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San Diego Tourism Leader Ponders A Post COVID-19 World

Julie Coker the President and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority on Oct. 2, 2020.
Matthew Bowler
Julie Coker the President and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority on Oct. 2, 2020.

San Diego’s tourism industry is still struggling to rebound from COVID-19 shutdowns that hit in March and still linger today. KPBS Reporter Erik Anderson recently spoke with Julie Coker the head of the San Diego Tourism Authority. She discussed what used to be the region’s third-largest economic sector.

San Diego Tourism Leader Ponders A Post COVID-19 World
Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.

Editor's note: The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How is the local tourist economy doing, now?

A: To date, just the conventions that the San Diego Tourism Authority booked, we’ve lost 47 conventions since March of this year. That’s close to $1.2 billion in economic impact, over 700,000 room nights that our hotels would’ve consumed. And again, that’s just a piece of the pie. We’ve also lost groups that our hotels are unable to hold at this time. Any meeting convention or trade show. So in terms of the convention market, the meetings market right now, it’s really devastated. As you know, we still don’t have direction from the state as to when we’ll be able to hold controlled gatherings. So right now we don’t have any gatherings at the convention center through the end of this calendar year and we’re seeing some slippage already in January and February which is concerning.

Video: San Diego’s Tourism Industry Still Struggles To Rebound From COVID-19 Shutdowns

Q: It was really, really bad in March a lot of businesses completely closed. Hospitality industry restaurants. How far back have we come?

A: We’re fortunate that as of June, hotels were opened for leisure stays. And we saw very strong demand, especially Thursday, Friday, Saturday, as you can imagine, weekend stays. That has continued through the summer months. And since Labor Day, we’ve obviously seen a sharp decline in our weekday business. And that’s always been a challenge for us because San Diego has been fortunate to have a number of conventions book throughout the summer months that cover Sunday through Thursday, as well as that business traveler. So we’ve lost the convention traveler and we’ve also lost the business traveler which has impacted the weekdays. So right now we’re running about 50% occupancy which is significantly less than we traditionally do. Traditionally right now we would be sold out every weekend. In the fall, we would be running about 80% to 100% occupancy in our hotels weekday. So this is a prime convention business traveler season right now that we’re not being able to take advantage of. So, we’re doing better than most cities but we still are significantly lower than where we should be.”

Q: How does not having all the region’s visitor attractions open and available, to the extent that they were before COVID. How does that impact the decision to come to San Diego?

A: So the good thing about San Diego is that we’ve got some natural resources that others don’t. We have miles and miles of beautiful beaches. We’ve got a welcoming community that’s diverse and inclusive. And then of course we have our great cultural attractions, Balboa Park, USS Midway, the Zoo, the Safari Park, Seaworld. So that has really helped. Certainly, we would love to have all of our attractions being able to open — Legoland. That certainly adds to the product that we can offer visitors. But right now what we have is definitely a driver to the destination. Really what we’re missing is that business and convention traveler.

Q: What are you doing to help bring some of that business back?

A: Certainly as we know as business professionals as long as we have Wi-Fi we can work anywhere. And we can be efficient anywhere. So, why not do it in a destination that has a great outdoors, an awesome hospitality community, and a lot to offer. So we have really reached the traveler where they are. If you’re local, stay-vacation here. If you are a regional drive audience we have something for you. But, more importantly, if you are looking to travel down the road, November, December, January we would want that to be San Diego. And so our messages are being communicated in that way.