The area’s hotel industry rebounded last year despite a dip in travel during the early part of the pandemic. With the room occupancy tax (ROT) numbers recently revealed, the county had record gains in 2021.
In December alone, data show a nearly 40% increase over ROT collections in December 2020 (which totaled $572,112). The calendar year numbers reflect an even greater increase of almost 60% over ROT collections for calendar year 2020 (which totaled $13.3 million).
“We are continuing to see the trend that we pretty much have seen since COVID with vacation rentals doing really well,” said Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority. “Not as much with families since the kids are back in school, but with overnight stays since people have become more comfortable traveling.”
The strong numbers can be attributed to the availability of vaccinations and boosters, which helped build visitors’ confidence and allowed people to feel more comfortable traveling to visit friends and family, according to Hufham.
This has enabled people to participate in many of the events that returned after a year of cancellations. Conferences, the Cucalorus Film Festival and the N.C. Holiday Flotilla in Wrightsville Beach all made a comeback in 2021 after canceling events in 2020 because of COVID-19.
“December was strong for us. It was our highest December we ever had,” Hufham said. “And June 2021 was over three times what December is, and May really jumped out as very strong for us.”
The ROT revenue for 2021 was almost 50% higher than pre-pandemic numbers. Hufham said that in 2019, just over $1 million in ROT was collected for the month of October.
By comparison, almost $1.5 million was collected in ROT in October 2021.
The Ironman triathlon, a tennis tournament and the Wilmington Marathon also returned, bringing large numbers of athletes and visitors to the area.
“We are a fortunate destination that we have the type of accommodations people are looking for. With so many vacation rentals, people like that kind of destination. Even [the city of] Wilmington picked back up as well, as comfort levels rose,” Hufham said.
The Wilmington Convention Center District, hit hard by cancellations, has also started to bounce back. Despite the continued cancellation of the large numbers of military balls that usually book the convention center, officials have been able to fill gaps with some other events, like the addition of a cheerleading competition.
The mild winter contributed to the high numbers, according to Hufham.
“The weather helped a lot. We saw a lot of activity with the mild winter and some summer-like weekends. When people from our feeder markets see the weather forecast is going to be in the 70s and 80s, they want to be at the beach,” Hufham said.
Looking ahead to the 2022 peak season, Hufham said she is confident trends will continue upward.
“Accommodations feel good about spring and summer 2022. Pre-booking has been strong, and restaurants are seeing business return,” Hufham said.
With some people feeling more comfortable driving to their destinations instead of flying, the Wilmington area and beaches draw visitors from the Triangle, Triad and as far as Charlotte.
“We think we will continue to see strong numbers. We were hesitant, as things started to open back up that people would want to do those big bucket list trips, but because of a lot of international restrictions, that’s not going to happen,” Hufham said. “It is still not that easy to fly, so we are going to see a lot of domestic-type travel. People would rather jump in the car and control who they’re around.”
The ability to work remotely has also been a big boost to the area’s vacation rentals, as well.
“Some businesses are sticking with that model or going hybrid, so that trend here is going to be with us for a while,” said Connie Nelson, NHCTDA’s communications and public relations director.
The numbers in the peak season months of May-August are always the strongest months, but this past off-season turned out to be strong “even compared to pre-COVID,” according to Hufham.
“Our type of destination with the activities and accommodations, a lot of things to do outdoors, makes us appealing to a lot of travelers. Outdoor activities like parks, farmers markets, gardens make visitors feel safe,” Hufham said. “People want to manage their own destiny and a lot of those different methods really attributed to our success.”
Outdoor activities and vacation rentals offer a level of comfort that travelers are looking for as they have become used to mitigating the risks of the virus, according to Hufham and Nelson.
“Visitors have changed how they travel since COVID too,” Nelson said.
Officials at NHCTDA are mildly cautious about 2022 given the high numbers of 2021, but plan to continue to ramp up marketing efforts.
“We feel good about 2022 with a little apprehension with the numbers as high as we’ve had. We want to be optimistic, but feel that the numbers will level back out,” Hufham said. “We have expanded our marketing and started an out-of-state awareness campaign. We want to be proactive and continue to market those types of things.”
The Wilmington Convention Center was hit the hardest, but optimism is strong for 2022, and the NHCTDA expects meetings and events to continue to increase as confidence increases.
“There is an uptick in booking for calendar year 2022,” said Fredia Brady, general manager of the convention center. “We are optimistic in the events that are returning.”
Overall, the numbers paint a clear picture. The Wilmington area continues to remain a destination of choice for those hoping to find safe, enjoyable accommodations and activities.
“We are thankful for the numbers we have seen. Other areas, metropolitan areas, are not doing as well, still lagging behind the beaches,” Hufham said. “Things are looking up, and we feel positive about what is going to happen and we will continue to go from there.”