2019 was a record-breaking year for travel and tourism. Durham hosted over 12.5 million visitors, who pumped $932 million in direct visitor spending into Durham’s economy. Durham has always attracted people visiting friends and family, business travelers here on Research Triangle Park business, as well as parents, visiting faculty, sports teams, and vendors because of our two great universities. Increasingly, Durham has become a visitor destination for those interested in coming for no other reason than to explore a new city they’ve heard about repeatedly in the national press, and of course, our burgeoning reputation as a food and entertainment hub attracts day visitors from the Triangle and beyond. Durham’s vibrant entrepreneurial community and growing reputation as a mecca for life science and biotech ventures brings visitors and new residents by the thousands.
Visitor spending in 2019 also contributed $106 million in state and local taxes, which supports local government services and contributes to quality of life for our residents. And Durham’s visitor economy supported nearly 13,000 jobs across hospitality businesses, including hotels, restaurants, bars, attractions, retail, and transportation.
As of February 2020, we were on track for double-digit growth in visitor spending for our fiscal year ending June 30. And then, COVID.
No other sector was hit as hard or as quickly as travel and tourism. Hotel occupancy crashed from 80% in early March to 22% just a month later. Long-planned conferences, concerts, festivals, shows, and sports events were first postponed and then canceled altogether. It was estimated that half of hospitality’s jobs were lost immediately, and as of fall 2020, there are still one-third fewer people employed in these positions. As we face a bleak fall and winter outlook for recovery, we’re having to confront the reality that some of our beloved local businesses will likely close their doors for good before our economy is able to recover.
It’s possible we’ve never felt the significance of hospitality’s footprint in our community as acutely as we do right now.
It’s been a tough ride for Discover Durham and the Durham Sports Commission, as well. Supported almost entirely by the occupancy tax paid by visitors, our FY20 budget ended down 30% for the year. The forecast for FY21 is worse.
And yet, I couldn’t be more proud of what our teams have been able to accomplish on behalf of our community, our residents, and the hundreds of businesses and organizations that form Durham’s visitor economy. As you scroll through this report, you’ll see that despite the circumstances, our staff rose to the occasion, serving our community in ways we never would have anticipated just a few months ago. We have contracted our operations and will continue to adjust to the ever-changing prognosis for the return of travel. Years of smart and conservative financial management have given us the reserves to weather this storm and emerge on the other side.
Each fall, Discover Durham reports on the economic impact of visitors for the previous calendar year, as well as reporting on our key performance metrics through June 30. This year, we’ll muddy that timeline a bit to share the state of the Durham visitor economy through October 2020, provide recent updates on some of the programs and activities we’ve launched to support local businesses, and offer some projections for the future.
We’re all looking forward to a better 2021.
Visitor volume and spending studies are reported based on calendar years, and 2019 was one for the record books. Though 2020 will tell a dramatically different story, 2019’s powerful success proves just how critical the visitor economy is to Durham’s hospitality sector and overall welfare.
A record-setting 12.5 million visitors came to Durham, a 2.8% increase over 2018. Industry experts now forecast that the travel industry at large isn’t expected to return to 2019 levels until 2024, which creates an immediate and serious need to find ways for hospitality businesses to survive after experiencing many years of year-over-year growth.
Visitors are defined as those who come to Durham for purposes other than school or work, deviating from their normal routine with daytrips or overnight stays. In 2019, 6.4 million of the 12.5 million visitors that came to Durham were daytrip leisure visitors. As business meetings and events remain paused, we expect the percentage of daytrip leisure visitors to expand further in 2020. Accordingly, Discover Durham has pivoted to focus its current marketing efforts on converting more daytrip visitors into overnight visitors.
In 2019, visitors spent $932 million in Durham across five major industry groups tied to the visitor economy, up almost 6% over 2018. Restaurants and breweries led the way in spending, as Durham's fame in those categories continues to climb, with lodging revenue not too far behind.
Durham’s tourism industry previously outpaced the national average and has experienced steady year-over-year growth since the Great Recession. It’s clear that a healthy travel market creates jobs, expands our tax base, and supports the quality of life of our residents. Dire forecasts for 2020 predict a 45% decline of the sector in Durham, resulting in a loss of 5.9 million visitors, $419 million in visitor spending and $47.7 million in local taxes for the year. Public and private initiatives and policies that help businesses get back on their feet will be critical to our community’s economic recovery.
Just as our stakeholders had to reinvent and find new ways to provide value and reach target audiences, the Marketing Partnerships and Sales teams at Discover Durham pivoted at the onset of the pandemic to make sure our expertise and voice resonated in support of our hospitality community.
A few stats in support:
From navigating Safer-at-Home orders to supporting stakeholders and leaning into a new social-first content strategy, we found creative ways to meet the demands of the moment.
Once local ordinances indicated it was responsible to do so, we launched an integrated marketing campaign focused on local and regional audiences, encouraging them to safely press play after months of life stuck on pause. The campaign includes activations across owned, earned, and paid media.
This spring, elected officials established the Durham Recovery & Renewal Task Force. Discover Durham immediately got involved, leading the execution of the Back on the Bull health and safety campaign, organizing roundtable discussions with stakeholders, and recommending efforts to spur economic recovery. Through the end of the calendar year, the campaign is expected to generate approximately 12 million impressions.
True to Durham’s entrepreneurial spirit, Discover Durham partnered with others to support restaurants struggling with the demands of delivery apps. In its first few months, the Durham Delivers program generated significant revenue for local businesses, helping stakeholders pivot more effectively by streamlining regular bulk deliveries to neighborhoods throughout Durham.
Evidence proves minority owned businesses have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Coupled with the resurfacing of social justice movements, Discover Durham wanted to uplift local Black-owned businesses. A comprehensive spotlight was developed and shared widely with numerous social features. Over 40,000 users have visited the page, and that includes nearly 200 businesses.
“Working with the professionals at Discover Durham has been invaluable as we build brand awareness and strive to tell our story regionally and nationally.”
-Dr. Tiffany Griffin of Bright Black Candles
The Durham Sports Commission, operated by Discover Durham, in many ways still had a banner year despite COVID-19. The DSC jointly submitted two winning NCAA Championship bids with Duke University, championed high school athletes who had their playing careers cut short, welcomed Marcus Manning as its new executive director, and recruited record engagement with local eSports tournaments. All told, the DSC generated nearly $10 million in economic impact by supporting sporting events and cultivating sports culture in Durham. Read more about the DSC’s accomplishments highlighted in their annual report.
Prior to COVID-19, the Visitor Info Center designed new experiences for visitors and locals to engage with storytelling centered on Black and Women’s History Months. This past year also brought a refresh to our African American Heritage Guide and Downtown Walking Tour to better serve visitors looking to explore the Bull City. Staff shifted alongside event owners, promoting virtual events for the first time, and set up weekly pop ups outside of the Visitor Info Center to safely support The Streetery promotion hosted by Downtown Durham, Inc.
“Working with Discover Durham took a heavy weight off of our shoulders. From sage PR advice, to developing relationships with the hotels, to swag bags, we couldn't have executed most efficiently without them!”
Hayti Heritage Film Festival
“We are thankful that Discover Durham celebrates companies of every size and industry - they all come together to make this county a special place to live, work and enjoy.”
“Discover Durham has been an excellent partner for our business. They've helped us get our brand in front of potential customers, journalists, and other local businesses we can build collaborative relationships with. They have also provided us with helpful resources throughout the year that enable us to grow our marketing presence without spending an arm and a leg, which is extremely helpful.”
The Glass Jug Beer Lab
“I’ve worked with Discover Durham over the past 10 years with meetings in the government, corporate, association, and religious markets. Although my titles changed, Discover Durham’s keen sense of understanding of my needs and providing true customer service did not.”
Yolanda Riggsbee Hamer
Visitor Feature or Entertainment
Self Help Credit Union
Immediate Past Chair
The Durham Hotel
Patrick L. Byker
Citizens At-Large and Neighbor Associations
Morningstar Law Group
City of Durham
Durham City Council
Morehead Manor Bed & Breakfast
Durham Board of County Commissioners
SpringHill Suites by Marriott Durham Chapel Hill
Major Employer, University or Meeting Planner
North Carolina Central University
Aloft Durham Downtown
President & CEO
It’s hard to believe that as recently as fall 2019 – part of the fiscal year of this report – Discover Durham was busily orchestrating Durham’s 150th Anniversary Closing Ceremony, wrapping up a remarkable year of celebrating the strength, creativity and resiliency that makes Durham, Durham. Those qualities have certainly been put to the test since then.
As the world shifted to focus on the response to COVID-19 in 2020, our tourism and hospitality partners have risen to the occasion, and we salute the dedication and tenacity of the many thousands in Durham who work to continue to entertain, serve and care for us and our guests. We know it has been jarring for those who have built their business on offering hospitality to do so now in physically distant ways. And, that the pandemic has exposed many of the inequities of socioeconomic norms for those deemed ‘essential.’ As advocates for Durham’s hospitality workforce – the thousands of employees in visitor-facing businesses – we obviously would never have welcomed the current circumstances. We’re hopeful, though, that we can collectively find a silver lining in the dialogues that have been started and new light shed on the critical role the visitor economy plays for Durham’s overall wellbeing. With shared prosperity as a true community value, we’re proud to be a leading voice for frontline hospitality workers and inclusive economic development.
We’re also proud of the work we’ve done focused on supporting their sustainability, and we are looking forward to returning to more prosperous days when we can focus on rebuilding Durham’s tourism economy. We’ve been in touch with hoteliers, local business owners, retailers, event planners, venue managers, sports teams, and others more than ever before. Armed with forecasting data and feedback from local stakeholders, Discover Durham is poised to keep the hospitality industry at the forefront of recovery conversations for years to come.