Asheville’s Omni Grove Park Inn isn’t taking any reservations this Memorial Day weekend, even though the hotel could. The hotel corporation is choosing to keep the historic lodging landmark closed until June 1, despite the fact hotels in Buncombe County can now accept out-of-state, leisure travelers.
Some hoteliers said they expected a low number of bookings, perhaps 15 to 25 rooms in 100-room hotels. It’s the anticipated, slow start to the town’s revenue-dependent summer tourist season.
Retailers, hoteliers, and restauranteurs News 13 spoke with on May 22 said this time could be one of the worst in decades amid the global pandemic.
Still, Richard and Cathy Woodrum from Northern Virginia stopped in Asheville to try and take a few days to enjoy the sites on Friday.
“We’ve never been here before,” Cathy said. “But Biltmore is still closed.” She said it’s largely why they stopped in Asheville. “We tried to hike the grounds,” said Richard. “But it was raining, so it was kind of a bust.”
The two drove over to French Broad Chocolates’ factory on Riverside Drive just northwest of downtown. The couple bought chocolates but were frank about their visit to downtown.
“It’s very difficult because not a lot of businesses are open,” Richard said. Each of them were wearing masks, which is now a requirement passed by Buncombe County’s commission for anyone in a building.
“Memorial Day weekend, any three-day weekend in Asheville is usually super busy,” said Jael Rattigan, one of the co-founders of French Broad Chocolates. Rattigan said running the numbers to figure out what kind of revenue could come in this summer is a huge challenge.
“It’s almost like throwing a dart on a dart-board," Rattigan said. "We’re hopeful we can make 30% of our pre-COVID sales in the coming months. Having an Asheville without the support of tourism is a totally different thing.”
Rattigan emphasized that without the support of the local community, the company would be facing even more dire circumstances. The chocolate company has grown exponentially in the past few years, often with lines out the door at the Pack Square location, that’s currently under renovations during the COVID-19 crisis.
Stephanie Brown, President and CEO of Explore Asheville, the city’s branding-arm, said there’s little question visitor numbers will be down. She said on a typical Memorial Day weekend, all 8,000 hotel rooms in the city are filled.
“But that doesn’t account for all the other people visiting, staying with friends, or visiting family, or renting cabins,” Brown said. “I think we’ll see a surge.”
That surge is compared to nearly no tourist-based revenue for the city for the past two-plus months.
“Our research shows a lot of people are not ready to travel," Brown said.
With staff, Brown said they are creating new branding for the businesses called a Stay Safe pledge, which will be printed on fliers, posters and social media, asking visitors and business operators and restaurants to follow CDC guidelines to keep risks of contracting the novel coronavirus at a minimum.
David Leglise and his partner are celebrating the 30th anniversary of their shop called Village Antiques this summer. The shop has several-thousand-square-feet of high-end European and French antiques.
“We opened two weeks ago,” Leglise said. “And business has been steady. Not people from out-of-state, like we’d usually see at this time, but local customers who are coming in and buying things and supporting us.”
The store is filled with stock and ready for customers. But Leglise said his expectations are realistic, keenly aware of COVID-19 concerns.
“I think it will be down compared to years’ past," Leglise said. "It’s not the same traffic as it was.”
With constant press coverage in top magazines from Forbes to Conde Nast to articles in The New York Times, merchants are counting on the staff at Explore Asheville to urge travelers that businesses are taking all measures to ensure visitors will feel comfortable eating, shopping and sleeping in Asheville.
Additionally, Biltmore, one of the area's biggest tourist attractions, plans to reopen more areas on May 23.
News 13 has created a Facebook group for community members & businesses to share the latest happenings, including what's open, who's hiring and more.