Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Peak tourism season brings visitors and their spending to Pittsburgh

 A crowd of people listens to music.
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
A crowd gathers at Three Rivers Arts Festival main stage in 2023.

A reflection of Taiwanese night markets or Singaporean “hawker centres” unfolds at Novo Asian Food Hall in the Strip District. More than 5,000 people each week line up to try everything from bola bola, a Filipino meatball, to red bean bingsu, a Korean shaved ice, according to Matthew Zelinksy, director of operations at Novo Asian Food Hall. Many of the diners aren’t from the neighborhood.

“Events have been a big factor in our business,” Zelinsky said. “And it doesn't necessarily even have to be something that you would necessarily consider major — such as this weekend.”

Tens of thousands of people swarmed the city of Pittsburgh the last few days for a weekend packed with events, such as the Three Rivers Arts Festival, Pittsburgh Pride and a Kenny Chesney concert. Outside of the events, hotels, restaurants and bars soaked in the spending from locals and out-of-town visitors. In a sense, last weekend marked the unofficial kickoff of Pittsburgh’s peak tourism season.

From Steelers games to Anthrocon, the primary reason people travel to southwestern Pennsylvania is to attend an event, according to Jared Bachar, president and CEO of VisitPITTSBURGH, the region’s tourism bureau. Events “are the backbone of the entire tourism ecosystem,” Bachar said.

A tourism boomerang is big business for Pittsburgh’s economy. The pandemic dented travel plans and canceled events. Many downtown workers haven’t returned to the office, leaving behind lunch and happy hour bills. But after hours, the scene is shifting.

Last year, tourism brought in $6.4 billion of direct spending, more than $300 million in local tax revenues and supported about 40,000 jobs in Allegheny County, according to VisitPITTSBURGH’s annual report. This falls just short of the $6.5 billion of spending by tourists before the pandemic in 2019, but Bachar expects a full rebound this year due to the number and scale of events. “We're certainly back,” Bachar said. “You know, the calendar is absolutely full.”

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

Peak people-watching

From June to September, hotels in the region fill up. They reported a 17% increase in occupancy during those months compared to the rest of the year, according to VisitPITTSBURGH.

For example, 83% of the Swifties who attended last year’s two Taylor Swift concerts at Acrisure Stadium came from outside of Allegheny County. The events brought in about $46 million in spending for the county, according to VisitPITTSBURGH.

“When you have something to the scale of a Taylor Swift or Kenny Chesney, those kinds of concerts have such a big impact because a lot of the people are coming in, they're staying in hotels,” Bachar said. “They're eating in the restaurants, of course, while they’re here. They're shopping. They're doing a lot of extra things beyond the concert itself.”

For restaurants and other businesses, the uptick in traffic during the summer helps stave off leaner times during winter months. Last year, 300,000 more people went downtown in June than in January, according to data from the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.

Last year, the opening day of the Three Rivers Arts Festival brought 80,000 people downtown. It was a 43% increase in attendance from its post-pandemic return in 2021, according to Cate Irvin, senior director of economic development at the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. “Each year gets better and better.”

A weekend destination

The weekend scene in downtown Pittsburgh — including spillover from these events — has been “the bulk of our recovery [from the pandemic],” according to Irvin. Like most cities around the country, recovery in Pittsburgh’s central business district has been driven by those coming out after work.

Pittsburgh has become a weekend destination. The bulk of people go downtown on Fridays and Saturdays — not during the work week, according to Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership data. “We know that downtown is pulling in these visitors, whether from just other neighborhoods or visitors from outside of Pittsburgh,” Irvin said. “We know that it's become a draw.”

Big events in town continue after the Kenny Chesney concert clean-up. Anthrocon — the furry convention — and Picklesburgh mark the calendar in July.

But for local restaurants in their wake, preparing for crowds is an unpredictable calculation. “Preparation is always tricky in these situations because … your impulse is to overstaff,” Zelinsky said. “It typically works out much better if you trust your staff to execute and simply make sure that you are there to back them up.

“The tourism boost from events is great, but unless you are running one of the bars on the North Shore that are right at ground zero, you are going to have to live with the general issue that out of town tourists are one of the least predictable demographics.”