For anyone who walked through San Francisco’s empty downtown, had an all-too-clear convention calendar or missed the tell-tale ring of cable cars this past year, the pandemic’s ripple effects were swift and shocking in a city that welcomed more than 26 million visitors in 2019, and counts on international travelers for 63 percent of its visitor spending each year. That’s the highest percentage of any city in the United States, notes Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of San Francisco Travel. A longtime resident with North Beach roots that run deep, D’Alessandro, who received the 2020 Destination Organization Leadership Award from Destinations International for his community impact and contributions to the industry, has been guiding SF Travel’s involvement in the City’s reopening and recovery. The Gazette reached out to him recently to get his take on travel and tourism in a rebounding city. Two of the things he’s most looking forward to? “The Moscone Center reopening to conventions this fall, as convention delegates will help power the City’s economic recovery” and “returning to our large festivals and events that San Francisco is so well known for around the world.” In the meantime, he encourages visitors — and locals alike — to explore.
1 I understand that your grandparents emigrated to San Francisco and you moved here as an adult from Sacramento. How has the City changed the most since then?
What is still quintessentially “San Francisco” to you? San Francisco has always been evolving. When my grandparents arrived in 1909, it was a much different city than it is today. They lived in North Beach, and it really was an Italian community. People spoke Italian in the shops, on the streets and in the parks. I moved here in 2006 and lived in the Castro — that neighborhood was changing, too. It is healthy for a city to evolve versus being stuck in one moment in time. However, San Francisco maintains an essence and culture that is unique to the world. That San Francisco spirit makes it an amazing place. Of course, the natural beauty and culinary excellence just enhances it.2 We’ve also been hearing a lot about the silver linings of this past year and a half. Has there been a silver lining for tourism — typically the number one sector in the City’s economy that brought in over $10 billion in 2019?
No industry was hit harder globally than the travel industry, but even for us, there are some silver linings. For example, the increase of outdoor dining experiences is adding a lot of life into our neighborhood business districts. Outdoor performances and activities have also increased. Hopefully, these will be permanent changes.3 Do you foresee any shifts in domestic travel versus international, or leisure travel versus business?
Yes, domestic leisure travel will be the first to return and we’re already seeing it. Business travel and international visitation will be much slower to return. We have already begun to change our marketing strategies to focus more on the markets that will likely generate the most visitors over the next couple of years. Those will likely include domestic leisure travel and short-term meetings and events.4 What does travel in 2021 and going forward mean to you?
There is no question that travel will rebound. There is an incredible amount of pent-up demand globally for travel. People consider travel to be an essential priority in their lives. There may be some hesitation in the beginning, but I anticipate that travel will exceed pre-pandemic levels in the next few years.5 While we’re waiting for downtown to come back, are there other areas of the City/ neighborhoods you’re encouraging visitors to explore?
Since the pandemic, we have been putting an enhanced emphasis on outdoor activities and neighborhoods. Our iconic experiences are still here for visitors, but we want people to also explore parts of the City and experiences that may not be familiar to them. This will help spread the economic impacts of tourism throughout the City and hopefully encourage visitors to stay longer.