Battered by pandemic, Ashland reimagines its tourism economic system
Destination of the Year

Battered by pandemic, Ashland reimagines its tourism economic system

Battered by pandemic, Ashland reimagines its tourism economic system

With outside seating, a large beer record and ample parking for mountain bikers, Gil’s faucet home stayed busy through the pandemic.

Juliet Grable / JPR Information

For those who’ve visited Ashland currently, you will have been struck by how regular all of it feels. Vacationers stroll down Fundamental Road, most of them maskless. Diners throng the outside seating alongside Calle Guanajuato, the pedestrian manner alongside Ashland Creek. Lithia Park is lush from latest rains. The Oregon Shakespeare Competition is in full swing. You’ll be able to nearly neglect we’re simply rising from greater than two years of a pandemic and that we’re nonetheless within the throes of a document drought.

Make no mistake: the COVID-19 pandemic hit Ashland arduous. It got here on the heels of two smoky summers, throughout which a number of performances of the pageant, Ashland’s anchor attraction, have been canceled. OSF went darkish for all of 2020 and most of 2021.

“Pre-pandemic, we had individuals who had been coming to Ashland for 20-plus years,” says Drew Gibbs, proprietor of the Winchester Inn and two Ashland eating places, Alchemy and Chateaubriand 36. “They have been individuals who wished to e book the identical weekend yearly. They didn’t care what was enjoying at OSF; they’d be there.”

Whereas pageant patrons, lots of them older, rich retirees, stayed away, others got here, as soon as the primary wave of the pandemic receded. When Gibbs talked to his prospects, he realized they have been there to go mountain biking or on wine excursions, or have been merely passing by on their strategy to elsewhere.

Katharine Cato, director at Journey Ashland, says the Southern Oregon city’s customer base was evolving nicely earlier than COVID. “We’ve seen it coming, with poor air high quality, an growing old OSF viewers, altering loyalties, and a brand new sort of customer coming to Ashland,” she says. “The pandemic merely broke every part open.”

Survey says

Ashland’s economic system is grounded in tourism. Traditionally, says Cato, OSF has been liable for about 120,000 distinctive guests per 12 months — over one third of Ashland’s annual vacationer visitors.

Journey Ashland is liable for selling Ashland as a vacationer vacation spot and in the end, serving to gas the city’s economic system. Yearly they monitor developments and plan accordingly. In November 2020, almost a 12 months into the pandemic, Journey Ashland employed Vacation spot Analysts, a agency based mostly in San Francisco, to conduct a customer analysis and analyses examine to raised perceive the brand new vacationers coming to Ashland.

A free "Green Show" performance outside of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Allen Elizabethan Theater.

A free “Inexperienced Present” efficiency exterior of the Oregon Shakespeare Competition’s Allen Elizabethan Theater. Throughout the 2022 season OSF is providing eight dwell performances, three digital reveals and decreased ticket pricing in what a spokesperson described as an effort to extend accessibility.

Juliet Grable / JPR Information

Surveys of 1,500 “leisure vacationers” from key markets throughout the area helped them be taught why folks traveled and the way their impressions of Ashland in comparison with different locations within the area. The surveys confirmed that guests may very well be lured to Ashland for its small, walkable downtown, proximity to rivers and lakes, and award-winning delicacies and culinary festivals. Uncrowded trails and cultural points of interest are additionally attracts.

On the similar time, respondents seen Ashland primarily as an excellent arts and tradition vacation spot. They ranked Healdsburg, Lake Tahoe and Bend extra extremely in terms of wine, meals, and outside recreation. Now, Journey Ashland is attempting to vary that notion.

For Hiram Towle, normal supervisor at Mt. Ashland Ski Space who additionally serves on the Journey Ashland Advisory Committee, the examine confirmed what he already knew.

“The smoke, the Almeda Fireplace, and COVID forged a vivid mild on the necessity to ensure we’re working towards diversification in our customer economic system,” he says. “We’ve all the time identified we had nice recreation alternatives, however we didn’t crow about them. We have been happy with filling eating places and accommodations with OSF patrons.”

A contemporary look

If you go to Journey Ashland’s Instagram web page, you’ll discover eye sweet: dancers in colourful costumes for the Ashland World Music Competition; a panorama of the vineyards at Belle Fiore vineyard; the cascades at Mill Creek Falls.

The social media web page is only one facet of a rebranding marketing campaign Journey Ashland launched in response to the customer examine. A Bend-based agency referred to as Intently Collaborative spearheaded the trouble.

The brand new model strives to painting Ashland as a contemporary mountain neighborhood with a broad array of facilities and quick access to nature and outside recreation. New colours — teal, blue, and a sunny gold — infuse Journey Ashland’s revamped web site and the newest customer’s information. The Shakespearian tagline — Ashland: As you prefer it — has been up to date with the extra lively Ashland: Reside your daydreams.

The intent is to not substitute OSF and play-going, Cato explains, however to raise the opposite varieties of experiences Southern Oregon provides: meals and wine tasting; a day on the spa; snowboarding on Mt. Ashland.

Right here, she argues, Ashland has benefits, even when folks haven’t found them but.

A ski slope with fresh snow on a blue sky day.

Recent snow at Mt. Ashland in January 2021. The native ski resort had a few of their most profitable seasons through the pandemic.

Erik Neumann / JPR Information

For instance, folks flocked to ski slopes through the pandemic, in search of COVID-safe recreation, however at bigger, higher identified resorts, the expertise was marred by visitors and lengthy elevate strains.

“Folks have been seeing that within the information, and that was driving them to go to locations the place there’s nonetheless capability,” says Towle, including that Mt. Ashland noticed document visitorship final 12 months, regardless of the lower than stellar snow.

For comparable causes, the Rogue Valley’s uncrowded tasting rooms have a bonus over higher identified wine areas, says Gibbs.

“Napa is just like the Disneyland of the wine world,” says Gibbs. “Right here you’ll be able to present up and the winemaker may be standing proper there and provide to point out you round.” The mix of high quality and informal is interesting to lots of people, he provides, citing his latest restaurant, Chateaubriand 36, as the kind of place that satisfies foodies however with out the stuffy vibe.

Journey Ashland needs to shed the notion that Ashland is just too costly, or elitist. An essential purpose of the rebranding effort, says Cato, is sending a transparent message that each one are welcome — and you could go to Ashland with out breaking the financial institution.

Of their rebranding marketing campaign, Contently Co. recognized 4 “life-style personas” they hope to focus on by advertising and marketing: households searching for a stress-free trip with kid-friendly actions; mates assembly up in Ashland, vacationers in search of a fast getaway; and wanderers on the hunt for a scenic dwelling base from which to discover Rogue Valley wineries.

Towle has been speaking with different outside recreation enterprise house owners about how one can higher help guests who come to ski, raft, bike, and fish. They observe a necessity for higher signage and extra tenting choices in or near city, together with locations the place folks can safely sleep of their vans or campers.

Proper now, and in contrast to different ski resorts, the parking zone at Mt. Ashland isn’t set as much as accommodate campers, although folks do spend the evening there, says Towle.

“We’ve seen it coming, with poor air high quality, an growing old OSF viewers, altering loyalties, and a brand new sort of customer coming to Ashland. The pandemic merely broke every part open.”

The variety of mattress and breakfast inns has plummeted from over 30 to only 10. Whereas some house owners have merely retired, others have transformed their inns to self-service trip leases, which not solely really feel safer throughout a pandemic, however cater to youthful, tech-savvy vacationers.

“You’ve obtained [restaurants] like Ruby’s and Growler Guys and Skout that basically do enchantment to the outside traveler,” says Towle. Even easy issues like having a protected place to place your bicycle matter, he provides.

A one-two punch

A wholesome OSF is important to Ashland’s economic system. The pageant claims its state financial influence was over $120 million in 2019, the 12 months earlier than the pandemic. Blake Zidell, OSF’s press consultant, advised JPR that OSF is liable for a full 20% of general financial exercise within the Rogue Valley.

In 2018, OSF canceled or moved 26 performances and misplaced almost $2 million due to wildfire smoke.

On Could 8, 2020, amid statewide pandemic restrictions, OSF canceled the remainder of its 2020 season.

OSF reopened with a restricted season in 2021, however in August, many of the performances of the pageant’s solely operating present have been canceled due to smoke.

OSF has obtained $14.71 million in pandemic reduction funds, together with $10 million by the federal Shuttered Venue Operators grant program.

The reduction funding helped OSF offset its pandemic-related losses, says Zidell. “[It did not] put OSF forward of the place the group was, financially, earlier than the pandemic.” The pageant remains to be combating staffing shortages.

Ashland’s retail shops and eating places are nonetheless attempting to recuperate from the pageant’s closure and stop-start jolts of the pandemic. Those that remained on workers throughout COVID noticed fewer shifts, fewer prospects, and a drastic lower in wages. Gibbs credit sturdy help from locals and providers like DoorDash for preserving his eating places afloat. The Paycheck Safety Program and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund have been godsends, though, says Gibbs, just one third of restaurateurs who utilized to the Revitalization Fund obtained help (He was not considered one of them.)

The front Standing Stone Brewery in Ashland, which closed in 2022.

Standing Stone Brewing Firm closed in Ashland after 26 years. Managers cited decreased vacationer visitors through the pandemic, smoky summers and the troublesome job market.

Juliet Grable / JPR Information

For some, the help was not sufficient. On Could 10, Standing Stone Brewing Firm, a fixture in downtown Ashland for 26 years, introduced it could shut completely on the finish of the month.

Elisha Lewis, supervisor at Standing Stone, cites a mix of blows that made recovering inconceivable, beginning with smoky summers that decreased vacationer visitors. The spike in the price of items and a “irritating” job market have solely added to the challenges.

“As managers, we have been left with a a lot smaller workforce to recruit from,” says Lewis. “We continued to supply greater, aggressive wages, however we weren’t seeing high quality candidates apply.”

The mass exodus from the restaurant biz is a nationwide development, and information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics present that “give up charges” stay greater in foodservice than in another business.

Gibbs was having bother filling shifts at his two eating places, so he lower service from 5 nights per week right down to 4. Different eating places are nonetheless working with skeleton crews and have switched to counter service.

The realm’s housing woes are usually not serving to retain service staff. In Ashland, common dwelling costs and rents have been already considerably greater than most of Jackson County earlier than the Almeda Fireplace devastated the valley. The fireplace worn out no less than 2,500 dwellings between Ashland and Medford, lots of them beneath market charge.

In the meantime, warming temperatures and a protracted drought are serving to gas wildfires throughout the West, all however guaranteeing weeks of compromised air high quality on the peak of summer season.

“I consider that smoky wildfire seasons are right here to remain,” says Lewis. “I personally don’t have a variety of hope that Ashland particularly will see the identical inflow of vacationers as we did years in the past.”

Ashland by the numbers

Interesting to guests by the seasons will likely be essential going ahead, given the probability of smoky skies in August. A technique Journey Ashland will monitor their progress is thru two metropolis taxes: the ten% Transient Occupancy Tax, or TOT, and the 5% tax on ready meals and drinks, which some consult with because the “meals tax.” The TOT is essentially the most carefully tied to tourism; it applies to each non permanent lodging on the town, whether or not a trip rental, lodge room, or B&B.

Not surprisingly, revenues from each taxes plunged through the pandemic, however Cato says Ashland recovered extra rapidly than nearly each different area in Oregon, apart from the coast.

After a dismal quarter in spring of 2020, revenues from the TOT bounced again barely that summer season. TOT revenues remained depressed all through 2020 and into 2021, however towards the tip of the 12 months, they rebounded. The October by December quarter introduced in $533,830 — almost $100,000 greater than that very same interval in 2020, and never far beneath 2019 or 2018 ranges.

“We’ve heard anecdotally from our companions that the tip of 2021 was one of many strongest (third quarters) they’ve ever skilled,” says Cato, including that lodging house owners have been capable of maintain their room charges up by this era. “There’s some momentum afoot.”

After months of feeling penned in by the pandemic, many individuals have been lastly feeling protected sufficient to journey within the window between Delta and Omicron waves. Some have been lured by Mt. Ashland’s distinctive early powder and OSF’s first ever vacation manufacturing, It’s Christmas, Carol!

“We had folks exhibiting up in December simply to go to that present,” says Gibbs. “This 12 months will probably be even higher.”

The vacation present is however one instance of how the pageant is adjusting to new realities and trying to draw new playgoers.

In 2022, the primary full season below Inventive Director Nataki Garrett, OSF is providing eight dwell reveals and three digital productions. The corporate has performed away with its “dynamic pricing” mannequin, the place ticket costs fluctuated with demand; as an alternative, ticket costs are mounted and have been slashed throughout the board. Costs vary from $35 to $75, whereas prime tickets used to go for $132.

Garrett and Government Director David Schmitz instituted these modifications “to extend accessibility and inclusion and to steer the American theater at giant in that path,” says Zidell. They’re additionally a response to the declining viewers numbers Garrett and Schmitz inherited once they joined OSF, he provides. In line with information from OSF’s annual studies, attendance, as measured by proportion of theater seats crammed, had declined within the years main as much as the pandemic. Within the years from 2006 to 2015, attendance percentages ranged within the excessive 80s to low 90s; within the interval from 2016 to 2019, they’d dipped to the low to mid 80s.

The 2022 schedule can also be staggered in order that fewer reveals are operating in late summer season, when it’s typically smoky. Two reveals shut on the finish of July and two new reveals open in mid and late August.

The challenges are usually not going away. Inflation, excessive gasoline costs, and one other drought-fueled hearth season could but dampen enthusiasm for journey. Alternatively, an entire new group of individuals could catch wind of Ashland’s world-class mountain biking trails or wine scene, load up the automotive, and go—and catch a play whereas they’re at it.

“We now have the humanities and tradition; we’re not stepping away from that,” says Cato. “We’re simply continually constructing upon it.”