COLUMBIA — Restaurants and hotels around the Midlands are enjoying an uptick in business, but it's not the usual jewel of spring travel — the Masters golf tournament — that is bringing people out.
The annual crowd of Masters customers, comprised of high-end travelers coming to watch and play golf for the week, isn't really showing up, hotel and restaurant owners said.
A quick check conducted April 1 on Google confirms that hotel rooms still were available at relatively reasonable prices for the dates of the golf tournament, April 8-11.
There were still a few rooms to be had both in downtown Columbia hotels and along the West Columbia Interstate 26 corridor.
That would not be the case during a normal year; hotel rooms are scarce during Masters week with Columbia just 75 miles east of Augusta. But 2021 is not normal.
The Masters is returning to April this year after being delayed and played without fans in November last year.
The Augusta National Golf Club announced that some fans would be allowed back at Augusta National for the Masters, but it did not specify how many. The club usually does not announce its attendance.
There probably are few enough spectators coming to the tournament this year, so the Augusta area can handle them without much overflow, said Bill Ellen, CEO of Experience Columbia SC, the area's visitors bureau.
A lack of Masters business does not mean that local hotels and restaurants are hurting.
Customers are surging back to restaurants as pandemic restrictions ease and more people are vaccinated.
Five Points restaurant Saluda's is "busier than it's ever been," said owner Steve Cook, citing pent-up demand from the coronavirus outbreak.
Some customers are saying it's their first major sit-down meal out in months, Cook said.
Other restaurants also are very busy, said Bobby Williams, chairman of the board of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association.
His own Lizard's Thicket diner-style restaurants are substantially busier than they were at the same time in 2019, Williams said.
Williams sees the vaccine prompting people to come out but, also, the federal stimulus checks have come in and people are spending more freely, he said.
Hotels have not seen the same big rebound as restaurants, but the trend is definitely positive, Ellen said. High school and college graduations, in particular, are aiding a small spike in reservations.
Hotels are seeing a gradual return of guests, said Andy Briggs, managing partner of Solara Hospitality, which operates four hotels in the Columbia market.
The first three months of the year has seen definite growth — a trend that seems likely to continue.
"People are starting to feel good about travel," Briggs said.
With the revival of business, hotels and restaurants, both are facing a common problem: finding enough staff to handle the surge.