Like most sectors of Cayuga County’s economy, tourism suffered when the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States in March 2020.
Or at least he suffered for a few months.
After that, however, the area was “beautifully positioned” to attract visitors, said Karen Kuhl, executive director of the Cayuga County Tourism Board. Visitors from urban areas, in particular, flocked to the Finger Lakes outdoors because of the safety they felt it provided. In the fall of 2020, occupancy rates were almost back to their 2019 levels. In 2021, they exceeded them.
Occupancy rates in Cayuga have topped most other Finger Lakes counties, Kuhl said during a recent presentation to the county legislature, and the area topped most others in the state.
“The Finger Lakes region was very lucky when COVID happened because we have this outdoors,” she said. “The feeling of security is incredible.”
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That’s partly because international tourism, which barely continues to exist due to the pandemic, has never been strong in Cayuga County. In 2019, 90% of visitors to the area drove their own cars here, Kuhl noted. Tourism in New York and even Ithaca, on the other hand, has been much more affected by the travel restrictions and social distancing of the past two years.
Occupancy rates in Cayuga County have also recovered for region-specific reasons. The outdoors has given visitors the green light to safely frequent county parks, craft beverage producers and other attractions, Kuhl said. Traditional accommodation options like hotels weren’t the only beneficiaries, as his office also tracked rental spikes through Airbnb and similar services.
As 2020 looked to 2021, delayed events like weddings, funerals and youth sports tournaments were another boon to business at Cayuga County hotels. A year and a half after having to cut its staff from 60 to about seven, Auburn’s Hilton Garden Inn set sales records last July and August, sales manager Amanda Hennessey told the Citizen.
Due to demand, the hotel has pushed its rates from $269 to $349, the highest they have ever been. Rooms there are already sold out from May through October, Hennessey said.
The Hilton also experienced Finger Lakes luck at the start of the pandemic. He was “miraculously saved,” Hennessey said, thanks to business projects that brought people to the area, namely Tessy Plastics which began production of COVID-19 test kits in Auburn. About 60% of the hotel rooms were occupied by staff from Abbott Laboratories, Tessy’s partner on the project.
It will be some time before international business travelers return to the Hilton, however. Their absence is a reminder of the pandemic, Hennessey said, as is heightened concern about cleanliness.
“Customers were more forgiving if something wasn’t perfect,” she said. “Now they see everything and want everything to be spotless. So that’s our top priority now. Making people feel safe is very difficult.”
The priority placed on traveler safety can be seen in the geofencing data shared by Kuhl during his presentation to the Cayuga County Legislature. The three local destinations where his office tracked the most tourism activity on smartphones 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 has been “heavily impacted” by COVID-19, Kuhl said. The downtown theater was largely closed for those two years.
Indeed, the luck of the Finger Lakes seemed to stop at the gates of Cayuga County’s inland attractions. The Seward House Museum and the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn, for example, reported a 75% drop in admission revenue and a 70% drop in visitors in 2020, respectively. Safety issues aside, these attractions have spent much of the pandemic dealing with capacity restrictions.
Today, historic sites like the Seward House are the focus of one of the Cayuga County Tourist Board’s new campaigns. Kuhl wants to reposition the area as the “main destination” to learn more about Harriet Tubman and her legacy, she told the Citizen. Maryland, where Tubman was born and enslaved until his flight and resettlement in Auburn, has traditionally enjoyed this status.
“We have the main product. We have his house, we have his grave,” Kuhl said. “That’s where his legacy lives on.”
The success of Where Brave Women Winter, an effort to spotlight important sites of the women’s rights movement across the Finger Lakes during the colder months, encourages Kuhl as her office launches the Tubman campaign. Other campaigns focus on hiking and fishing opportunities in the area, as Cayuga has more freshwater frontages than any other county in the state.
Kuhl thinks Millennials and Gen Z tourists, who tend to take shorter but more frequent trips, present another opportunity. The area’s sustainability efforts, like Auburn’s LED street lighting program and its hydroelectric plants, could make the area more appealing to young travelers, Kuhl said, especially after COVID-19. showed the “wonderful things” nature does undisturbed.
Four areas of the county, according to Kuhl, also deserve more attention. The office chose 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, the four areas also have many outdoor destinations, craft drinks, and other destinations.
But as COVID-19 continues to suspend international travel and Cayuga County is positioned for another year or two of strong tourism, setting the region apart is crucial, Kuhl said.
“When people travel, they’re going to the Finger Lakes, not Cayuga County, so we’re trying to position our product as the best thing to do in the Finger Lakes,” she said. “So we go up first.”
Gallery: A Day at the Beach at Fair Haven State Park