CARTERET COUNTY — After hitting a dramatic, if expected, low in occupancy tax collections for the month of April, some representatives from Carteret County’s lodging industry say tourism appears to be rebounding amid the novel coronavirus pandemic as summer sets in on the Crystal Coast.
The county reported $40,377 in occupancy tax collections for April, down 89% from the $367,881 collected in April 2019. Preliminary figures for May suggest collections will be down more than 50% from the previous year.
The Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority, which splits occupancy tax revenues 50/50 with the Carteret County Shore Protection Office, discussed the latest numbers during its regular monthly meeting held via Zoom Tuesday. Despite the loss in income, Executive Director Jim Browder said the TDA is in good financial shape.
“We’re fine financially, we still had that contingency money left over from the hurricane,” he said, referring to a contingency fund the TDA set aside as a precaution in the wake of Hurricane Florence in 2018. “We took a healthy chunk out of it with this, but there’s still some funds there. It’s unfortunate because we thought we could really use that to kick start us again, but I really think we’re going to be OK without.”
Mr. Browder said after a slow start to May, occupancy rates seem to be on a steady incline ever since the state began its phased reopening around the middle of the month.
“June is looking really good in terms of numbers, it looks like we’re only down 8 or 9 percent at this point,” he said. “The hope is that this rebounds quickly and I’m … encouraged with what’s happening right now.”
Several lodging representatives reported the situation began to improve around mid-May and things have been looking up since then. Some said bookings for June and beyond are actually up from the previous summer.
“We closed May 21 percent higher than May last year,” said Julia Wax, owner of Emerald Isle Realty and a TDA board member. “Even though we were missing that first week of May, that good old pent up demand really did come into play. For June, July and August, and these are bookings, not just protections, we’re ahead of last year, also.
“The good news is we’ll have some good money in May for this fiscal year (2019-20), and we should always be conservative as a board, but I think we’re going to have the money to spend, so I want to make sure we’re doing the proper marketing,” Ms. Wax continued.
TDA board member Alyce Kelly with the Beaufort Hotel said bookings have picked up steam over the past few weeks especially.
“It’s crazy. We had a little bit more of a lag than I think vacation rentals did in May, but we ended strong with the last two weeks, and June has exploded,” she said. “The call to action is short, I think yesterday we booked 30 rooms in the day for the next day.”
TDA Board Chairman Trace Cooper said with a new fiscal year beginning Wednesday, July 1, the hope is the majority of revenue losses stay in fiscal year 2019-20.
In other TDA business, the board of directors voted to award $200,000 in tourism enhancement grants to various Carteret County nonprofit organizations. The TDA allocates $400,000 each year for the tourism enhancement grant and an event funding grant, or $200,000 for each fund. While the event funding grant is awarded on a rolling basis, the tourism enhancement grants are awarded at the start of the new fiscal year. Recipients can receive up to $20,000 from either fund.
In addition, Mr. Browder reported the county’s visitor centers – one in Morehead City and another in Emerald Isle – should be back to full staffing by the end of the month. The TDA closed the centers and furloughed most of its staff in response to the pandemic in mid-March, but have since reopened the centers and begun to welcome back employees.
The TDA is also on track to complete a website overhaul this year in time for rollout by December. TDA Digital Director Karen Gould is spearheading the effort and said progress is going well, so far.
Contact Elise Clouser at email@example.com; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.