Planning for the return of visitors

Until indoor dining is an option, the outdoor dining on Catalina remains a popular option. Photo by Andrew Ficke

Island groups discuss plans for helping Catalina make a comeback

With the lifting of the most recent stay-at-home order from Governor Gavin Newsom, individual counties and cities are looking to reopen businesses, albeit with some limitations still in place. For Catalina, the reopening of businesses and tourism opportunities has become even more vital than before.

On Jan. 21, several key stakeholders participated in an online conference to discuss upcoming plans and preparations already taken to begin bringing back visitor revenue to the island. Hosted by Love Catalina Island, the Catalina Island Tourism Authority, the presentations included Greg and Amanda Bombard, Catalina Island Company CEO Geoff Rusack, Catalina Island Conservancy CEO Tony Budrovich and Love Catalina Island CEO Jim Luttjohann.

Since the COVID-19 shutdown, Catalina has suffered some obvious economic problems, but the overall tone of the conference was that of optimism. Despite the hole the pandemic has put the island in, the impact could have been worse and with experience travel destinations like Catalina are finding better ways to plan and draw visitors.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Luttjohan said.

After suffering through stay-at-home restrictions, people are anxious to get out of their homes. Yet, concerns about long trips that require air travel, for example, people are looking for destinations closer to home and are willing to drive farther to get there, Luttjohan said. Those shorter trips are likely to include Catalina, just a shot boat ride from the mainland. Cruise ships are also going through Centers for Disease Control training and preparation which puts the return of cruise ship business on the horizon.

“There is a strong desire to travel, when it is safe to do so,” Luttjohan said.

For those visiting the island by commuter boat, Greg Bombard President/CEO of Catalina Express, said Catalina Express has learned from experience how to prepare and handle the cross-channel traffic. He said the company still has 95 people on furlough and as they bring them back they have recurring training. He said operating at limited capacity is also challenge.

“We all know that the pandemic has brought a lot of issues.

However, he noted that the Express crew are now more familiar in dealing with the challenges. He said the team is getting regular training on any new policies and procedures. The company is maintaining cleaning and sanitizing procedures and evaluating when it might be necessary to move into larger vessels and increase departures to meet increasing needs.

Currently, the Love Catalina website has kept an updated listing of island restaurants that are open and offering takeout. As the restrictions are eased and outdoor dining again returns, island businesses and restaurants are urged to update their information on the website and other online media. Amanda Bombard said that people are interested in coming to Catalina, are searching for what is open and available.

“People want to get out, but they want to stay close,” Amanda said.

Rusack piggybacked on that idea, noting that although Catalina is close to the mainland, when people visit there is a feeling of being somewhere unique.

“People come over to Catalina and they think they’re in a different place,” Rusack said.

As the pandemic subsides, vaccines get delivered and restrictions are loosened, Catalina plans for a return to normal. Those who sat in on the conference are optimistic that the island can bounce back. Love Catalina Vice President of Marketing and Sales, Cathy Miller said that the test of COVID tested everyone on the island, but that some valuable information was gained. Dave Stevenson, Marketing Chair for Love Catalina, noted that it was learned that people like the islands prime product – the great outdoors.

“We learned that our customers really like outdoor dining,” Stevenson said.

Budrovich said that as a non-profit, the Catalina Island Conservancy uses more fringe marketing techniques, but that they have been reaching out to travel groups and boating and yacht groups with Zoom meetings to promote the island. He also noted that the conservancy has several potential projects to make power and road improvements, that will be vital in keeping those outdoor experiences available and viable.

“Sustainability is important for Catalina Island,” Budrovich said.