Like most parts of Cayuga County economy, tourism suffered when the COVID-19 pandemic began in the U.S. in March 2020.
Or at least it suffered for a few months.
After that, however, the area was “beautifully positioned” to capture visitors, said Karen Kuhl, executive director of the Cayuga County Office of Tourism. Visitors from urban areas, particularly, flocked to the open air of the Finger Lakes due to the safety they felt it provided them. By the fall of 202, occupancy rates had almost returned to their 2019 levels. In 2021, they blew past them.
Occupancy rates in Cayuga outranked most other counties in the Finger Lakes, Kuhl explained during a recent presentation to the county Legislature, and the region outranked most others in the state.
“The Finger Lakes region was very lucky when COVID hit because we have that open air,” she said. “The feeling of safety is amazing.”
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That’s partly because international tourism, which continues to barely exist due to the pandemic, has never been strong in Cayuga County. In 2019, 90% of the area’s visitors drove their own cars here, Kuhl noted. Tourism to New York City and even Ithaca, on the other hand, has taken a much bigger hit from the travel restrictions and social distancing of the past two years.
Occupancy rates in Cayuga County also recovered for reasons unique to the area. The open air gave visitors the green light to safely patronize the county’s parks, craft beverage producers and other attractions, Kuhl said. Traditional lodging options like hotels weren’t the only beneficiaries, as her office tracked spikes in rentals through Airbnb and similar services as well.
As 2020 turned to 2021, delayed events like weddings, funerals and youth sports tournaments have been another boon for business at hotels in Cayuga County. A year and a half after having to reduce its staff from 60 to about seven, the Hilton Garden Inn in Auburn set sales records last July and August, Director of Sales Amanda Hennessey told The Citizen.
Due to the demand, the hotel has pushed its rates to $269 to $349, the highest they’ve ever been. Rooms there are already sold out for May through October, Hennessey said.
The Hilton experienced the luck of the Finger Lakes in the early days of the pandemic, too. It was “miraculously saved,” Hennessey said, by business projects that brought people to the area, namely Tessy Plastics beginning production of COVID-19 test kits in Auburn. About 60% of the hotel’s rooms were filled by staff from Abbott Laboratories, Tessy’s partner on the project.
It will be awhile, however, before international business travelers return to the Hilton. Their absence is one reminder of the pandemic, Hennessey said, as is heightened concern about cleanliness.
“Guests were more lenient if something wasn’t perfect,” she said. “Now they see everything, and want everything spotless. So that’s our top priority now. To make people feel safe is very difficult.”
The priority on safety among travelers can be seen in geofencing data shared by Kuhl during her presentation to the Cayuga County Legislature. The three local destinations where her office tracked the most tourist smartphone activity in 2020 and 2021 were outdoors: Fair Haven Beach State Park, Emerson Park in Owasco and Fillmore Glen State Park in Moravia, in order.
Meanwhile, tourist activity at indoor attractions like the Auburn Public Theater was “heavily impacted” by COVID-19, Kuhl said. The downtown theater was mostly closed for those two years.
Indeed, the luck of the Finger Lakes seemed to end at the doors of Cayuga County’s indoor attractions. The Seward House Museum and Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn, for instance, reported a 75% drop in admission income and a 70% drop in visitors in 2020, respectively. Along with safety concerns, such attractions spent much of the pandemic facing capacity restrictions.
Now, historic sites like the Seward House are the focus of one of the Cayuga County Office of Tourism’s new campaigns. Kuhl wants to reposition the area as the “prime destination” to learn about Harriet Tubman and her legacy, she told The Citizen. Maryland, where Tubman was born and enslaved until escaping and resettling in Auburn, has traditionally enjoyed that status.
“We have the primary product. We have her home, we have her gravesite,” Kuhl said. “This is where her legacy lives on.”
The success of Where Brave Women Winter, an effort to spotlight important sites in the women’s rights movement across the Finger Lakes during the colder months, is encouraging to Kuhl as her office launches the Tubman campaign. Other campaigns are focused on the area’s hiking and fishing opportunities, as Cayuga has more fresh water frontage than any other county in the state.
Kuhl believes millennial and Generation Z tourists, who tend to take shorter, but more frequent trips, present another opportunity. The area’s efforts toward sustainability, like Auburn’s LED street light program and its hydropower plants, could make the area more inviting to younger travelers, Kuhl said, particularly after COVID-19 showed the “marvelous things” nature does undisturbed.
Also spotlighted will be four areas of the county Kuhl feels could use more attention. The office selected Aurora for its luxury hospitality, Fair Haven for its arts, Moravia for its connection to President Millard Fillmore and Weedsport for its speedway and Erie Canal heritage. Like the rest of the Finger Lakes, all four areas have abundant outdoor, craft beverage and other destinations as well.
But as COVID-19 continues to pause international travel, and with Cayuga County positioned for another year or two of strong tourism as a result, distinguishing the area is crucial, Kuhl said.
“When people travel, they travel to the Finger Lakes, not Cayuga County. So we’re trying to position our product as the best things to do in the Finger Lakes,” she said. “So we come up first.”
Gallery: A day at the beach at Fair Haven state park