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Supporting local businesses during an economic downturn

Michelle Conway (Submitted photo)

Michelle Conway (Submitted photo)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and on behalf of our partners — especially those in the VOC — we wish you a happy holiday season.

Supporting local businesses is especially critical this season. A slowing economy, inflation and lower tourist visitation, means our community-owned businesses are feeling the pinch. So please connect with our local businesses this month. You will find great deals and a warm welcome.

Recently, the Chamber met with the Sedona City Council to report on our joint Tourism Destination Management Plan. It was a difficult conversation in enlightening the Council that business is slowing. Our lodging occupancy rates — an indicator of consumer spending — were lower this summer than in any of the previous four years, with 2022 down 9% from 2021.

As Wilde Resort and Spa General Manager Jay Kriske told the Council, “Sedona has 90,000 available hotel rooms per month, so a 10% decline is 9,000 rooms, which translates to about 15-16,000 fewer people staying here overnight each month.”

The effect spreads beyond hotels, he added. “The owner of the laundromat up the street asked, ‘When is tourism coming back?’ Tourism drives their business.”

Nena Barlow of Barlow Adventures reported Jeep rentals are down 43% and said the decline “is about the quality of our visitor. When only 33% are overnighters, Sedona is not attracting people who will rent our Jeeps.”

We also informed Council that several galleries acknowledged that October was their worst month since 2009, with sales down 60-70%. Restaurants are feeling it, too, according to Kriske. “Some of our problems are with storytelling and marketing,” he said, alluding to the marketing freeze in recent years. “We’ve driven consumers out of the market.”

A November Chamber membership survey backs that up. Forty-four percent say a lack of destination marketing is hurting business, and 83% said lower tourist traffic affects their bottom line. Additionally, 77% say they expect to lose money or break even between now and February.

Nena Barlow’s observation about visitor quality is a good one. With marketing frozen for an extended period, we’re not able to advocate for a sustainable Sedona. That leaves our visitors defining who we are through the multitude of selfie social media posts in over-trafficked hiking areas or tearing up our land with ATV misuse and abuse.

Competitor destinations are expanding into the marketing vacuum we have left. For example, Jackson Hole, Wyoming markets biking in fall colors while advocating for responsible trail use. Park City, Utah displays beautiful autumn scenery, simultaneously asking visitors to “love it like we love it.”  They’re showing how skillful messaging can support both economic and environmental sustainability.

The question is, do present policies support Sedona’s economy, a critical pillar of sustainable tourism? From what Council saw and heard in November, the current answer is “No.”

When we reconvene in January, we will present the city council with options for well-crafted messages targeting the “sustainable visitors” we want to attract. Among prosperous, educated, longer-staying, seasoned travelers, there is a strong ethos of embracing local culture and supporting the local economy. Other popular semi-rural tourist destinations show that it can be done. We can learn from each other as we strive for a sustainable balance.

Join us for the Holiday Mixer at the Poco Diablo Resort Dec. 1 from 5 to 7 p.m.

Bring your Holiday Cheer and check out the amazing new lobby and restaurant called the Willows Kitchen & Wine Bar. Enjoy refreshments and make new connections. The mixer will be $10 for members and $15 for non-members to cover your appetizers, and there will be a cash bar.

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