A global pandemic has not stopped tourism in Franklin County.
“It’s just been greatly reduced,” said David Rotenizer, the county’s director of tourism.
“Someone traveling the county along (U.S.) 220, (Virginia) 40 or another route happens to stop for gas, a meal or some form of permitted retail sales – that is technically tourism,” Rotenizer said. “The launch of the tourism season has not really started in full yet. As spring arrives and the weather warms, travelers who seek Franklin County as a destination would normally be hitting the area in force.”
Due to the closings of primary county assets, including Booker T. Washington National Monument, the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum and Harvester Performance Center – which Rotenizer considers likely the strongest generator of inbound travel in the off-season – Franklin County communities have seen a decrease in revenues.
That inbound travel “helps to fuel the local economy through meals, lodging, and sales taxes and through supporting local jobs,” Rotenizer said. “The marinas and retail in Smith Mountain Lake have seen off-season activity decline as well. Tourism is about more than just attractions. It’s also about small businesses. The No. 1 activity for travelers is shopping.”
Rotenizer said the county is collaborating through a COVID-19 Task Force coordinated by the Department of Public Safety. The task force involves all county departments and constitutional offices, the towns of Rocky Mount and Boones Mill and various state and regional agencies.
A Franklin County Small Business Task Force was established at the onset of the emergency with representation from the two towns, the Franklin Center, the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Office of Economic Development and Franklin County Tourism.
“A result of these task forces is communication, collaboration and mutual support,” Rotenizer said. “A landing page was created for the county website as resources are known and become available. We want to support our businesses and make sure they are aware of resources and help that is available. We are all in this together.”
One industry bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic is the local bed and breakfast industry.
Amy Worley Vann, owner of The Claiborne House in Rocky Mount, said they are technically open with responsible social distancing practices, but have only had one couple visit since mid-March.
“Our business is driven by the tourism to Franklin and Henry counties and off of the Blue Ridge Parkway,” she said. “Due to the cancellations of graduations, the Martinsville races and weddings, we have definitely felt the lack of guests.”
Vann said she has minimized contact between owners and guests by using self-check-in methods and allowing guests to show themselves to their rooms.
“We used to always greet our guests, show them to their rooms and host a big breakfast in the dining room where everyone gathered,” she said. “This has changed.”
Vann said the rooms have not changed, but the focus is on keeping them clean and sanitized has, to ensure guests are safe.
“The details and the feeling of being at home is the heart of a bed and breakfast,” Vann said. “Our new normal may be getting the guests outside more – enjoying our garden or fire pit, rocking on the porch or using the outdoor kitchen. Hopefully our family can show those out of town guests that a small town is good for the soul.”
Early Inn at the Grove co-owner Bryan Hochstein said his bed and breakfast has seen only four guests since Virginia’s stay-at-home order was enacted.
“All guests stayed on different days and had the place to themselves,” Hochstein said. “There was a local couple just needing a night away from home, followed by two guests on business. We’ve been using the down time to clean, declutter and disinfect.”
Early Inn is also practicing social distancing, conducting meetings by reservation and rescheduling weddings and other events.
All employees have been furloughed until customers are allowed back on a regular basis.
“My employees’ reaction to the pandemic has been the most uplifting,” Hochstein said. “We don’t know what the future holds, but they’ve all displayed incredible poise and character. This is a very tough business climate for us, but they’ve shown me that no matter how bleak it may seem, you just have to have faith that there are better days ahead. June 10 (the scheduled lifting of Virginia’s stay-at-home order) can’t come soon enough.”
Rotenizer said it has been “remarkable” to observe the business adaptation to the changed business climate.
“This is most apparent within the Franklin County craft beverage industry – the craft breweries and distilleries in particular,” he said. “The Smith Mountain Lake chamber hosted a virtual business after hours. The Rocky Mount Burger Company has been hosting virtual social fun games. And we had an unexpected event attract national attention when Twin Creeks Distillery distilled hand sanitizer – now how cool was that? It goes on and on with the human spirit of ingenuity.”