Philadelphia adds new high-profile hotels as tourism industry comeback begins
Greater Philadelphia’s tourism and hotel sectors rolled with the punches in 2021 as the region's destination marketing organizations strategized pandemic-era campaigns aimed at drawing travelers back to the area.
Center City hotels had a lot of ground to make up coming off what amounted to a "devastating" 2020 performance. Recovery efforts gained traction throughout 2021, but a full rebound in the hotel sector isn’t anticipated for another couple years.
Montgomery County kicked off the year with a 2021 Relaunch Plan that centered around sporting events and promoting the county’s hotels and event spaces through virtual tours. Eager to get back in the game, Visit Philadelphia also launched a 10-week spring marketing blitz that centered around celebrating life's personal moments that are hard to replicate over Zoom.
At the end of March, the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board funneled $400,000 into the second iteration of its Make It Main Street marketing campaign to draw attention to Montco’s family-owned businesses and drive consumer spending in the region. Simultaneously, Visit Philadelphia unveiled plans to launch a more than $2 million summer marketing campaign to bring travelers back to the city.
One of the primary challenges for tourism marketing organizations was the “unprecedented” amount of amount of competition in the sector as most U.S. destinations began coming back online all at once, from Baltimore and Cleveland to Nashville and Williamsburg.
Propelled by leisure travelers, Philadelphia International Airport returned to 66% operating capacity in April, with the spring break season being the first substantial traffic driver of the year.
By early May, industry and city officials had a clear message headed into the summer: “Welcome back.” Center City hotels saw demand pacing 33% above initial 2021 forecasts as pent-up demand fueled reservations. In the first three months of the year, 129,000 hotel room nights were sold to leisure travelers.
Four new hotels opened in Philadelphia in 2021: the $700 million Live! Casino & Hotel Philadelphia, luxury boutique property Guild House Hotel, and the long-awaited W Philadelphia hotel at 1439 Chestnut St. and conjoined Element hotel at 1441 Chestnut St. The $280 million W/Element hotel had been delayed for years amid a string of litigation, including a $30 million lawsuit filed by the developer against the project's general contractor.
Philadelphia’s inaugural micro hotel Pod Philly changed its flag to fall under the Hilton umbrella, and Virgin Hotels started eyeing Philadelphia for a new property. Developer Buccini/Pollin Group Inc. teamed up with Philadelphia real estate and hospitality company Method Co. on Wilmington’s first luxury boutique hotel, which is expected to open in early 2022.
Two Montgomery County hotels that underwent foreclosure pre-pandemic hit the digital auction block, as did Mount Laurel, New Jersey’s 279-room Hotel ML and CoCo Key Water Resort — twice. Meanwhile, South Jersey entertainment concept Funplex Mount Laurel broke ground on a new $13 million dual-branded Wyndham hotel in an effort to appeal to a wider market.
Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia at Comcast Center, one of the city’s most high-profile luxury hotels, experienced leadership changes this year as Ben Shank departed as general manager after serving in the role since the property’s 2019 opening. He was replaced by Cornelia Samara, a lifelong hospitality industry veteran.
The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau in summer launched a$600,000 “Meet the Moment” campaign targeting meeting planners in key drive markets across the Northeast corridor and Mid-Atlantic region to jumpstart convention traffic in the city. Visit Philadelphia also drilled down on working to attract diverse travelers to the city with its summer marketing efforts, including LGBTQ and Black tourists.
America 250 Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, kicked off a $250,000 marketing campaign over July 4 weekend to begin the five-year countdown to 2026. Local nonprofit Philadelphia250 similarly started developing its itinerary for Philadelphia's commemoration of the nation's 250th birthday.
By the fall, Visit Philadelphia was kicking off its fiscal 2022 by restoring its annual budget to $14.4 million — not far off its $16 million pre-pandemic heyday. Leisure travelers remained the focus of marketing efforts, as they were expected to account for 42%, or 362,200 room nights, of the anticipated 859,946 total room nights booked in the city for the 18 weekends spanning September through December.
Lancaster County tourism officials headed into the last couple months of 2021 “cautiously optimistic” that recovery would continue in the sector through winter after local hotels saw their strongest Labor Day Weekend in four years with occupancy rising above 82%. Similar trends held true in Bucks County, which posted record-breaking hotel industry metrics for September and October. All the way to the Shore, tourism and hospitality industry leaders were hopeful for a resurgence as meetings, conventions and travel demand picked up.
Philadelphia International Airport experienced increased travel by the end of the year, including with a busy Thanksgiving holiday period during which traffic rebounded to an estimated 21% below pre-pandemic 2019 holiday numbers.
Some PHL carriers like Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines are responding to that increase by bolstering bolstering their early 2022 flight schedules at the Northeast travel hub. Others like PHL’s dominant carrier American Airlines, however, are axing routes in response to delays in receiving new aircraft from Boeing Co.
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