CLEVELAND, Ohio – Even David Gilbert, the city’s top cheerleader, had a hard time putting a positive spin on this news: Greater Cleveland saw a 30% drop in visitors in 2020, and it will be years before visitation in the region recovers to pre-pandemic numbers.
“It was a lousy year,” said Gilbert, the president and CEO of Destination Cleveland, the region’s tourism agency. “We managed our way through it the best we could.”
Gilbert, however, said he preferred to look ahead and not behind, and promised that the region’s tourism economy is already on a path toward recovery.
At Destination Cleveland’s annual meeting Tuesday, Gilbert pledged that the city’s tourism rebound would outpace the nation as whole.
“While 2020 was a setback, we will get back to 2019 visitor levels as fast as possible and we plan to do it faster than the rest of the country,” Gilbert told a crowd gathered in the late-afternoon heat at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. “We are going to come out of this fast.”
In an interview before the meeting, Gilbert said the city was riding a visitor-high leading up to the pandemic, with year-over-year visitor growth nine years in a row. “There’s no doubt we’ll get back to where we were,” he said.
In 2020, Cuyahoga County welcomed 13.8 million visitors, down 30% from 19.6 million in 2019. The organization had set a goal of 20 million visitors in 2020, which seemed achievable up until March 2020, when the pandemic essentially shut down the tourism industry worldwide.
“We thought that was what we would be celebrating this year and we were really looking forward to it,” Cleveland attorney Jon Pinney, who chairs Destination Cleveland’s board of directors, told the crowd at the zoo. “We’re confident we’ll get back to growing this industry at record-setting rates.”
Gilbert said it will likely be 2024 before the region hits that 20 million visitor benchmark.
Economic impact numbers were down dramatically in 2020, as well, to $7.1 billion, from $9.7 billion a year earlier.
Already, though, numbers are improving – with a growing number of leisure travelers streaming into the city, as well as increased activity at the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland and other meeting sites.
Destination Cleveland, working with the convention center and downtown hotels, rebooked 102 meetings and conventions for future years.
Gilbert said he had not yet noticed any downturn in traveler numbers due to the spread of the highly contagious delta variant, though he expects some softening based on recent traveler sentiment surveys.
Northeast Ohio, as primarily a drive-to market, may be less affected than other destinations, he said.
Despite some ongoing uncertainty, Gilbert predicted that recovery would be steady. “Let’s start thinking big again,” he told the crowd Tuesday. “We will get our visitor engine humming again and we will do it in a way that will continue to be a growth engine for our community.”
Gilbert shared several numbers that suggest Cleveland’s image among travelers and potential travelers continues to improve:
* 36% of millennial travelers surveyed in 2021 said they would consider Cleveland as a destination, up from 14% in 2014.
* 81% of Greater Cleveland residents said they would recommend Cleveland as a place to visit, up from 34% in 2014, according to the same survey.
Gilbert said Destination Cleveland planned to update its brand in early 2022 to reflect the city’s improving image with potential travelers.
He also said Destination Cleveland would continue to work with regional civic organizations, including the Greater Cleveland Partnership, Team NEO, Engage! Cleveland, the Cleveland Leadership Center and others in an effort to convert visitors to potential residents.
In addition, he reported on Destination Cleveland’s early efforts to incorporate more diversity into its messaging and day-to-day operations. The organization last year impaneled a Racial, Equity and Inclusion Task Force, which hosted a series of community meetings and developed a set of actions, including attracting a more diverse visitor audience to Cleveland, highlighting Cleveland Black history, collaborating with a more diverse group of business owners and more.
Interested parties can track the agency’s goals and progress at Thisiscleveland.com/deicommitment.
“This isn’t a separate initiative,” said Gilbert. “The goal is to do a better job within the context of everything we do.”
By the numbers: Cleveland visitor numbers
2020: 13.8 million
2019: 19.6 million
2018: 19.2 million
2017: 18.5 million
2016: 18 million
2015: 17.6 million
2014: 16.9 million
2013: 16.2 million
2012: 15.6 million
2011: 14.9 million
Note: A visitor is generally defined as someone who travels at least 50 miles from home, and not as part of a normal routine. Source: Destination Cleveland
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