Newport ‘Speaks Up’ About the Future of Retail and Tourism

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The panelists at the Speak Up Newport meeting on June 10

How will we shop, dine and travel in Newport Beach as coronavirus restrictions are relaxed?

That was the topic of the June 10 Speak Up Newport meeting held virtually via Zoom.

A panel of local experts discussed the current pandemic restrictions and how retailers, service and dining establishments, and the travel industry will respond as these businesses begin to reopen.

The panel consisted of Steve Rosansky, CEO of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce; Gary Sherwin, president and CEO  of Visit Newport Beach; Jim Walker, board member of the Newport Beach Restaurant Association, and Mario Marovic, owner of The Lounge Group with five restaurants in Newport Beach.

The meeting was hosted by Speak Up Newport President Ed Selich, a former mayor of Newport Beach. The emcee was Speak Up Newport bord member Rush Hill, also a former Newport Beach mayor.

Hill introduced Steve Rosansky, who gave a summary of the business climate in Newport Beach and how some businesses are preparing to reopen while others have called it quits.

“We have seen some businesses go out of business” due to the pandemic, said Rosansky. “Some major retailers are not reopening. Stores that are reopening have to deal with industry guidelines that the State of California has been putting out that cover retail, restaurants, schools, museums. Everything has reopening guidelines, and these are quite substantial—things businesses should do to protect their customers and employees.”

Next up was Gary Sherwin, who stated that he had just received information that Disneyland would reopen on July 17. Even with the expected reduced capacity, Sherwin said it was good news for Anaheim, and for Newport Beach.

Sherwin said the current downturn in Newport Beach tourism is “our George Bailey moment from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ We’re finding out what it’s like to live without tourism in Newport Beach.”

Sherwin said that going into 2020, Newport Beach was having one of its best years. In March, the hotels were at 80 percent occupancy. Two weeks later, 30 percent. By the end of March, it was less than 10 percent.

“It’s a historic drop like we have never seen. This pandemic has been horrific” for the tourism industry, said Sherwin. One big challenge to recovery is the meetings and conventions business, which is “our bread and butter. That business has evaporated, and we don’t expect it to come back until 2021.”

What is coming back are tourists within what Sherwin called the “drive market,” or those who will drive to Newport Beach from nearby counties.

“The drive market will be our salvation to get us through this,” said Sherwin. “We are starting an aggressive campaign to market Newport Beach as a successful drive destination. We are coming back to life. We have our beaches, our lifestyle, the harbor. Even in a pandemic, we are in position to survive this better than most places. We will survive.”

Jim Walker, co-owner of The Bungalow Restaurant in Corona del Mar and a member of the Newport Beach Restaurant Association, noted that “this has been a different way of running a restaurant that I have never experienced.” He said he has put into place a long list of pandemic-influenced changes, including taking the temperature of all staff, adding hand sanitizer stations throughout the restaurant, sanitizing tables between guests, having staff wear masks, and cleaning the restaurant from top to bottom.

“We have changed our way of doing business dramatically,” explained Walker. “We have gotten a lot of support for the community. Business is good, but we don’t know how long this is going to last. People like that they have a place to go. We are glad to be open.”

Mario Marovec, who owns five restaurant and bars in Newport Beach including The Stag Bar, Malarky’s and Helmsman Ale House, said he had to furlough most of his employees. He tried doing take-out but was losing money.

“The feeling was dismal,” said Marovec.  “We needed a payroll protection program loan. We spent hundreds of staff hours with bankers” until finally getting funded. He brought back employees or hired new ones. He had to deep clean all restaurants, modify hours, restock kitchen. It was almost like starting from scratch.

Rush Hill took emailed questions, including one that asked about fundamental changes the pandemic will bring.

“It will change our perspective on social distancing, and things we take for granted like being together,” said Walker.”

“The new normal will last forever,” added Rosansky. “Certain things will not go back to how they were. The best thing people can do right now is to shop local.”

“We will have a difficult road this year, but a vaccine will restore confidence,” said Sherwin. “In the meantime, we have to muddle on. I think 2020 is a lost year. By next year we will be back on our feet in a much better way.”

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