When the COVID-19 pandemic stopped tourism in its tracks in spring 2020, Delaware’s tourism office—one of the state’s biggest cheerleaders—immediately transformed into a rapid-response crisis control unit. Director Liz Keller and her staff switched gears and started making “thousands and thousands of calls” to “verbally connect with each and every single [tourism] partner” in the state. “I’d say we probably touched about 2,000 organizations every two weeks,” she says.
Now, the department is looking for ways to revive the industry in 2021.
Delaware tourism had been steadily gaining momentum over the past decade, and 2018 proved to be a record-setting year, seeing 9.2 million visitors. Tourism contributed $3.5 billion to Delaware’s economy, according to the Delaware Tourism Office. Keller says there are several reasons for this growth, which continued into 2019.
First, the state has moved beyond being known mainly for its beautiful beaches and tax-free shopping, although those aspects do remain a big draw. The tourism office’s Endless Discoveries-branded initiative, first announced in 2017, promotes new and lesser-known attractions, including the burgeoning craft beer scene, outdoor activities such as hiking and biking, and historic sites, notes Keller, who grew up in Milton and has led the department for four years.
Repeat visitors are another important factor. “What we love about our visitors is [that] once they come and they see what Delaware has to offer, they want to come back, and a lot of times they bring the whole family,” Keller says. “So, we have a lot of generational tourism in the state.”
Finally, her office has grown from one person to seven in the past decade to keep pace with the increasing number of visitors.
As of March 2020, however, the office took on a new role: an information hub for visitors and the tourism industry on COVID-19 guidance, as well as a link between the industry and Delaware state leadership.
Half the office staff was talking with visitors, “making sure they know Delaware will always be here but right now is not the time to visit,” says Keller. The other half called tourism-related businesses to get a sense of what was happening in their area and to help them understand the COVID-19 guidance being issued, she adds.
“We made it a very strong point on our team to verbally speak with every single business and organization. It was something that we all felt very passionate about—we wanted to speak with them because it’s Delaware and these are our friends, these are colleagues,” Keller says. “We have made thousands of phone calls just to let everyone know that we’re here and to tell us what you’re experiencing so we can get that information to leadership and [let them] know what’s happening on the ground.”
Keller says her office continues to encourage outdoor activities as much as possible to facilitate social distancing, such as outdoor dining. It also launched the Delaware Discoveries Trail, nine works of art by local and national artists inspired by Delaware that have been placed outside in various parts of the state, she says.
Looking ahead, Keller notes that Delaware is first and foremost a drive-to destination, with regional visitors traveling primarily from New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Her team also promotes the state’s road-trip potential to other regions, such as western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, to develop new markets.
Keller says the initial focus for 2021 will be local travelers who may only be crossing county lines to see and do things here. People living farther away looking for a fun day trip or overnight road trip will be the next priority. “Being a drive-to destination is going to be the biggest key component to us recovering,” she points out.
Delaware’s tourism industry employs more than 44,000 people, making it the state’s fourth-largest private employer, Keller says. Seeing the industry rebound is the primary goal.
Residents can help, too, by checking out what our state has to offer. “There are tons of things to do, and each thing you do supports a local organization, a small business,” Keller urges. “So, I hope everyone goes out and explores their own backyard.”