Tuliptime Reaction

Street cleaners take part in the annual Tulip Time festival, which was canceled for 2020. 

HOLLAND — The spread of COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of just about every large-scale event, including the 2020 Tulip Time.

Tulip Time officials announced March 16 that the festival was canceled for this year, making it the first time the festival will not take place in full since World War II. This May would have been the 91st Tulip Time.

The greater Holland community is going through economic hardships along with the rest of the world related to the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has caused closures of many businesses, schools, layoffs, furloughs and people being forced to stay home.

The cancellation of the city’s largest event of the year ultimately became a “nondecision,” said Tulip Time Board Member Jodi Owczarski, due to the risks associated with large numbers of people gathering and the potential to spread the virus. There were still “many tears involved,” she said.

“Understanding the impact on staff, volunteers and the business community, that’s something we don’t take lightly,” Owczarski said, who also serves as the vice president of the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce.

That impact is still being determined.

The festival's board and staff are in the process of seeing which costs they can recoup from what was planned for 2020. People who bought tickets for events will have the option of getting a refund or donating the cost of their ticket to the Tulip Time organization. Merchandise is also still for sale on Tulip Time’s website.

Runners are encouraged to still take part “virtually” in the Tulip Time 5K or 10K. Participants can join the Virtual Run by registering on Tulip Time’s website by April 15 for a $40 race fee and $3 signup fee. Tulip Time Run T-shirts and finisher gifts will be sent to everyone who registered. A portion of the race signup fees will be donated to Kids’ Food Basket.

“We’re in a tough financial position, but we’re also trying to give back and realize we’re not the only ones in this position,” Tulip Time Executive Director Gwen Auwerda said.

People who take part can run or walk outside or on their treadmill anytime between May 1 and 10, and are encouraged to share photos on social media with the #VirtualTulipTime hashtag.

The cancellation of the festival was necessary to protect the health of the community, Auwerda said, but it has put the nonprofit in a tough spot financially.

“We have put 10 months of planning and investing in the 2020 festival, with a loss of our entire revenue stream of the entire year,” she said. “Ten months of expenses have already been paid with zero income.”

The festival has about a $2 million budget. They do not yet know what the full financial impact on the Tulip Time organization will be, Auwerda said, but it is “pretty staggering.” They are looking into federal aid and loan options.

About two-thirds of the Tulip Time staff was laid off with no festival to produce, Auwerda said. As of last week, the festival office has five people working through the cancellation process and putting together a plan for this fall and next year.

Tulip Time also runs a Pedal the Provinces biking event in the fall, and leads the tulip bulb planting around the city each fall. Auwerda said they are planning on holding those events, and possibly adding to them with the absence of the 2020 festival.

“We’re looking to see what other things we can supplement,” Auwerda said. “People will be ready to get outside (in the fall), and how can we capture that time of year. That is on our to-do list to begin that process.”

They will also have to “re-envision” the festival for 2021, Auwerda said.

“Without revenue from this year’s festival to make it all the way to next year would be virtually impossible without a creative solution,” Owczarski said.

Economic impact on region

There will be a major “trickle effect” from the festival being canceled, Owczarski said. Everything from restaurants, stores, hotels, people that provide services for visitors and printing maps for Tulip Time will miss out on that business this year.

An economic impact study was conducted in 2018, and it estimated that the festival generates $48 million to the Holland community annually, and draws 300,000 to 500,000 visitors each year.

“Those 10 days of Tulip Time represent about 10 percent of annual revenue for some local businesses,” Owczarski said. “To miss out on that opportunity will certainly have an impact.”

The festival is more than parades and Dutch dancing, as it marks the start of tourism season for a lot of businesses and visitors, said Sally Laukitis, executive director of the Holland Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“My heart goes out to the restaurants, merchants and hotels,” Laukitis said. “It won’t be pretty. It’s bad, it’s sad for the community. But the community has always been a resilient community. I’m hoping that with a lot of creative thinking and collaboration, we can pull out of this.”

Six hotels in Holland have closed temporarily as of April 1. The JW Marriott, Courtyard by Marriott and AC Hotel by Marriott in Grand Rapids also closed temporarily.

Tulip Time attracts a lot of people to lakeshore communities besides Holland, and they will all feel the impact of the canceled festival, Laukitis said.

The visitors bureau office in Holland is funded solely by a hotel assessment, which means its revenue will be fairly dry this summer without Tulip Time, as well as due to the coronavirus pandemic. This is “uncharted territory” for the hospitality sector, Laukitis said, but they have been cohesive in sharing information and staying up to date with possible solutions and ways to move forward.

“From a planning perspective, it’s hard because we don’t know if things will be totally up and running at the end of June or if we’re looking at the end of September,” Laukitis said. “We’re just taking it like everyone else — a day at a time.”

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