As part of our spotlight on Centre County, we are delighted to highlight some the recent initiatives to promote the region as a tourist destination. One of the organizations on the forefront of these efforts is the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau. Pennsylvania Business Central sat down with HVAB’s CEO and President, Fritz Smith, to hear his thoughts and the latest developments and what to look for in the future.
PBC: After a period of government restrictions being lifted, concern is rising as Covid cases do. Do you see central Pennsylvania continuing to “get back to business” or we looking at new restrictions? What are the challenges moving forward this year?
Smith: With the exception of certain masking mandates that are likely going to be with us for a few more months, we don’t anticipate any restrictions on businesses coming from the state the likes of which we saw in 2020. However, ongoing concerns over COVID are still having some level of impact, so it is still not quite business as usual. Instead of government restrictions, however, that impact is tied now to individual choice and comfort level about dining out, attending events or traveling altogether. In addition, issues like supply chain disruptions and labor shortages are residual challenges that will likely be with us for a while. Additionally, corporations, associations, and government agencies continue to be cautious about holding meetings and business travel is still only about 50 percent of what it was pre-COVID.”
PBC: The travel, entertainment and hospitality industries were heavily impacted by the pandemic. Are you optimistic about their recovery? What indicators point to a satisfactory rate of recovery?
Smith: Lodging performance is a critical recovery measurement. To that end, fans in the stands for Penn State football home games is a big driver of recovery. Happy Valley witnessed a record football weekend room revenue year in 2021. Total revenue for the seven home games was more than $13.2 million, topping the 2018 amount of slightly more than $13.1 million. There were other milestones beyond football weekends. Our July weekend occupancy was stronger in 2021 than 2019 and 2018 without the benefit of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, People’s Choice and Philipsburg Heritage Days.
For a national perspective, Longwoods International has been monitoring travel sentiment since the start of the pandemic in 2020. According to the 50th wave of the study, heading into the holiday travel season, one third (33 percent) of American travelers now say that COVID-19 no longer has any influence on their travel plans, which is a pandemic high. Overall demand is still extremely strong with 89 percent of travelers indicating that they have plans to travel in the next six months. 70 percent of American travelers now feel safe travelling outside their community.
One key factor to achieving full recovery is business travel. According to the U.S. Travel Association, business travel was down 70 percent in 2020, and has been slow to bounce back due to the Delta variant and travel restrictions. The national expectation is that business travel will rebound in 2022, but locally, we think it will be 2023 at the earliest.
PBC: One of the most pressing problems being experienced nationwide is a shortage of workers. How has the local travel, hospitality and entertainment business been impacted and what is the outlook for the immediate future?
Smith: The labor shortage continues to pose a serious challenge for many local businesses, particularly those in the hospitality industry. High employee turnover rates are not new to the industry, but existing labor concerns were exacerbated by the pandemic. It is frustrating that given what businesses went through to survive COVID restrictions and government shutdowns, we now have restaurants and caterers, for example, forced to turn away business because of a lack of employees. There are a number of reasons for the labor shortage, one being that many hospitality workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic simply found other options. Those who have made successful careers in hospitality will tell you it is no doubt a challenging industry, but one that is also very rewarding. You can have a great career in hospitality, starting from the ground up. In fact, now is an ideal time to enter the industry because opportunities exist to advance much quicker than pre- COVID.
PBC: The HVAB has been at the forefront of several high-profile initiatives such as Happy Valley Talent and the new Sports and Entertainment Commission. What do you see as their immediate impact and are there new initiatives in the works?
Smith: The immediate impact of the new Happy Valley Sports and Entertainment Commission is that it sent a message to the sports tourism industry that Centre County is serious about competing for higher- level sporting and entertainment events. We plan to be an active player in this arena. The HVAB has an experienced, dedicated sports professional on staff, so we’ve already been working with our community partners and facilities to bring sporting events and tournaments to Happy Valley. But we know we need to do specific things to attract those larger, more high-profile events. That is where the commission will come into play. I think the potential long- term economic impact could be huge.
Happy Valley Talent, which was initiated by the CBICC, and involves the HVAB and several business groups in the county, is a way for the business community to engage with student athletes in the new era of Name, Image and Likeness – rules that now allow athletes to earn money. From a business perspective, NIL is another unique and creative tool to add to their marketing mix if they choose. Happy Valley Talent is a platform to help foster those connections. The HVAB wants to lead by example, and is working with several athletes on a social media destination marketing campaign. We also think HVT could be an enticement for tournament organizers considering Happy Valley as a destination. In terms of immediate impact, however, I think HVT and NIL itself should be viewed as long-term initiatives. Both will likely evolve. Having a platform already in place to navigate that landscape is a great start.
PBC: The cooperation between government, business and institutions like the HVAB have been essential during the pandemic. How do you see the symbiosis evolving and will it become more institutionalized?
Smith: I think the pandemic showed that partnership and collaboration weren’t just good to do, they became necessary for survival really. Existing partnerships were strengthened, and new ones formed. There is so much positive momentum coming out of the pandemic, that coordination and collaboration remain equally as important moving forward. I think you are seeing broad recognition of this across tourism development, government, business, education and athletic interests.
PBC: What have been the major milestones for the HVAB this year? What are your major goals for the coming year?
Smith: With the support of federal American Rescue Plan funding provided by the county, the HVAB launched a successful summer marketing campaign, the first full-scale destination marketing effort since the pandemic. A second ARP grant is providing bridge funding for a winter campaign, which will run through March 2022. The winter marketing push is a first step in showcasing Happy Valley as a four- season destination.
The most significant 2021 milestone was the November announcement of the formation of The Happy Valley Sports and Entertainment Commission, with a goal of attracting higher-level sports and entertainment events to the county. Implementation will carry into 2022, when the commission structure, focus and priorities are finalized following the recommendations of sports consulting firm Huddle Up Group.
The HVAB has several additional goals for 2022 that seek to enhance the overall visitor experience. The first is the complete redesign of the HVAB website, www.happyvalley.com. This project was put on hold due to COVID, so the board and team are eager to proceed with a fresh look for the website and improved functionality for those looking for inspiration about visiting Happy Valley.
The HVAB is also partnering with Visit Clearfield County on the planned opening in mid-summer of a shared heritage/visitor center in Philipsburg. The vision is for the center itself to be a destination, as well as a source of information for things to see and do in both counties and the surrounding area.