In January 1991, the borough council in Manasquan, N.J., established a tourism committee tasked with drawing visitors to the sleepy shore town with its mile of beaches and quaint Main Street.
The committee’s formation came on the heels of what was known as “the Syringe Tide” of 1987 and 1988. Medical waste, including a number of syringes, repeatedly washed up on the shores of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Beaches closed and businesses suffered. The town needed a boost.
That committee became the Manasquan Tourism Commission, a volunteer body still in existence today. Like the rest of the world, the commission has been grappling with how to deal with the coronavirus crisis.
I’ve been on the commission since 2012, the year Superstorm Sandy devastated our area. This year, as co-vice chair, I’ve been heavily involved in its response to Covid-19. It’s struck me that the decisions we’ve faced are something of a microcosm of those facing the travel industry as a whole.
We normally hold a number of events each year. Of course, many were completely off the table from the get-go. For example, it would be nearly impossible to adequately socially distance at the Inlet Celebration, which traditionally packs the street next to the Manasquan Inlet with classic cars, food, vendors and a beer garden.
But some of our usual events seemed doable, especially early on in the pandemic. Surely, we could hold Thursday night beach concerts, with their smaller crowds. Fireworks displays are on the beach, where people could spread out.
As the pandemic progressed, though, it became clear that not only were the number of cases rising, but simultaneously people were champing at the bit for any sort of entertainment, and we feared that crowds would become too large to control safely. We canceled everything; it seemed like the right thing to do.
It was no surprise that we received a lot of feedback — positive and negative — from visitors and locals alike. But our decision was affirmed after an outbreak affected local beach and recreation department employees in July.
This pandemic is hard. Our businesses are suffering mightily. I know I’m preaching to the choir: Travel agencies are hurting big-time, too.
It seems like the only thing we can do now is wait for a vaccine or better treatment options, while practicing good pandemic etiquette, like proper mask-wearing.
For the travel industry writ large, that proved to be true when several small ships that had begun cruising experienced presumed Covid outbreaks. Hurtigruten, one of the lines, temporarily suspended all expedition sailings, which CEO Daniel Skjeldam described as “the only responsible choice.”
While we wait, though, I see hope that the travel agency community will emerge on the other side, ready to serve travelers in a time when travel advisors will be more necessary than ever.
A number of advisors have taken on temporary jobs in the interim, in grocery stores or selling homemade masks. They don’t intend to keep them, but it will get them through the pandemic.
I also see hope coming from new ideas that will strengthen the channel. Signature Travel Network CEO Alex Sharpe, for instance, is on a mission to work with suppliers to get at least part of commission payments in agencies’ pockets closer to the time of booking than the time of travel. It would be a boon when it comes to cash flow, especially in situations like the pandemic.
Right now, we have to wait. But once we get to the other side, we’ll hold fireworks again, bigger and better than ever.