Opinion

Federal PPP Relief Needed Now So Destinations Can Survive and (Eventually) Thrive

You may know us for our basketball, bourbon and horses, but Kentucky is also fortunate to have many attractions that will inspire visitors to return once the pandemic has dissipated and travel is able to fully reopen.

Those assets attracted visitors and $11.8 billion in economic activity to this non-coastal state last year. But without corrective action by Congress, Kentucky and many other states will be left behind as millions of Americans return to traveling. It will deprive us of the resulting economic activity, which drives recovery and restores jobs to the regions that are equipped and ready to receive those visitors.

In Kentucky, lost revenue on travel spending surpassed $2.5 billion with lost state tax revenue of $192 million in just four months.

Nationally, nearly half of our industry has been laid off or furloughed.

Negotiations over the next relief round from Washington have stalled. Unless that changes, millions of livelihoods that depend on travel in every corner of the country are in danger of disappearing permanently.

The reality is we work twice as hard to build awareness of our state and share why Kentucky deserves a place on a visitor’s travel bucket list. This is achieved through destination marketing — an economic development function that specializes in increasing travel and tourism. The work of a Kentucky destination marketing organization (and the more than 2,000 other DMOs across the United States) ensures that residents of D.C., Atlanta or Chicago know what makes this state worthy of their visit and their dollars — and that our delights are within easy access of all of them.

But destination marketing organizations have been financially brought to their knees just like the private-sector businesses they serve. All are dependent on tourism revenues that have been practically nonexistent during the last five-plus months of the economic restrictions made necessary by COVID-19. And because the vast majority are categorized as either 501 (c)(6) nonprofit or quasi-governmental, they are excluded from relief provided by the CARES Act and the measures that followed.

Travel and tourism is a highly competitive field that requires focused business strategies. Think about the number of advertisements you see on television or online encouraging a visit to a particular destination — almost always highlighting attractions and experiences you probably had no idea existed; or the process involved when a large business or organization decides where to locate its convention, trade show or large meeting. Those outcomes regularly result from the work of a DMO. In turn, they result in a healthy local and state tax base; critical revenue for hotels, attractions, retailers and restaurants; and most importantly, jobs for local workers on every step of the professional ladder.

Communities left without the service of a DMO will be helpless to garner the economic benefits of returning business and leisure tourism once travel is able to fully resume. This is especially true of places that may not have the built-in brand awareness of large, mainly coastal cities.

The data conclusively shows that Americans, beyond weary of being locked down, want to travel. The data also indicates that as the economy reopens, they will favor off-the-beaten-path destinations, and those they can reach by car. That represents an enormous opportunity for regions like ours that are suffering economically—but only if their marketing capabilities survive long enough to compete for the rebounding business.

A large coalition of voices – from our signature industries to entrepreneurs of small businesses to workers living paycheck to paycheck – are urging Congress to extend the Paycheck Protection Program to nonprofit and quasi-governmental promotional entities in the next round of legislative relief. Their inclusion in a final package is essential if we want to spur a recovery that returns millions of Americans to good-paying jobs. Providing DMOs with access to this critical employment program ensures a lifeline for our business until revenue generated by travelers resumes. Preserving our ability to work will also ensure we hasten the safe return of visitors.

Every time you check in to a hotel, visit a museum or historic site, participate in a convention, or read a travel article that inspires your getaway — and I hope it’s to Kentucky — it is quite likely a DMO played a significant role in your visit. Getting a final deal done, and including DMOs among other enhancements to the PPP, will help our industry hasten a recovery for many of America’s most vulnerable regions.

Mary Quinn Ramer is president of VisitLEX, a destination marketing organization serving Lexington, Ky.

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