Reno's travel, tourism industry bounced back big in 2021

Downtown Reno is seen at dusk in this February 2021 photo.

Downtown Reno is seen at dusk in this February 2021 photo. Photo:

This past year was another hectic one for Northern Nevada’s travel and tourism industry, but it appears side effects of COVID-19 fatigue have generated some positive economic outcomes for two of the region’s largest entities.

According to the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority, this past year is set to be one of the strongest — if not best ever — in terms of TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax) hotel revenue tax dollars collected.

Since the RSCVA counts revenue by fiscal year and the December 2021 hotel revenue report hadn’t been released by the time of this story’s writing in early January, it’s too soon to share specifics about all of 2021. However, when looking at trends over recent years, taxable room revenues in the Reno-Tahoe area increased from $272 million in FY 2014-15 to $401 million in FY 18-19, according to RSCVA statistics.

The figure plummeted to $317.9 million in FY 19-20 when the pandemic forced global shutdowns, but those numbers have already started to rebound to $325.8 million from July 2020-June 2021. Per RSCVA, the final 2021 calendar year picture of tax revenue is slated to come out Jan. 27, 2022.

Meanwhile, when looking at statistics from November 2021 compared to November 2020, taxable room revenues were up 69.7 percent — an $11.8 million difference.

Overall, average nightly room rates increased 17.2 percent the past two years; in 2019, the cost of a 1-night stay was $105.13 compared to the $123.25/per night rate in November 2021.

As far as the 2021 calendar year, it will likely be the region’s biggest year ever in TOT generated, RSCVA CEO Charles Harris said in an early January interview with the NNBW.

Harris started his job at the RSCVA in November 2020, eight months into the pandemic. A year later, in November 2021, RSCVA reported $2.7 million in TOT was collected, outperforming November 2019 before the pandemic began.

“We had an amazing year from a destination standpoint,” Harris said.

July 2021 marked RSCVA’s single-best month ever, topping $50 million in tax revenue collection. April 2021, November 2021 and June 2021 were also among the authority’s top-performing months.

“To break that barrier last July was impressive, right after we collected $45 million in tax revenue in June 2021,” Harris added.

‘Well positioned to succeed’

In August, wildfires throughout Northern Nevada and California had an impact in visitation, Harris noted, but once the smoke cleared, numbers came back up again in September and October.

“We are uniquely positioned during COVID. People want to feel safe when they go on vacation and be in the outdoors, and we have all of that between Reno and Lake Tahoe,” Harris said.

Marketing messaging that’s gone out from RSCVA and other travel/ tourism entities has promoted the abundance of outdoor activities, local health/safety measures and why the Reno/Tahoe region is an ideal choice to vacation during a pandemic.

“As a whole, we have been well positioned to succeed during the pandemic. We never stopped putting the safety messaging out there,” Harris said.

When tourism is up, other businesses such as restaurants, shopping centers and local attractions do well, too. However, Harris admitted one of the biggest challenges in navigating the pandemic has been the employment aspect.

While the current unemployment rate is good news — according to the Nevada Department of Employment, Training & Rehabilitation, December’s jobless rate in the Greater Reno-Sparks metro area was down to pre-pandemic levels of roughly 3 percent — it still needs to be enough to support the visitation, Harris said.

“There was no playbook on how to deal with this disease and its impact, so we had to be flexible,” he said. “There’s been strong demand on the leisure side, and bumps in the road on meetings, conventions, and dealing with different city and county mandates.

“Although our tourism numbers are good, we’re still fully in the pandemic.”

To that end, there are still plenty of ebbs and flows related to COVID variants; Harris said he was surprised to find out fewer Americans who traveled over the Christmas holiday this year than what was expected — 23.3 percent in 2021 compared to 29.8 percent the previous year — likely due to omicron.

“That’s why it’s so important to be flexible,” Harris added. “No one predicted omicron and we’re still early on in it, so my vision is to keep moving forward and deliver great experiences. I like to look ahead; we celebrated the wins from 2021, but we’re focused on 2022. All I can focus on is today and tomorrow — do better, become more efficient, be more creative.”

Airport reports strong ‘revenge travel’ numbers

The Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority saw similar increased travel demand in 2021. RTAA reports an estimated 3.6 million passenger visits at Reno-Tahoe International Airport in 2021.

That’s a notable increase from 2020’s total of just over 2 million — though still a significant drop from 2019, when the airport served 4.5 million people, its highest total in a decade.

Roughly 7,000 passengers traveled through the airport on a busy day in 2021, while that average was roughly 1,200 passengers in 2020, according to RTAA. On slow days in 2020, that average dipped to just 200 people.

The airport saw a big rebound last year in part due to the “revenge travel” trend, said RTAA Director of Corporate Communications Stacey Sunday.

“We’re performing above other airports; the region rebounded greatly. I think with the outdoor activity here, people feel safer coming to Northern Nevada,” Sunday told the NNBW. “And we’re looking at the impact of remote working, too. We’ve noticed that cars have remained parked in our lot for a while so we’re wondering if people are staying longer.

“COVID has changed a lot of travel habits. Business travel has slowed down, but there’s been more vacation and leisure travel especially as vaccinations become more available.”

Still, the ongoing Great Resignation has created some challenges, Sunday said, noting both the airport itself and its tenants — restaurants, gift shops, etc. — experienced staff shortages in 2021. Further, wildfire smoke from last summer and this past December’s intense snowstorms impacted people’s travel plans.

“We don’t really know what to expect. Who could’ve predicted the labor shortage?” Sunday said.

Daren Griffin joined RTAA during the pandemic, taking his role as CEO in August 2020, having previously worked for over 15 years with the Port of Portland in Oregon.

“Living here is very different. It’s a smaller metropolitan area, although people don’t like the Spaghetti Bowl,” Griffin said with a laugh. “But … the traffic is not bad,” he added, in comparison to Portland.

Griffin explained it’s been a welcome transition, coming from an airport that was five times bigger to having a more direct influence in the Reno market.

“We have around 270-275 employees here, and I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing the resource gaps,” Griffin said. “I know how to run an airport; everything I learned in my 27 years (of working in the airport industry) I’m using every day.”

He said that experience has especially come in handy when navigating a pandemic, dealing with jet fuel shortages, managing wildfire impacts and working with airline partners on resource challenges. He credited RTAA’s employees for keeping the wheels turning.

“I’ve enjoyed working with the employees the most (about his new role). This is a great fit for me, and I’m excited about growing our workforce,” he said.

He added that Reno-Sparks’ ideal western geographical location gives it an advantage.

“Amazing outdoor — and indoor — experiences are what people want. Our numbers have been good; we’re in phenomenal positioning,” he said. “I’m curious to see what 2022 brings. We’re supposed to be 3-5 years in our recovery, but I think leisure travel will continue to lead that recovery effort. We definitely picked up in 2021 and I think we’ll get closer to our 2019 levels.”


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