The global pandemic has put a big hurt on hotels, restaurants and other businesses that depend on tourism visits to pay the bill.
But those businesses in and around Wilmington got a shot in the arm over the past week and leading up to the election of President-elect Joe Biden.
From news crews filling up local hotels to the thousands of Biden supporters who gathered in the city to celebrate on Saturday, “the spotlight is on Delaware, which is exciting,” said state Tourism Director Liz Keller. “It is exciting to see as a Delawarean, you’re watching from home and you’re seeing people that you know on CNN, so that was very exciting for all of us.”
The increase in visitors started in August when part of the Democratic National Convention was held at the Chase Center in Wilmington. In conjunction with that event and in the weeks leading up to Election Day, the tourism office provided extra materials offering information on where guests could go to explore in the area.
As the votes were counted, reporters from around the world spent days beaming pictures of Wilmington to a global news audience. While Keller didn’t have an exact estimate, the tourism office says it would have cost the state millions of dollars to reach that same audience.
“The state tourism office has limited funds for advertising,” Keller said.
The ad budget is about $500,000 per year and is generated via a fee added on to hotel stays. With COVID-19 limiting visitors, that fee revenue has been much smaller.
“But now we have national attention we simply, as a state tourism office, can’t buy,” she said.
In previous weeks, Wilmington-area hotels had been about 20% full, but as the election approached, Keller said hotel occupancy jumped up to 60% and even as high as 100% at some facilities.
“At a time when the tourism economy really needed a boost, they are receiving that with Biden’s headquarters here in Wilmington,” she said.
Hotels and restaurants that had been bemoaning a lack of business earlier in the year told Keller the election crowds made it feel like “business as usual” again.
Now the challenge is keeping up that interest post-election.
“It’s kind of the million dollar question right now,” Keller said. “We’re starting to compile our list of historic moments in the state, and then hidden gems as well. That’s not only to visit Delaware history sites, but also sites that are tied to the Biden history.”
Those sites could include the Air Mobility Command Museum in Dover which has dozens of planes on display including the VC-9 jet dubbed Air Force Two when it was used by Vice Presidents Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle.
The original Capriotti’s sub shop on Union Street in Wilmington could make the list too. “The best sandwich in America is out of Wilmington,” Biden said in 2013 at the grand opening of a Capriotti’s franchise in Washington, D.C. when he was VP.
“I’m bringing one back for the president,” Biden said. “No more of this stuff about Chicago and Philly and New York. This settles it.”
A number of locations in Delaware that have been renamed to honor Biden could also be on that list. In 2011, the Wilmington Amtrak station Biden frequented was renamed in his honor. His name also now adorns the state welcome center on I-95 near the border with Maryland. In 2017, the City of Wilmington renamed the pool at Brown Burton Winchester Park, where a young Biden once worked as a lifeguard, as the Joseph R. Biden Jr. Aquatic Center.
Keller expects the “Biden effect” on state tourism to have a lasting impact. It could even grow after Biden leaves office thanks to the possible construction of a presidential library here.
“There’s one more tourism attraction to add to our discoveries that could bring a couple more 100,000 visitors per year.”