SPRINGFIELD — The Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau will step up its advertising — in states were folks can legally visit Massachusetts without first quarantining, and here at home — with $250,000 in funding announced Monday by state Sen. Eric P. Lesser.
The money comes from the $1.1 billion supplemental budget signed into law last week by Gov. Charlie Baker.
Lesser praised the region’s $928 million travel and tourism industry as a job creator that needs a boost as the state recovers from shutdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It provides job opportunities across all education and skill levels,” Lesser, D-Longmeadow, said Monday at a news conference outside the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. “It provides job opportunities to people of color, to immigrants. It’s an income to many of our families here in the region.”
The money helps keep those jobs and helps employers gain confidence to bring people back, he said.
“To promote travel and tourism as a region,” Lesser said. “For people to come and travel and tour in a safe, social distanced, way.”
Also last week, Baker announced travel restrictions including a 14-day quarantine for those visiting the state for any reason from outside New England, New York, New Jersey and Hawaii.
All those, save for the Aloha State, are in the Pioneer Valley’s target market for tourism attractions in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties, said Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The $250,000 is the same amount the Bureau generally gets in the state budget each year for tourism promotion. But there is no state budget yet this year and Lesser, who chairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, was able to get the money in the Bureau’s hands now before the summer tourism season is lost — and in plenty of time to promote the all-important fall foliage season.
“It’ll be hard without the Big E,” Wydra said, citing the cancellation of the popular fair this year. “But what better way to see foliage than by ziplining through it? What better way to see fall foliage than from the Connecticut River.”
Thirty-million people live within a half-day’s drive, she said.
Billboards are already up on Interstate 91 in Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut.
The region’s tourism economy continues to reel from the pandemic’s impact. Major attraction Six Flags New England is not yet open due to coronavirus restrictions. Restaurants are still reopening. MGM Springfield is running at about one-third of its normal capacity and employment.
“We’ve been hit hard,” Lesser said.
The Hall of Fame itself reopened earlier this month following the coronavirus shutdown and, coincidentally, a $23-million renovation.
John Doleva, president and CEO of the Hall of Fame, said Monday the shrine is running at about 35% of its normal attendance. The hall expects total visitor traffic for the year will be about 60% of its annual average of 250,000 visitors.
But 35 percent is heartening given restrictions on how many people can tour the exhibits at one time and other coronavirus precautions and concerns. Doleva shook his head when asked how long the hall can go on at 35%.
“that’s what this money is for—to grow visitation and attendance to the region and allow all of us to maximize the opportunity,” he said.
Hampden County’s hotel occupancy in June was 40%, Wydra said — well off what it would be normally in June, but good for third-best in the state. She said that’s all leisure travel because most corporate travel is canceled, and no venues are hosting conventions and events.
Peter Rosskothen said his D.Hotel & Suites in Holyoke is running at about 45% occupancy.
“We won’t be happy until we get to 60%, but it’s growing,” he said.
Much of the business is local, made up of folks who are not traveling very far but just want to get away overnight for a nice dinner and a trip to the spa.
Wydra said that while she’s hoping for good news, the Bureau has the ability to pull back or cancel its advertising if coronavirus trends get worse and more travel restrictions follow.