Crain’s New York Business: Tourists making a slow return to New York

By: DIANE HESS

September 13, 2021 7:30 AM

 

Domestic tourists are returning to New York City in greater numbers despite concerns over the Delta variant and rising COVID cases. The data affirms the city’s vibrancy, even asinternational visitors remain predominantly sidelined.

 

According to the Times Square Alliance, more than 200,000 people per day passed through the iconic entertainment district during the month of August. This is double the foot traffic numbers from March 2021, though still half of pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, hotel occupancy approached 500,000 room nights sold per week in July, up from 370,000 in May.

 

As the weather cools, activity is expected to heat up again with the reopening of Broadway shows, restaurants and new hotels. The city’s vaccination mandate, which takes effect this week, is predicted to help persuade out-of-towners that they will have a safe experience in the Big Apple.

 

Overall, New York will recapture more than half of the 66.6 million tourists who visited in 2019, with a projection for 36.1 million tourists this year, according to NYC & Company, the city’s official destination marketing organization.

 

“There is such extraordinary appeal to the arts, cultural and dining scenes in New York City,” said Chris Heywood, executive vice president of global communications at NYC & Company, which launched a $30 million advertising campaign in June to promote the city. “We never had to do much hard selling, because people saw New York City in the news or pop culture; but since we were the epicenter of the virus, it’s been incumbent upon us to show that we are open for business, alive and well—and thriving.”

 

The city’s nascent comeback has been buoyed by commitment from diverse sectors of the economy. JetBlue’s recent announcement that it will maintain its headquarters in Long Island City and expand its flagship terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport will make it easier for more people to come to the city. Renovations at LaGuardia Airport and the new Moynihan Train Hall are also designed to entice visitors.

 

“We are upgrading the front door of New York City, which is great to see,” Heywood said.

 

‘There’s only one Broadway’

 

New tourist attractions have helped bring in visitors. Little Island, the Barry Diller-funded park on the Hudson River, just finished hosting a free month-long arts festival featuring more than 450 artists and 160 performances. Elsewhere, an observation deck with citywide views at One Vanderbilt, called the Summit, is anticipated to be a major attraction.

 

Of course, the most eagerly awaited reopening in New York City is imminent: The return of Broadway. In its last season, Broadway had a $14.7 billion annual economic impact and employed 97,000 people. It is expected to usher in a wave of visitors.

 

“There is only one Broadway and people who love live entertainment know there is no substitute for it,“ said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, noting that ticket sales for the 36 shows in production have been brisk, a reflection of pent-up demand.

Though they are optimistic, New York’s cultural institutions realize it will be a long road back to pre-Covid peaks.

 

A perfect intersection

 

After being closed for five months, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened with 3,000 guests per day from September 2020 through the winter of 2021. In the summer, the museum had 10,000 attendees per day, a marked improvement over the previous months but below 2019 highs of 20,000 people daily. Since September, the museum has been open six days per week, as well as on Friday and Saturday evenings.

 

“We could have reopened in a modest way programmatically with few exhibitions and only certain areas accessible, but we were as ambitious as ever, presenting important and critically acclaimed exhibits, such as Jacob Lawrence and Alice Neel,” said Ken Weine, chief communications officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “We wanted to send a very strong message that the museum and New York City are resilient, and that we have a responsibility, which we take seriously, to fulfill our mission even in these most challenging times.”

 

Since the beginning of August, the city’s hotel sector saw more than 104,000 rooms in active inventory, accounting for about 80 percent of total capacity including new and under construction projects. Two-year-old hotel Selina Chelsea reached full occupancy during the summer, as guests booked rooms for vacations and remote work.

 

“New York is one of the few cities in the world that delivers the perfect intersection between work, travel and culture,” said Paulo Pena, chief operations officer of Selina, a hotel chain that touts rooms designed to accommodate coworking, recreation, wellness and local experiences.

 

Nearly a dozen new hotels are planned to open in September, including the Henn na Hotel New York, a Japanese chain known for its fully robotic hotels; the Pendry Manhattan West; SpringHill Suites by Marriott JFK; the Aman Hotel on Fifth Avenue; and others.

 

“We’re at a pivotal moment in the recovery trajectory,” Heywood said. “This fascinating mix of hotels speaks to our appeal and the confidence that investors have in New York.”