Newport sees brighter summer with large-scale events returning

Updated at 1:01 p.m. on March 22, 2021.

LARGE-SCALE EVENTS, such as the Newport Folk Festival, pictured, could help the city of Newport have a brighter summer after the COVID-19 pandemic significantly hampered the city's economy last year. / COURTESY DOUG MASON
LARGE-SCALE EVENTS, such as the Newport Folk Festival, pictured, could help the city of Newport have a brighter summer after the COVID-19 pandemic significantly hampered the city's economy last year. / COURTESY DOUG MASON

NEWPORT – During the state’s March 18 COVID-19 press conference, R.I. Commerce Corp. Secretary Stefan Pryor opened the door for large-scale events to occur this summer in the state after being prohibited last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Daniel J. McKee further emphasized that point by saying that there will be music in Newport this summer, signaling the return of both the Newport Folk and Jazz festivals.

But for the City by the Sea, it isn’t just welcoming back world-renowned musicians and music lovers to Fort Adams State Park that brings music to the city’s ears. It’s a sign that Newport will be, for the most part, on an economic rebound after a difficult summer in 2020.

Discover Newport CEO and President Evan Smith told Providence Business News that the city’s economy, which is supported by three key elements – large events, weddings, and conferences and group meetings – took a significant blow last summer. Total revenue between all three sectors, including weddings in which it is a $50 million-per-year industry in the city, was down 45% in 2020 compared to 2019, Smith said.

Additionally, lodging in a city that has high-end waterfront hotels was down approximately 25%, Smith said, and attractions, such as visits to the city’s prominent mansions on Bellevue Avenue, were down about 80% in the summer of 2020.

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The International Tennis Hall of Fame’s budget took about a 75% hit with the museum being closed for a period of time and the annual Hall of Fame Open tennis tournament being canceled last summer, Hall of Fame Open Tournament Director Brewer Rowe told PBN Monday. When the museum did reopen, it was only at a 20-person capacity per hour, he said, and the hall of fame had a 30% reduction in its workforce, as well.

“[The pandemic] was detrimental to the organization for sure,” Rowe said. “It was a tough year.”

Even though The Breakers and The Elms mansions were among the first museum attractions in the state to reopen June 4, The Preservation Society of Newport County experienced both highs and lows during the pandemic. Preservation Society CEO Trudy Coxe said Monday that about 250,000 people took tours since July. The society, in recent years, offers about a million tours annually.

But, Coxe said the society’s new “Stroll the Gardens” outdoor tours that began over last summer attracted close to 20,000 people to keep the society active.

Smith said event planners in the city have been monitoring the COVID-19 data from the state for months and have been “cautiously optimistic” that the city’s event schedule will remain on track for event licenses to be issued in the third quarter. Now, with vaccines being rolled out to the public and the prospects of large-scale events returning to fruition in Rhode Island, consumer confidence could start to increase and lead to more people traveling to the city for summer experiences.

“We were very worried that things would get postponed further. But the fact that they’re staying on target to move in the third quarter is extremely exciting for every here in the hospitality industry,” Smith said. “Regardless of the reason people are traveling again, just getting people mobile again and getting people traveling again is going to have sweeping effects on our economy.”

Smith also said increased tourism for larger events will have a trickle-down effect on the local restaurants and shops in the city, which were also severely hampered by a lack of tourists in Newport due to the pandemic.

However, Smith said the city’s economy won’t turn back to completely normal this summer. He expects that the city’s events revenue will still be down compared to 2019, but at about 15% to 20%, and predicts that 2022 will see Newport’s economy return to pre-pandemic levels.

“Each consecutive month, our expectation is you’ll see single-digit growth in travel-related revenues as each month brings growth in the consumer confidence index,” Smith said. “It will be a year and a quarter of severe damage to the industry, but you’re going to see week over week, month over month, quarter over quarter improvements of the stats.”

The events, themselves, will have a different feel. Smith said the events will operate this summer at lower attendance levels and all operating in a hybrid fashion. For example, the city’s first large event of the summer, the Preservation Society’s “Back in Bloom” flower show at Rosecliff, set for June 18-20, will have about 600 attendees per day for the three-day event.

Coxe said the society is working with the state to better understand the health guidelines in order to plan out for specific elements of their events. But, Coxe is optimistic on this summer’s activity based on hearing from some board members that they plan on purchasing tables for upcoming events.

Coxe also said the society did away with all of its audio equipment that it would hand out to people for tours and now asks people to download an app to hear the audio tours on their phones or tablets.

In an emailed statement, Newport Festivals Foundation Executive Director Jay Sweet said the foundation is thrilled to be bringing music artists back to Fort Adams State Park for the Folk and Jazz festivals, although the festivals “won’t look exactly the same.” Sweet also said the foundation is working with the state and local health officials to ensure that what’s presented to the public “is a benchmark for safety and transparency through the protocols and communications.”

Questions about what the foundation’s early plans are as to what the festivals will look like this summer were not immediately answered, although the statement said more details will be shared “very soon.”

Rowe said that the hall of fame submitted to the city its event permit, per Newport requirement, to hold the Hall of Fame Open July 11-18 and is expecting to move forward with the event.

Rowe said the planned capacity for the tennis events will be at 1,500 people, or 50%, in order to protect the health and safety of those involved, including the players. He said tournament organizers are still talking with city and state health officials to finalize safety details, but there will be temperature checks and screenings for all fans coming onto the property.

The induction ceremony that is held the same week as the tournament will be offered as both an in-person and virtual experience this year, Hall of Fame spokesperson Anne Marie McLaughlin said. Online chats with incoming hall of famers will be part of the unique experience, she said.

“Our plan to cobble all of those guidelines together and put our best foot forward, and be able to host the event in July,” Rowe said. “I told the team, we’re closer to the end than we are at the beginning. We’re going to rebuild.”

Down the line, Newport is also looking ahead to some mega events. The city is expected to again be a stopover host for The Ocean Race in 2023, Smith said.

As for the 2021 summer, the city is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and the other side of the health crisis.

“We’re just excited to seeing people getting back to their dreams and aspirations of traveling again, and enjoying the simple pleasures of travel,” Smith said. “Every has been cooped up for over a year and it’s been a tough year. The excitement is so euphoric to start seeing people traveling again.”

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

Updates through to include comments from Trudy Coxe and Brewer Rowe, and upcoming scheduled events planned for the city.

(CORRECTION: The International Tennis Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony will have in-person and virtual components.)

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