Experience Scottsdale CEO Rachel Sacco

Experience Scottsdale CEO Rachel Sacco said industry analysts predict tourism will continue to pick up every month through the fall, driven by visitors within driving distance of Scottsdale.

Scottsdale’s tourism arm unveiled its strategy for injecting life back into the city’s pandemic-devastated tourism industry.

The strategy, which Experience Scottsdale executives discussed at length at its Virtual Tourism Industry Update May 27, includes a heavy focus on attracting residents from cities and regions within driving distance of Scottsdale.

“Industry research is predicting that people will be more likely to travel by car than by plane in the short term and that drive markets will be the most lucrative in the early recovery phase,” said Caroline Stoeckel, vice president of marketing.

Though the industry has rebounded somewhat from historically low occupancies in April, local hotels are still seeing just a fraction of the visitors they hosted at the same time last year.

Scottsdale-area hotels and resorts were 34.4 percent occupied from May 31 to June 6 – a significant increase over April, when occupancy dipped below 10 percent, but  still 48.4 percent lower than occupancy during the first week of June 2019. 

Experience Scottsdale is predicting the occupancy rates will increase gradually heading into the fall.

“Researchers continuously tell us and believe that travel will pick up each and every month and significantly throughout the fall with so many travelers referring to stick closer to home,” President/CEO Rachel Sacco said.

The organization is focusing its marketing efforts on Phoenix, Tucson and southern California, using radio, billboard and online campaigns through Labor Day.

The focus on bringing visitors into Scottsdale as COVID-19 infections continue to rise could be a sore point for some locals, though, especially after local leaders blamed out-of-state visitors when photos and videos of crowded bars and pools in the city’s entertainment district went viral over Memorial Day weekend.

Mayor Jim Lane said the crowds that weekend comprised “a lot from Vegas and from California and maybe even from the Midwest, believe it or not.”

But Experience Scottsdale leadership said those visitors were not drawn by its campaign, which did not begin until after Memorial Day.

“When our advertising does start to the Southern California market, it won’t focus or target a party crowd,” Stoeckel said. “Instead, our message is going to focus on open spaces, our Sonoran Desert environment and resort rates.”

Experience Scottsdale also is focusing on attracting luxury travelers who may be wary of international trips.

“The world’s top travel analysts are reporting that leisure travel will be the first to rebound and that luxury travel will be the first segment to return,” said Deanne Boynton Grupp, vice president of tourism.

Boynton Grupp said that American Express Travel reported that 80 percent of recent bookings were for domestic travel and the Arizona was a top-five destination.

Experience Scottsdale is going to begin by working to attract luxury visitors from Phoenix and Tucson for staycations before expanding to other drive markets.

The agency is also working to bring in businesses and associations for large meetings and conferences by emphasizing the way properties here contrast with other cities without as much open space.

“We’re really focused on talking about our campus style resorts…the fact that you don’t have to wait in an elevator with 20 people to get up to your room,” said Kelli Blubaum, vice president of Convention Sales & Services. “We really are positioned well with our open spaces and physical distancing that we know that meeting planners are going to have to take into consideration moving forward."

But it’s unclear how the continued rise in virus cases in Arizona will affect Scottsdale’s attractiveness for conferences.

Governor Doug Ducey recently said, “This virus is something we need to learn to live with, and we need to make sure that we are protecting the most vulnerable in our society.” 

According to Blubaum, 30 percent of the requests for proposal the organization has seen are for events in 2020, with 56 percent looking for meeting dates in 2021.