The hospitality industry was among the first economic casualties of Coronavirus, and the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau says there's no time frame for returning to normal. WGBH Radio's Marilyn Schairer spoke with CEO Martha Sheridan who says the next few months are looking bleak for the hospitality industry. The interview has been lightly edited.
Marilyn Schairer: Mayor Marty Walsh has hinted at banning large gatherings in the city for quite a while. What is the status of things?
Martha Sheridan: We've been seeing cancellations coming for a very long time for large events taking place in the city at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, at the Hynes, etc. So, his comments really aren't having any immediate impact on what's happening right now in our industry. We're seeing groups as far out as September and October cancel already as well. So, it's something that we've been bracing for as an industry. It's certainly not something that we are happy about, but we understand the situation. And, you know, we are — like others are — very first and foremost concerned about the safety and well-being of citizens of the Commonwealth.
And we're starting to pivot our efforts. We understand the large gatherings may not be possible, but, you know, we want to be able to respond and work with whatever is possible at the right time. So, you know, maybe it's just enticing more leisure visitors to the city. We're just we're just working through it like everybody else. And until we have definitive timelines, it's difficult for us to react at this point.
Schairer: The date of the NAACP convention is July 25-29?
Sheridan: That’s right. We've not heard anything definitive on their plans. If I had to guess, I would think they would look to move it to later in the year. I know the Democratic National Convention is probably pivotal to that convention, as well. So that's now been moved further into the summer. And, you know, I'm sure they're exploring what their options are right now.
Schairer: In terms of the general business outlook for the Greater Boston Visitors and Convention Bureau, how do you view it? Is it really play it by ear and see what's going to happen as we move forward?
Sheridan: Yeah, that's exactly it. We must wait for, as I said, definitive timelines before we can determine what our approach will be. I will tell you that up until now, this crisis, as with many other industries, has been completely devastating for the tourism and hospitality industry. Over 50 percent of the hotel rooms in Boston are currently shuttered. Of those that remain open, there are restrictions on who can stay there. So, obviously we've had significant impacts on hotel occupancy and those impacts affect other businesses within the tourism sector and we know what's going on with restaurants and attractions, etc.
So, you know, right now the industry is possibly one of the most devastated, I think, as a result of this. I heard a quote yesterday from Roger Dow from the U.S. Travel Association, that 36 percent of all unemployment claims nationally have been from the tourism and hospitality industry, yet the industry only represents 3 percent of the GDP. So, you can see that's a bit off-kilter if you will. But we'll know when the time is right, we are going to roll up our sleeves and get ready to bring our incredible hospitality workers back to their jobs and get this industry rolling again. And we'll rebound fast, resilient. I think everybody understands that.
Schairer: What does this mean regarding your budget, your operating budget, your revenue, your income and your staff?
Sheridan: Oh, we have furloughed several staff members indefinitely. And then some of the core members of our office team have been furloughed down to a shortened workweek. You know, we are still performing some vital roles and communicating with our industry, working with government officials on some of these announcements and keeping the general public apprised of what is available to them in the form of delivery and take out, and virtual experiences from our attractions. So, we are playing a key communications role and staying in touch with clients.
From a budgetary perspective, we rely very heavily on the support of the private sector. So, you know, clearly when hotels aren't open, it's difficult for them to make those investments in our program. So, we've had to adjust accordingly. But those revenue sources are still in place, which is allowing us to get through these last few months that have been challenging. And we're keeping a very close eye on our cash flow and hoping that we will still have resources available to invest in tourism promotion when the time is right.
Schairer: What's the next event that's upcoming that is still on the calendar?
Sheridan: Well, NAACP is probably the next one that is still officially on the calendar. Most of the other events have already been moved to future dates or have outright canceled. And you know, let's not forget that right now the [the convention center] isserving another purpose. So that building is offline for the foreseeable future as a meeting and convention facility, which has huge impacts.
... [But] when the time is right, the residents of the Commonwealth will come back out and invest in these amazing businesses that make our communities so vibrant and so vital.