Newport Beach & Co. CEO Gary Sherwin Talks Tourism Amid COVID-19

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Beach near Newport Pier

Ask anyone in Newport Beach what our city’s main draws are, and they’ll likely respond with one of three answers: the beach, shopping, and restaurants.

Together, they spell Tourism, the chief economic engine that drives the city’s economy. Unfortunately, thanks to restrictions brought about by the coronavirus, that engine has run out of gas.

Beaches are open for recreational use but not sunbathing, most shops are shuttered, and restaurants are relegated to offering take-out cuisine. Tourism in Newport Beach is at a standstill.

Gary Sherwin

“This is the tourism industry’s George Baily moment,” said Newport Beach & Co. CEO Gary Sherwin, referring to the main character in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “We’re discovering what life is like without tourism. It isn’t pretty. Like in the movie, you look at what the void is, and in Newport Beach it’s pretty devastating. Without visitors the economy is suffering; it will have an impact on quality of life in the city.”

Sherwin noted that restaurants operate on thin profit margins and wonders how many will survive. Retail is right behind restaurants. Hotels, normally filling up this time of year, are also suffering, and many have temporarily closed.

“We were at 80 percent hotel occupancy in February, and by the end of March we were down to 30 percent occupancy,” said Sherwin. “It’s the biggest drop ever in our city and across the nation. We have three major properties open: Lido House, Marriott, and Pelican Hill. Everyone else is shut down and will be for several months. Even hotels that are open are at single digit occupancy. It’s a devastating blow. It’s going to take a while to dig out.”

There is a silver lining, said Sherwin.

“We are better positioned than most cities to come out of this. We have a population base of 20 million people we can draw from. When we get back from all this, people may not want to get on an airplane anytime soon, and that helps us with our drive market. We were able to do the same thing in the great recession. In the meantime, it’s an unimaginable economic disaster.”

Sherwin said the community needs to develop a unified strategy for recovery, because “once we have the all clear signal, we have a lot of work we have to do. What kind of an economy are we going to have, a recession or depression. That will have an impact on how fast and what programs we implement.”

Another factor in Newport’s favor, said Sherwin, is that there is a pent-up demand to get out of the house.

Tourists prepare to leave the Balboa Ferry for the Fun Zone.
— NB Indy file photo

“We know people want to get on with their lives,” he said. “If they don’t have as much of an income and they don’t want to spend a lot of money, they can get out and enjoy the beach, or do other things that are not super expensive. Even though we’ll be suffering, we’ll still be Newport Beach, we’ll still have a lot of appeal. The things that make us unique and wonderful will still be there.”

Because Sherwin acknowledges that the coronavirus could still be with us for some time, there needs to be standards of cleanliness. “Visitors want to make sure we are trying everything we can to keep everyone safe.”

While it is difficult to tell people you cannot visit Newport Beach right now, Sherwin has ways to keep our town top of mind.

Newport Beach & Co. has developed numerous online components that celebrate Newport Beach, from virtual city tours to Newport-centric music playlists to a list of films featured in previous Newport Beach Film Festivals.

“As a community, the way to come out of this is to have a community-minded spirit—coming together and thinking differently, collaborating and building partnerships,” said Sherwin. “We need to be strong going forward, almost in a patriotic sense. We have to rebuild our business community. It will take every one of us to do it.”

Visit the Newport Beach Virtual Vacation page at https://www.visitnewportbeach.com/newport-beach-virtual-vacation.

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