Matthew Hoyt remains hopeful 2021 will be much better than the previous year.
The owner of the New Braunfels river outfitter business Corner Tubes said the initial pandemic-related orders that forced a temporary shuttering of his business last March were bad enough. Then, a June state-mandated order that zeroed in on river-based activities closed all related businesses for the rest of the season, and that made it worse.
“Tubing rivers in and around New Braunfels is, in many respects, an anchor for tourism here,” he said. “It helps fill hotel rooms. It helps fill bars and restaurants and concert venues.”
Clayton Hennigan, owner of Stave Beer and Wine House in New Braunfels, is also hopeful the local hospitality industry can bounce back this year.
Though he opened Stave in late 2019, he said elements of the city that make it a unique tourist attraction—the vibrant tubing scene, nightlife and myriad widely-attended festivals and fairs—should help his establishment as well as many others if they are able to return in 2021.
“I really do want to be a part of all things New Braunfels, [such as the] Downtown festivals,” Hennigan said. “It is really important for all aspects of the city.”
For Hoyt, Hennigan and many other city leaders and business owners, the impact of the pandemic on river recreation, restaurants, bars and hotels, as well the cancellation of the city’s quintessential festivals that include the highly publicized Wurstfest and Wein & Saengerfest, has created a ripple effect that has been seen in lost revenues throughout the hospitality industry.
A major goal for these stakeholders now is to see the hospitality industry flourish again, but many plans have yet to solidify as predictability about the pandemic and public safety remains elusive.
The ripple effect
In April 2020, hotel occupancy tax revenue in New Braunfels dropped by 80% compared to April 2019, marking a sharp decline in overnight stays during the early months of the pandemic as businesses and restaurants closed temporarily.
For Cecil Eager, owner of Gruene Mansion Inn, the closure of Gruene Hall and other attractions in Gruene led to a drop-off in bookings as visitors halted travel plans.
Eager said the 33-room inn had 990 room rental opportunities in April. Of the available reservations, the hotel only filled 10.
“Even though we were open, no one was coming,” Eager said. “We started making a comeback in May and ... our occupancy rate was climbing during May and June, and then there was another wave in July.”
During the peak travel months of May-August, river tourism slowed in response to stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements, leading hotel occupancy tax revenue to decline by an average of 40.15% compared to 2019.
With the cancellation of large events such the Comal County Fair and restrictions on in-person gatherings, Eager continued to see anemic bookings.
“When those [events] went away, that took a lot of Gruene Hall’s business and, consequently, our business,” Eager said.
In response to the pandemic, hotel owners such as Eager began incorporating contactless check-in procedures, virtual communication with guests and added cleaning measures to keep staff and customers safe.
“I have no idea how long it will take before people will feel comfortable traveling like they did pre-COVID, and there will be a certain segment of the population that will not ever be comfortable,” Eager said. “It’s all going to be dependent on the rise or fall of COVID intensity. ... If that drops off, then tourism will return.”
The impact of New Braunfels tourism
A major goal for city leaders is to revive the hospitality sector through aggressive tourism marketing and other strategies.
This is according to Michael Meek, president of the New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce. He said that even though pandemic-related hotel occupancy declines locally have not been as high as the state average—Meek estimates roughly 40% in Texas compared with about 20-25% in the New Braunfels area—hospitality remains a key focus this year.
“That particular sector will take longer to come back than others, because people are just not traveling yet and staying in hotel rooms like they used to,” Meek said. “Now, that said ... what we’ve been able to do, even though not up to previous standards, is still ... somewhat a victory for us.”
In order to bring back the amount of tourism New Braunfels is used to, City Council recently allocated roughly $290,000 in federal CARES Act funding that was used to create a marketing and advertising campaign, with plans to continue the effort well into 2021.
While Meek maintains confidence that the hospitality sector can bounce back, he said there is no denying the dangers if it does not.
“It’s going to be very difficult if we can’t return to some normalcy of occupancy and visitations here in 2021,” Meek said. “Especially starting this summer, there are a lot of businesses that are holding on and probably in debt.”
Beyond the federal funding used for marketing and advertising in 2020, Meek said the city is still providing funding from hotel occupancy tax revenues to continue the effort through 2021, with at least one focus on local events.
Major drivers of tourism in New Braunfels are the annual festivals that draw visitors from neighboring communities and, in the case of Wurstfest, across the world.
In 2019, 233,556 visitors attended Wurstfest’s 10-day festival, according to the Wurstfest Association, and the influx of attendees brings needed revenue to the hospitality industry during the off-season.
“The larger economic impact community-wide is not only from overnight guests; it includes day trips and locals,” wrote Judy Young, vice president of the New Braunfels Convention & Visitors Bureau, in an email.
The Comal County Fair and Rodeo is one such event that draws few overnight visitors but does offer locals an opportunity to get out and enjoy the city to visit bars and restaurants, according to 2020 and 2021 fair President Charles Wimberley.
Approximately 80,000-90,000 visitors attended the fair in 2019, and the event always begins with a parade on the first friday of the fair, dubbed Fair Day. Schools in Comal County take the day as a holiday, and many businesses give employees the day off, Wimberley said.
On July 15, Wimberley and the board of the Comal County Fair Association made the decision to cancel the 2020 fair, which was planned to take place Sept. 23-27.
“We were holding out and still had some hope,” Wimberley said. “We finally just said there’s no way that the state’s going to let us do it.”
Shortly after the cancellation, the Wurstfest Association canceled its 2020 celebration on July 23. The festival was to be the 60th anniversary of Wurstfest and the first event held in the new Marktplatz building on the Wurstfest grounds.
In addition to the lost tourism revenue the festival usually brings to the city, area nonprofits that rely heavily on Wurstfest and other events for fundraising efforts lost a large source of annual income.
According to the Wurstfest Association, nonprofits generated $7.1 million in gross sales receipts during the 2019 festival, and organizations including United Way of Comal County make up more than 75% of vendors.
Terry Robinson, executive director of United Way of Comal County, said funding for the organization comes primarily from payroll deduction donations and events such as the Gruene Music and Wine Fest, which this year was hosted virtually.
“It is our single biggest fundraising event every year,” Robinson said.
In 2019, the event raised $165,035 for United Way, and this year $82,832 was raised virtually.
In preparation for 2021, some event planners are hopeful that celebrations will be able to take place, while others are more hesitant.
Bringing back the festivals
A key focus for city leaders remains bringing the area’s major festivals, fairs and events back, but many in local government, as well as festival and event planners, are exhibiting cautious optimism.
Planning for the Wurstfest 2021 is underway, and the festival is scheduled to be held Nov. 5-14, but the association declined to comment further about the celebration.
In an email, Jeff Jewell, director of economic and community development for the city of New Braunfels, shared that plans for the popular Wein and Saengerfest are moving forward tentatively, while planning for Wassailfest has yet to begin.
“In both cases we will rely on the advice of our public health professionals first and foremost,” Jewel wrote. “We certainly hope to be able to hold Wein and Sangerfest in 2021, but with the current situation and trends we are seeing, there is a reasonable chance that the event would not take place, at least not in its current form.”
Wimberley and the fair association are implementing changes to the fairgrounds ahead of the 2021 fair and have discussed hosting smaller events in the spring, depending on the state of the pandemic.
“We're doing a lot of stuff around here at the grounds just trying to make it more COVID[-19] friendly and hopefully have a bigger and better turnout next year, just because we didn't have one this year,” Wimberley said.
Many residents and business owners are hopeful that festivals and events will be able to return this year, though Robinson understands that limited capacity and virtual events will likely continue to be the norm for some time.
Those involved in the hospitality industry are also hopeful for a return of tourism to the city, as long as it can be done safely.
“I hope that fear will diminish and be replaced by an optimism, a hopefulness, that is moderated by caution,” Eager said. “I think there is great hope for a return to something similar to what we've had before. We just can't be reckless.”