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Local Tourism to Rely on "Drive Market" on Road to Recovery

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By Jorge Casuso

November 1 , 2021 -- It will likely take Santa Monica's tourism industry two years to fully recover from the coronavirus shutdown that led to a dramatic drop in international visitors, tourism officials said last month.

To immediately boost one of Santa Monica's biggest industries, Santa Monica Travel & Tourism (SMTT) officials are focusing on a "drive market strategy" to get back on the road to recovery, officials said.

At its annual meeting held via zoom on October 21, SMTT reported that international visitors -- who comprised 51 percent of the local tourism industry in 2019 -- fell to 24.9 percent last year.

“The ‘recovery and forecast’ research shows that slow but steady growth in tourism is in progress and that the road to recovery will be fraught with challenges known and unknown,” said Misti Kerns, SMTT's President and CEO.

While bringing back international visitation remains the primary objective, tourism officials said, "a steady tourism recovery in 2021 now focuses on a drive market strategy with reach into California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada and Florida,"

SMTT's “Recovery and Forecast Outlook” lays out "the long-haul effects of the pandemic and the critical road to recovery that lies ahead for Santa Monica tourism, local businesses and the community,” said SMTT Board Chair Albin Gielicz.

“As a tourist destination it is incumbent of us to provide the support and tools for a full economic recovery through 2022 and beyond,” Gielicz said.

During the Zoom meeting, SMTT consultant Lauren Schlau highlighted the shift triggered by the COVID shutdown that includes a visitor profile built on U.S. leisure travelers instead of international visitors.

The shift impacted visitor activities, lodging and spending in Santa Monica, Schlau said.

The domestic visitor trend will continue next year, while the share of international visitors should increase staring this month, when the U.S. allows more countries to visit, Schlau said.

While this should push per-capita and total spending above 2021 levels, they will remain well below 2019, according to Schlau.

The agency should continue to encourage overnight and weekday visitation from all markets, which should be boosted by improvements being palanned for destinations such as the Pier, she said.

In a positive sign, Santa Monica hotels registered their highest occupancy rate since 2019 on Memorial Day, when it reached 90.5 percent, according to tourism officials.

Santa Monica's hotels are now fully open and demand is building, especially on weekends and high demand periods, when room rates are approaching 2019 levels, according to officials.

"However, midweek business is still needed to assist in stabilizing occupancy and conference business and international leisure needs to return before that can happen, so a full recovery is not anticipated until 2023-2024," officials said.

Demand is expected to continue increasing next year as more international and business travelers return, and room rates should continue to rise faster than inflation, especially when some of the major hotels close for extensive improvements or redevelopment, agency officials predict.

“The success of tourism in the market and the rebound in the industry is equally driven by folks that contribute to its success each day and over the last year, which is why we focused this year’s theme on both travel and people,” Kerns said.

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