Cano said they are focusing more on how, rather than when, the reopening phases will occur. “The when”, she explained, is out of their control, so they have focused on data and science to prepare a plan once given the ability to move forward.
Luckily, Cano said, the reasons people opt to spend their vacation time in San Luis Obispo have not been completely tainted by the pandemic. After running a study on why visitors come to this city, it was acknowledged that the top four reasons San Luis Obispo is a travel destinations are the relaxing experience, scenery, dining experience, and outdoor activities.
“When you look at those top four trip motivators, the good news is that those things are all still accessible,” Cano said, while acknowledging the temporary shifts in the dining experience. “We’ve been very lucky that our community has done such a great job following the guidelines, so we’ve been able to maintain our outdoor open spaces and trails.”
Until tourists are able to join San Luis Obispo locals hiking, shopping local businesses or walking through the farmers market in-person, they can visit virtually through content created by the tourism team.
The current consensus for all San Luis Obispo entities and businesses is to pivot operations, plan ahead and prepare for when reopening is allowed by governing bodies and medical professionals.
For downtown San Luis Obispo clothing store Blackwater, planning ahead means changing the layout of the store to make the flow of foot traffic smoother once they are able to welcome customers back in.
“We’re working on getting the necessary materials to reopen,” Blackwater co-owner Erica Hamilton said. “Every customer will have to put on a pair of gloves and face masks while shopping.”
Hamilton said the city has been keeping them updated on how reopening will look in the coming months. The city has also given them some guidelines, but such matters are ultimately up to the state until counties are given more control.
In the meantime, Blackwater, like many other local stores, will continue to do curbside pick-ups, which have accounted for about 60% of their current business, online orders and local deliveries.
“When it’s safe for our residents to come out, we’ll be prepared,” Cano said. “When it’s safe for our businesses to open, we’ll be prepared. And then when it’s safe for us to welcome back visitors to our community, we’re hoping that our community will be ready to welcome them back with open arms in the true San Luis Obispo style.”