To fully capitalize on summer, tourism industry stakeholders will need to adjust their strategies to win over tourist traffic and dollars within a shorter period of time.
More school districts have pushed their start dates up, trending away from what tourism industry stakeholders prefer and the historical norm, which is to start school after the federal holiday Labor Day. As a result, the industry loses out on tourist volume, staff and revenue.
More districts in Florida, Michigan, Illinois, North Carolina and New Jersey are requiring kids to come back earlier than their typical start dates. One big reason start dates are being pushed up is to make up for instructional time lost during the pandemic, said Harvard Graduate School of Education Henry Less Shattuck Professor of Education Martin West. Instructional time is essential to student success on standardized tests and other educational outcomes, he said.
“Families are booking with a shorter booking window,“ said Intrepid Travel North America General Manager Tom Smith. “We typically would have seen 6 to 8 months on average for family holidays, especially for international long haul. Families are more concerned about start dates than they were in the past.”
The earlier start date eats away at tourist traffic for destinations. “August is one of our top tourism months,” West Michigan Tourist Association Marketing Director Erin Murphy said. “As we start a little earlier into August, parents aren’t necessarily looking to take kids out within those first couple of weeks.”
States very often specify an opening deadline, and individual school districts set their own date within the timeframe. Some states have loopholes that allow districts to start earlier.
In Michigan, schools are mandated to start after Labor Day (the first Monday of September), but individual districts can request waivers to start earlier, which many more are now taking advantage of to start in August, said West Michigan Tourist Association’s Murphy.
Compared to years past, more school districts around the country are starting before Labor Day. About three-fourths of schools start in August, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. Schools essentially now decide summer ends in August, said Rene Mack, president of public relations and digital marketing agency Percepture who oversees many destination clients.
“The schools have certainly shifted when the school season starts and that’s their prerogative,” said Mack. “It’s also really wreaks havoc on your second largest industry in the U.S., which by many accounts is your travel and hospitality industry.”
The variety of school start dates can make vacation planning and coordination for families spread out across states and districts challenging. “If you are a couple of families that want to go away, you’d hope your kids are in the same school district,” said Intrepid Travel’s Smith. Families will forgo trips all together, reduce stay length and travel to closer destinations.
The tourism industry loses college-aged and teenage staff, many of whom leave their summer jobs or work fewer hours. “All of a sudden you can’t keep your amusement parks, water parks, restaurants open,” Percepture’s Mack said. “You don’t have the staff to do it,”
The younger customers also disappear. “Now that grammar schools and high schools are going earlier, your clientele isn’t going either,” Percepture’s Mack said.
Priori the pandemic, the tourism industry lobbied state governments to move school start dates to after Labor Day. With the industry’s backing, governors and lawmakers proposed bills to push start dates further out in New Hampshire, Maryland, Texas, Wisconsin and others.
“It’s very common for the tourism industries in states where that decision to argue that districts should be required to start school after Labor Day and end by a particular date in the Spring,” said Harvard’s West.
Some studies find extending summer brings millions in extra spending to the tourism industry. In New Hampshire, a 2018 commission submitted a report to the governor that concluded opening schools after Labor Day would increase tourism spending by over $14 million. When Michigan mandated schools open after Labor Day in 2006, the state saw more than $20 million in extra spending in 2007, according to Anderson Economic Group.
Moving the school start date, however, comes with costs for working parents. “To deny parents access to the custodial care schools provide in hopes that they will spend more money is really shortsighted on the overall needs of our economy,” said Katherine Goldstein, a public school mom and the creator of The Double Shift, a newsletter on socioeconomic issues for families.
For many families, the extra summer days won’t necessarily translate into more vacations. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could take the last few weeks of summer off to have a vacation?” said Goldstein. “One, we can’t afford that. Two, that’s just not the reality of work life in America.”
The longer summer would mean parents have to find affordable and consistent child care until school starts again. The child care industry has been “very stressed” from Covid, said Goldstein. Camps aren’t open all summer due to their staff going back to college, which opens earlier than public schools.
About a third of working parents with young children find it challenging to find child care, according to a 2021 poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
As school districts continue to start in August, Percepture’s Mack has advocated for moving Labor Day from the first Monday to the third Monday of September, when summer actually ends. Moving the federal day would continue to the summer season for a few more weeks, he said.
“Everywhere you’d get two or more three weekends of revenue, days at the beach, trolleys, wineries, museums,” Mack said. “You’re talking about billions of dollars that will be flooded back into the economies of a lot of places right now that need it.”
At the end of the day, what’s most important is ensuring instructional time does not decrease, said Harvard’s West. The distribution of breaks on the school calendar is up for debate.
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