The word “staycation” comes with a lot of baggage, if not a lot of luggage; it is usually reserved for those who don’t have the means or the time to travel anywhere outside their regular surroundings – perhaps a compromise of sorts with reality to make the best of things by planning something slightly indulgent at home.
It is not exactly something you might brag about; as delightful as it is to take a drive down the road to try a new eatery the town’s been abuzz about, or to indulge in a second wee dram during a quiet night at home, it can’t beat the excitement of sojourning somewhere you have never been, to try new things and see new sights.
Well, 2020 turned out to be the Year of the Staycation. For better or for worse.
All over the world, folks had to cancel flights or battle for refunds or rain checks after being told to hunker down and remain at home in order to choke out the spread of a COVID-19. It was important work for us all, but it was also an undeniable bummer.
But as hard as it has been on the serial globetrotters to forego their wanderlust (our own travel-loving Editor-in-Chief included), it has been that much harder on the services waiting for those globetrotters to arrive, ready to provide food, drink, lodging, and unforgettable experiences.
The worldwide lockdown hit in March, just a few weeks shy of when Ireland’s tourism season was set to kick off, according to Genevieve Sheehan, founder and president of Sheenco Travel in Co. Cork
“We had a huge amount of work in terms of rescheduling trips,” she explains in a video conference chat with Celtic Life International.
“There was that optimism in the early days, when you had people who were due to travel in April rescheduling for September, and then they had to reschedule again.”
Sheenco first opened its doors in 2012, then under the moniker “Shamrock Vacations.” They provide upscale accommodations across Ireland, their business model being “quality-over-quantity.”
“We always focused on the luxury side of things – 4-star, 5-star properties – especially castles. It is such a unique experience to come over and stay in a place like that. We are not going to bring in a tour of a hundred people and book out your hotel – we are going to bring in a couple of people who are going to take your top suites.
“By 2015, we were starting to get people wanting to go to the U.K. They had travelled with us, and they wanted to come back and do a U.K. trip, maybe Scotland. They might want to add on some time in London. So, we naturally expanded our product to include those experiences.”
Sheenco’s core clients are in the United States and Canada. In recent years, they have broken into the market in Australia, and made strides in regions of China and India, as well. They were expanding so much, in fact, that Sheehan intended to open a Sheenco Travel franchise in the U.S. this year.
“Obviously, that got put on hold.”
Lockdown has also had a huge impact on Brenda Anderson, director of Tasting Scotland.
“Tasting Scotland Gourmet Journeys & Events offers a fully-customized, food-and-drink-inspired travel planning and luxury tour service, as well as a range of ultra special tasting events,” Anderson explains via email from Glasgow. “We know how hard it is when you visit a country to know where to eat, where to stay, etc. – and whether the information you are reviewing is actually truly up-to-date.
“April, May, September and October are our busiest months, delivering special events or touring with couples or groups, of friends and families or corporate clients.”
The global impact of COVID-19 was a gut punch to just about every economic sector, save perhaps for video conferencing services and Amazon. But for the tourism industry, the hit was especially brutal. Their very product – to entice someone to leave home and go someplace else – was deemed a deadly health risk.
“It has been devastating,” admits Anderson. “It felt like the rug was ripped from right under our feet – literally overnight.”
“We were due to have a couple fly in from South Africa for a special vacation and British Airways cancelled their flight the night before lock-down was announced. From there it was just cancellation after cancellation, or postponement after postponement.”
Luckily, the tourism industry is too valued across the world for the sudden suspension of their business to go unnoticed by their respective governments, and many have pledged their support for the sector in the meantime. Recently, Scotland’s finance secretary Kate Forbes announced £60 million in support of the local tourism industry to help keep the lights on for operations like Tasting Scotland and countless others.
And the downtime has led to some benefits as well – a quiet spell in a busy industry like tourism has allowed some time for reflection and refinement.
“We decided against offering a virtual tour experience like a few people were doing,” notes Anderson. “Instead, we decided to do a root and branch review of the business – something that we haven’t had the opportunity to do since we started operations in 2012.”
“On a personal level, it is the calmest year that I have had since I started the business,” echoes Sheehan. “We offer 24-hour support. In fairness, everything runs pretty smoothly so we don’t get a lot of calls, but we are aware that, no matter where we are or what we are doing, the phone might ring, and we might have to jump in and help someone. That side of it was quite nice – it was almost like a holiday!”
As a tourism destination, Nova Scotia’s South Shore might not be as well known as the province’s capital of Halifax, but it still draws its fair share of visitors – especially in the summer months. There, the quaint seaside town of Yarmouth (known as a gateway to Canada) has been through a serious tourism draught before, when the ferry to Maine was suddenly cancelled in 2009, nearly crippling the area’s economy. In the first year alone, the community’s hotel capacity lost 300 rooms.
But Yarmouth has become a success story on how to bounce back, according to Neil MacKenzie, executive director of the Yarmouth & Acadian Shores Tourism Association (YASTA).
“Over the last two years, we have seen a brand-new hotel built – 82 new rooms,” MacKenzie explains via Zoom call, adding that tourism revenue in the region was $7.1 million as recently as 2017, versus the $3.1 million they brought in 2010.
“When that market is taken away – or your capacity to get that market is taken away – it is really challenging. We need to ensure that these businesses last so that we are not trying to rebuild the tourism industry when we finally get the market again.”
For MacKenzie, a top priority was keeping the local eateries afloat, since the wide range of cuisine – especially, but not exclusively seafood – is a major draw to the region.
“A lot of what we are doing now under the pandemic is trying to point people towards existing supports and other things that will help them get through this. Things have really drastically changed for the industry, especially for accommodations, food, and beverage. Those sectors are really suffering. Most restaurants can still only be at 50 percent capacity, and most of them were built based on a certain number of tables and a certain number of customers served every day.
“We were looking for ways to help our restaurant sector, especially if things were shut down again. It is really about preserving the tourism infrastructure that we have, and we look at restaurants as key to that.”
YASTA’s solution to this problem was to turn to the locals, and essentially try and take the stigma out of “staycation.”
Yarmouth and the surrounding communities aren’t just cottage country – they are lived in throughout the year, and MacKenzie figures that the best way to keep seats warm in the restaurants for tourists is to invigorate the locals to discover what is in their own backyards.
“What really brought it to life is when we partnered with Dashboard Living, the production company that works closely with Alain Bossé,” also known as The Kilted Chef, says MacKenzie. “We said, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we partnered with a local foodie here,’ which was Alyssa LeBlanc, who was a contestant on Top Chef Canada.”
YASTA launched a social media marketing campaign called The Ultimate Take-Out Challenge, where the pair would visit 10 different eateries in the region, interview the owners, and sample the best item on their menu. The winner would get to film a special segment with The Kilted Chef for his show, plus – as Bossé adds in their opening video – “bragging rights.”
“The winning restaurant was Mr. Gonzalez’ Mexican poutine,” says YASTA’s marketing coordinator Malcolm Seaboyer. “The owner, Leo, and his wife run this tiny Mexican cuisine restaurant – ironically enough, right next to a Taco Bell – and he has appreciated the award and the recognition. And now he is really busy.”
“During the contest, there was quite a lot of online buzz and engagement with the businesses that were taking part in the contest,” adds MacKenzie. “Anecdotally, a lot of the operators told us they thought they were getting a lot of good feedback from their customers.”
Staycations proved popular elsewhere also. While international tourism stagnated, hidden gems around the world thrived from patronage by locals with cabin fever once the harsher lockdown restrictions were lifted.
“The usual hot spots of Skye and the North Coast 500 were incredibly busy,” says Anderson. “But I am even more pleased that places that are a little more off-the-beaten track enjoyed some record figures.”
“I visited one hotel in Co. Clare, and they said they had had their best summer ever,” adds Sheehan. “They are a facility that is very popular with the Irish trade anyway. But people who might have gone to Disney World this summer or gone on foreign trips and spent tens of thousands – that money was sitting there.
“The hotel manager told me that no one was buying the house wine. Instead, everyone was asking for the 50 and 60-year-old bottles of wine – splurging and spending, where that market would have gone abroad any other year. The Irish were stuck in Ireland. The biggest tourist destinations for the Irish would normally be Spain, Portugal, the sunny climbs of Europe, and they would usually be spending big money on trips there, even at the most basic level.
“When things opened up here, everyone wanted to go somewhere. But if they can only go from Dublin to Co. Clare, they would do that.”
Of course, there have still been impacts. While quiet, rural experiences were booming, city tourism was definitely on a steep decline. People wanted to escape the claustrophobic urban sprawl for the open country, and business travel had ceased almost entirely.
With that taken into account the situation remains challenging in the short term for the tourism industry.
“They are saying that it is going to take a long, long time to recover – maybe back to 50 per cent in three or four years,” says Sheehan of the U.K.’s tourism industry, adding that Sheenco is “down 60 percent over the total year revenue. But I feel that, in itself, is an achievement.”
For Anderson, staycations weren’t as helpful to Tasting Scotland’s 2020 prospects, just due to the nature of the business.
But in her root-to-branch assessment that she undertook during lockdown, staycations were a sector that Anderson identified as having a lot of potential value going forward.
“More multi-generational family experiences needed to be added to our portfolio, which will also better serve the staycation market – an area we are looking to grow in. We recognized that we weren’t shouting nearly loudly enough about the eco-friendly and ethical principles which underpins our approach to our business in general.”
Likewise, MacKenzie realized that, through the success of their own staycation campaign, locals were a market they weren’t plumbing nearly enough.
“We have had a huge growth in our website traffic this year. I think we are up 10,000 visitors compared to where we were at last year, and we are only marketing to the Atlantic region,” he shares, adding that 33 per cent of all the tourism dollars in Nova Scotia come from Atlantic Canadians, which includes fellow Nova Scotians. “That is a huge market, and it definitely has enlightened me. It has taught us that we need to make sure that we are putting more money in the Atlantic market than we were in the past.”
Unless we are living in an apocalyptic pandemic novel, eventually COVID-19 will be defeated or at least put at bay, and worldwide travel will begin again. And when it does, there will probably be a lot of it.
“We have all been waiting for that magic word – ‘vaccine,’” says Sheehan. “I think there is definitely going to be a lot of – a term that has come out over the pandemic – ‘revenge travel.’ I thought it was brilliant, I don’t know who coined it, but I think as soon as people are ‘unlocked,’ they will go farther afield again.”
The tourism sector around the world definitely has some healing to do, and it is hard to know exactly how the pandemic will change travel habits, both in the short term and in the long term. However, one hope is that people will remember the close-to-home attractions that helped keep them sane during lockdown and visit them more often, making staycations a little more fashionable going forward.
“I think that can work in lots of places,” says MacKenzie. “Places like Scotland, where they suffer from the same kind of concept that we suffer from – Halifax gets half the tourism business in the province, and Edinburgh and Glasgow, they fight against people wanting to go to London. There are smaller communities outside of those places, too, that people probably never get to see.
“Tell visitors and locals, wherever you can reach them, about the cool things that are going on in your community. It could have an impact.”