By Sophia Thé — Guest Writer
San Bernardino County (SBC) attracts millions of visitors and tourists every year. Despite a deadly global pandemic, rising political tension and an unpredictable stock market, SBC tourism has shown ongoing resilience compared to pre COVID-19 life. Interestingly, and given a healthy combination of business mix and ‘drive-to’ destinations, tourism in certain parts of SBC continued to grow despite the pandemic.
As the largest county in the United States, San Bernardino County stretches across the golden state of California from the eastern border of Los Angeles County, through the mountains of Big Bear to the Mojave Desert. Its vast 20,000 mile area is spread across 24 diverse cities in the heart of southern California, and bordered by the states of Nevada and Arizona.
The County includes a balanced mix of leisure, business and group related tourism demand. On the transient side, national parks, music festivals, and destination resorts are coupled with a quickly growing business community that includes pandemic-resilient industries such as logistics, defense, and aerospace. Before the pandemic, Ontario International airport was one of the fastest growing airports in the nation by number of travelers.
Since the turn of the century, San Bernardino County has been growing exponentially in all sectors. Tourism spending reached $5.3 billion in 2018, employing over 55,500 workers, as indicated on the county website. Prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic, SBC hotels occupancy trailed Orange County and San Diego County by only 7% and 5%, respectively, as reported by Smith Travel Research (STR).
The County provides a good example of how focused political leadership can drive positive results. The diversification of business, coupled with ‘drive-to’ accessibility of local resorts, and the strength of the logistics sector powered by the three international logistics airports continued to get ‘heads in beds’. Per STR, when compared to all other SoCal Counties, SBC closed 2020 as the leader in hotel occupancy at 59%, followed by its neighbor Riverside County at 50.8%. Total room revenue in SBC declined 21.5% from 2019, versus San Diego County and Los Angeles County where revenue decreased 53.7% and 52.6%, respectively. Interestingly, while occupancy decreased from 2019, total available room inventory increased by 0.7%.
Freddy Bi, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Inland Empire Tourism Council, points to proactive local political leadership driving a healthy Chain Segment mix in San Bernardino County as a leading cause for business resilience: “Hotels in the Inland Empire are well positioned, with inventory that is in the economy to upper midscale hotel segments and limited inventory in upper upscale – which enabled the region to absorb the impacts of COVID-19.” Due to the industrial makeup of the region, unbelievable demand in manufacturing and logistics helped to sustain the market, and the reduction in corporate travel was quickly replaced by new demand to house frontline workers in response to COVID-19.”
The pandemic highlighted the unrivaled resilience of the hotel industry in SBC. Recent national press highlighted a consumer shift to outdoor drive-to destinations and, logically thinking, between Joshua Tree, Big Bear Lake, Lake Arrowhead, San Bernardino National Forest, and the Mojave National Preserve there are thousands of miles of fresh air and beautiful landscapes that attract both summer and winter clientele.
According to Visit California Data, from January 2020 to January 2021, customer demand for hotels in the Inland Empire only changed -4.1%, a very small decline when compared to areas like Los Angeles and Orange County that saw -43.5% and -58.6% decreases in hotel demand respectively. The average hotel demand decline in California during this time period is -41.5% These data reveal that not only is San Bernardino doing better, it’s also doing 37.4% better than the rest of the state.
Nevertheless, the reality is not uniform throughout the County. While some cities that depended on convention business saw a double-digit decrease in hotel revenue, STR reported Colton, Redlands, and Hesperia closing 2020 as the top performers with 7.1%, 3.4%, and 3% revenue increases from 2019. As an additional point of interest, Hesperia, a town located at the edge of the ‘mountain path’ and adjacent to Joshua Tree and the Mojave Desert, had its hotels increase Average Daily Rate (ADR) by over 7% from 2019. Even before the pandemic, the economy of Hesperia has been steadily increasing. Per DataUSA, from 2014 to 2018 there was a 17.3% increase in median household income in Hesperia, and a 21.3% increase in median home value. This is just one example of a local community that should be considered by investors given recent data.
Rhonesia Perry, Economic Development, County of San Bernardino and Board Chair for Inland Empire Tourism Council, is proud of the collaborative work that the County, the cities, hotel owners, and tourism stakeholders in the region: “It is a testament to the great community of professionals we have in our hotels and at venues throughout the county that the community was able to pivot and work together; as many individuals in the hospitality industry employed.” While we have a long way to recovery, the numbers speak for themselves on the long term potential that hotel owners and investors have in our region.”
Coincidentally, or maybe not, all SBC cities that performed at or above 2019 hotel occupancy have a strong Opportunity Zone (OZ) presence, which introduces an even higher incentive for investor attraction. According to data provided by Esri, of the more than 2 million residents of SBC, over 330k live in OZs and have a median household income of $35.7k. Approximately 68% of the OZ population is Hispanic origin and 12% are Black, versus the general SBC population which is 55% Hispanic Origin and 8% Black. Another interesting metric is the population median age being 28 in the OZs, vs 33 in the larger County.
The county counts 57 qualified Opportunity Zones census tracts, spread throughout 15 cities and the unincorporated areas. In line with the general County, diversification is a recurring theme in the local OZs as well, with local industries such as cannabis and film production, in addition to world class medical research at Loma Linda and defense production in the high desert. Virgin Train, the Boring Company, Coca Cola, and Blackstone are just some of the companies that invest large checks in local opportunities.
The strength of the local real estate market coupled with a business friendly local government is assumed to result in increased future demand in hotel investment. Unlike many other markets, where the cost to build (replacement cost) per room could be above market average, San Bernardino may remain an attractive place for ground-up construction given the ongoing availability of undeveloped land and access to talented labor. Governor Newsom’s focus on California’s inland counties coupled with the long list of over 300 State and Federal incentives and loans for OZ projects will enable smart investors to leverage the current economy to invest in truly distressed communities, creating good hotel jobs while achieving attractive long-term financial returns.
Contributed by Sophia Thé, Local Equity, an Economic Development Organization specialized in Opportunity Zone Investments, Ontario, California.