CLARION - "There seems to be a light at the end of COVID-tunnel," Pennsylvania Great Outdoors Executive Director John Straitiff said recently. "There will be things to do this summer. The late winter and early spring will be a little slow.
"We are seeing things pick up as we roll into the traditional travel season."
The Pennsylvania Great Outdoors tourist promotion region includes Cameron, Clarion, Elk, Forest and Jefferson counties.
"We are seeing a lot of events now in the planning stage. Fairs and festivals seem to be, for the most part, planning to go this year unless things change," said Straitiff. "Of course the virus casts a shadow over everything. Everyone is hedging their bets.
"They are holding back on scheduling entertainment. After April 1 I believe you will see the fairs rolling out what their acts are going to be. Everything is running a few months behind."
Straitiff said that last year everyone pretty much shut down most events with only a few exceptions.
"At this point it seems most events are going full speed ahead if they scheduled for April and May and beyond. Through March it is pretty slim," he said. "One thing we are not hearing anything about is the DCNR (Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) programs."
Straitiff said the parks cancelled their winter events and PAGO have heard nothing about any of their summer programs.
"They seem to have placed a moratorium on events for now," explained Straitiff. "The same thing for the Allegheny National Forest."
The spread of the virus in 2020 led to the cancellation of events from county fairs to plays. That might have actually aided the region.
"2020 was a lean year for events but not a lean year for (people) coming to this region," said Straitiff. "We are blessed to have so many state forests and the Allegheny National Forest. People can social distance outdoors. Our cabin rental places actually had a banner year. The cabin owners are still seeing higher than average demand in January, February and March of this year.
"The demand for summer and fall bookings is already way ahead of where it should be."
The early indications are for that trend to continue.
"We just introduced our welcome guide for 2021 and we had 1,000 requests in the first week" said Straitiff. "The Jefferson County Recreation map just came out and we had over 250 requests before lunch.
"Anything that has to do with trails, either water, cycling or hiking trails, is in incredibly high demand. That seems to be where vacation will be this year."
Straitiff explained there is an incredible pent up demand.
"We can see it in the requests for information we receive," said Straitiff. "They are telling us as soon as the weather breaks we are coming. From everything I am reading, in 2021 and 2022 outdoor vacations will be red hot.
"Kayak purchases across the country are booming. You can go out on a river or a lake and get away from people."
The trend is translating into the sale of outdoor equipment.
"RV sales and bicycle sales are incredibly strong. Outdoor gear, anything related to getting out of the four walls you have been confined to is working very, very well," Straitiff said. "My hope is that people will come here and realize this is fun and keep coming back.
"Every business that was outdoor-oriented had a very good year."
Straitiff acknowledged there was a tremendous downside, though, too.
"My heart aches for our members who were in the restaurant business," Straitiff said. "They have been through hell in the past year. I fear that when the seasonal restaurants open, not all the signs will turn to open. I fear we will see some closures."
For a tourist promotion agency like PAGO, planning has been tricky.
"We are focusing more on the outdoors," said Straitiff. "We are urging people to come and paddle the Clarion River, go see the Elk, we are focusing on the hot button right now and that is the outdoors. That is one thing our five counties have in spades."
Not every region in the state has the resources available here.
"When I talk to my counterparts in Allegheny County or Dauphin County, they are not nearly as blessed as we are," said Straitiff. "They have large hotels but not cabins. Amusement parks are definitely down. We were one of the few areas that had a pretty good summer and fall. We are above average in the number of visitors."
The tourist promotion agencies derive their income form a tax placed on every room rented in their region. The travel ban during the second quarter of 2020 hurt that income source.
"We were able to cancel advertising and reset plans," said Straitiff. "We learned we could do a lot through a social media platform. We learned how to make social media work for us. We have introduced daily promotions on our site.
"Pittsburgh is our number one market due to the proximity to our area. People from Ohio and New York have to go by the rules on getting in and out of their states. With those restrictions that meant that most of our guests were Pennsylvanians."
Straitiff anticipated that will be the same case this year.
"We are fortunate; the Clarion and Allegheny rivers are still there and still flowing," said Straitiff. "The outdoors has become our saving grace. It is what everyone is craving.
"The sun, wind and nature are what we have in the Great Outdoors region."