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CEO Roundtable: Tourism

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Springfield Business Journal Executive Editor Christine Temple talks tourism with Alexis Deane-Downing, president of the Springfield Hotel and Lodging Association board; Tracy Kimberlin, president of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau; and Rusty Worley, executive director of the Downtown Springfield association.

Christine Temple: What’s your one big idea to boost tourism in southwest Missouri?
Alexis Deane-Downing: It’s kind of already begun with our Springfield Sports Commission working with local e-gaming shops, but I think that esports is up and coming faster than people realize. For instance, in 2019, League of Legends held their LCS (spring finals) in St. Louis at the Chaifetz Arena, which is at (Saint Louis University). They can hold 10,600 [people], which I believe the now Great Southern Arena can hold similarly. So, that’s something that we could start to develop and grow that relationship and try to bring that in. That’s about a monthlong tournament. Esports is going to be just as important as traditional sports in my opinion.
Tracy Kimberlin: As a matter of fact, we are right now talking to folks about esports. It is in colleges. There are actually scholarships now for esports. So, there will be statewide – well, there already is – all kinds of different competitions. But I would take that a step further. We’re looking at sports in general. Springfield has some unique advantages that other communities really can’t talk about that are perfect for sports. We are within a few miles of the population center of the United States and that’s a big deal to people for sports organizers. They want to get as many teams as possible to come to their tournaments and the central location bodes well for that. Another thing is that the people that attend sporting events, that is not being paid for by the company they work for; that’s coming out of their own pocket. So, they often want to combine going to that tournament with some kind of a vacation. We’re in a great spot for that as well. We’re 35 miles from Branson, not to mention the fact that we have some pretty phenomenal attractions right here, Bass Pro [Shops] being the most notable. There’s not another complex like that anywhere in the world. We have already some excellent sports facilities that simply need to be upgraded. We’re in the process of doing that right now. There are some (American Rescue Plan Act) funding that has come through to do that. We could really become an amateur sports powerhouse, and that’s our intent.
Rusty Worley: My big idea was green tourism. It’s not a new idea, but we are also well positioned to take advantage of the Ozarks. The draft of Forward SGF calls out Springfield as basecamp for the Ozarks. I envision folks being able to stay at Hotel Vandivort and then quickly being able to hop on a trail and take them to Ozark or out to Fellows Lake, out to some of the great trails that the O’Reillys have been developing. We’re close to Johnny Morris’ investments in Branson, northwest Arkansas. Just trying to build off of that green tourism piece. We have a really strong trail network, but we need to continue to “un-gap the map,” as they say, so fill some of those key gaps. We’re right on the edge of some great things on the green tourism side.

Sports facilities
Temple: Do we have the facilities to be an amateur sports powerhouse?
Kimberlin: Springfield used to be recognized as a softball capital of the United States. We used to host about every national and regional softball tournament that you can think of. We still have those facilities, but now they’re old. We need turf facilities. Tournament organizers want to be sure that they can get their tournament in. On a weekend down here, it could rain all weekend. Turf allows you to play in the evening if the fields are lit or right after a thunderstorm. Out at Lake Country complex, we have 18 soccer fields. We already have world-class tennis facilities out there. If we get our soccer fields turfed and lit, we’ll stack up there as well. We’re also working on getting and have the funding to get our Killian and Cooper softball and baseball complex turfed. One area that we’re lacking in and that we’re hopeful that we can get ARPA funding for is an indoor sports facility, basketball in particular. The Fieldhouse currently has four courts, there’s four courts in Strafford. Tournament organizers like to see 10 to 12 courts. If you can make that happen, then you can handle basketball, pickleball, volleyball, all kinds of other indoor sports that occur year-round.

International travelers
Temple: Let’s talk about a different type of traveler. The National Travel and Tourism Strategy this month announced a goal to bring 90 million international visitors to our country each year. Locally, I think of Route 66 as a draw, but I wonder if we have some other opportunities.
Kimberlin: You’ve got the air service issue. Most of the international travel is going to come in on the Coasts. There’s some that fly direct to Chicago and, as a matter of fact, St. Louis now has a direct route to Frankfurt, [Germany]. As far as international travel is concerned from what we see, it’s all about Route 66. That’s the one thing that they know of. They equate Route 66 with real America. Frankly, they know more about Route 66 than our own people. We operate the information center there on St. Louis [Street]. We always do weekly staff meetings, and we have our information center supervisor rattle off the different countries that people were from that stopped in that week and almost always there’s 10 or 12 different countries.
Worley: One of the things that we could do a better job with Route 66 is helping bridge to the next generation. You’ve got the baby boomers and others who knew and experienced Route 66 and grew up making those road trips. But now, how do you bridge to the next generation who really doesn’t know that as much? The things that make that trip appealing is authenticity and making memories, and this next generation is all about that.
Deane-Downing: As hoteliers, we’re kind of seeing the same trends with bus tours. The people that do come from international travel are getting on those bus tours that are going through the U.S. on Route 66. And, like Rusty said, we need to make sure that we’ve got those things that they want to see, the historic America. They want to see the arts; they want to see the creativity side of America.

Convention challenges
Temple: At a recent Springfield City Council meeting, Tracy, you didn’t mince words with your commentary on the dire condition of the University Plaza Hotel & Convention Center and the work that needs to be done to elevate that to the level of other communities. What are some solutions to that challenge?
Kimberlin: It’s a question of money. We have a metropolitan population of half a million people and University Plaza is by far the biggest meeting space that we have in town. As I mentioned at City Council, the next two biggest spaces that we have are the DoubleTree and the Oasis, which are nice facilities and do a great job, the problem is they don’t have the space. So, if you get a convention over a certain size, it really has no choice on where to go. For a long time back in John Q. [Hammons] days, that’s the way he liked it. There wasn’t a whole lot of emphasis on making that a premier property even then. When you have a property that’s 40 years old, you’re going to have mechanical systems start failing, and that’s what has happened. The HVAC system has had all kinds of issues. The roof (and) boiler systems have all kinds of issues. When you wake up in the morning, you’re at a convention and you don’t have any hot water, that’s a problem. Nothing against the management of the hotel. Alexis works for Atrium [Hospitality] and does a great job. Michael Bloom, the interim manager at University Plaza, was there during its heyday, he knows what it can do. He’s got to have the resources to get it done. The local staff is working hard to do that. The problem started back when John Q. owned the property. He was in bankruptcy for a long period of time and there was no money invested in that property during that period of time. Atrium comes along, buys the property, we go into a pandemic, which kills the hotel industry, particularly convention hotels, which is mainly what Atrium’s portfolio is. So, they’re strapped for money. We have been talking to the top management at Atrium about how we need this property upgraded – badly. They tell us that they’re in the process of trying to figure out what the opportunities are here, what they invest in the property, how much they invest or do they sell it. I think we are on their front burner.
Temple: Is investing in University Plaza the solution or should it be a new facility?
Worley: From my perspective, I would take a step back and look at a broader level that investing in the whole Jordan Valley campus is important. It’s not just University Plaza, but it’s the Expo Center, it’s the vacant lot, it’s Hammons Field, it’s Jordan Valley Park. We have a lot of the building blocks in place, but we need to reinvest in those. We need to really continue to be conscious of the pedestrian experience between that convention center and downtown. You walk down St. Louis Street and that’s a different experience than if you’re walking down Walnut Street. It’s better today than it was two or three years ago. We have Billiards back open. You’ve got Hold Fast Brewery, you’ve got the [STL] 505 that took the old, blighted motel and now has 500 residents there. So, there are some building blocks, but we need to be looking at that whole area as a campus. What’s the future of the Expo? Is it continuing to have groups or youth sports? We need to have infill on that grass lot and have additional hotel rooms, kitchen and banquet facilities that support the Expo. Hammons Field needs investments to continue to be a minor league stadium and the clock is ticking on that. The mayor and City Council are aware of issues. If we don’t get this right, there’s a lot of opportunity costs that we don’t realize.
Temple: Any idea what the collective cost would be for these upgrades?
Kimberlin: It’ll have to be a public/private partnership with the city and a developer, whether that’s Atrium or somebody else. Or it could be even a combination of developers. It’s going to take a lot of money. One of the things that I’ve always been a little critical of here in Springfield is we tend to think really small. If you’re going to do an investment that is going to really be a nice convention complex and draw people here from all over, including potential business folks who can relocate businesses here, you’ve got to stack up to the competition. We’re not even close to stacking up to the competition right now. Even if University Plaza was brand new. The layout over there, the Expo Center, the exhibit hall, is across the street and it’s not connected. The convention center at University Plaza is not even connected to its own hotel. You’ve got to walk outside often to go to the meeting rooms. Meeting planners are making decisions a couple of years out; we can’t predict the weather that far. We’ve got to address those problems, or we need to just forget about it.
Temple: Saying Springfield isn’t a convention city doesn’t seem like an option with these other goals that were lined out.
Kimberlin: It’s not an option that we like to think about. You’ve got to put your money where you’re going to get the biggest bang for your buck. I’ve got five people in convention sales, do I need five people in convention sales? Or do I shift some of those to sports marketing? We can’t make something happen if there isn’t the facilities to make it happen. But on the sports side, we can. So, that’s something that we have wrestled with. We’d like to keep them in conventions because even though our convention facilities are lacking, most people would think that sports generates more overnight travel in Springfield than conventions. It does not. It’s about two to one, conventions.

Hotel trends
Temple: On the hotel front, last week there was a ribbon cutting and a groundbreaking in Springfield. Another hotel is under development downtown. What are the trends we’re seeing with room rates and occupancy?
Deane-Downing: We are seeing people are done being cooped up inside. People are traveling, families are traveling. Business associates are traveling. I don’t know how gas prices are going to affect that as they start to rise. On the convention side of things, we have seen some hotels are full in ‘24 and ‘25 already from rebook during the pandemic.
Kimberlin: The only month that has not been a record in the last 12 months was January. And that goes back to the ice storm of 2007. It’s still the record. We did break the February ice storm record, and we’ll probably break the 2007 ice storm record in the next couple of years. This is the result of pent-up leisure travel, and we were positioned very well. We spent about $2.5 million advertising, frankly, a little before I thought it was time, but it turned out to be a good decision. We started jumping ahead of other cities in the state and the U.S. average as far as room demand and occupancy way back in October of 2020. And that’s when our records started hitting. Because the demand has been high, average daily rates started climbing. Well, now we’ve got gas prices and inflation kicking in and the rates need to be high to cover all the expenses that they’ve got, because their expenses have gone up a bunch. Speaking of gas prices, even though we’ve had all these records, this is the last one. June will not be a record. As a matter of fact, the first part of June we’re down almost 5% in demand. I expect that’s going to continue through the summer.
Deane-Downing: We’re very much a drive market. If you have to add on two additional dollars per gallon of gas to wherever you’re going, that’s a pretty hefty amount of money.
Kimberlin: I do think because the hotels are paying more for labor, paying more for supplies. The average daily rate, I am hoping, stays up. If they start dropping that, then they’re really going to start digging into profits.
Temple: What is the average daily rate?
Kimberlin: We have run a citywide average daily rate of over $100 for three months in a row. We had never broken $100 before then. Springfield has all kinds of limited service, midprice properties, but we were really lacking on the full-service, nice quality properties. Those are starting to come online now. As a matter of fact, the hotels with the highest average daily rate in Springfield right now are also running the highest occupancy.
Temple: What does that say about consumer wants and needs?
Kimberlin: I can remember when John Q. said there’s not a market in Springfield for a four-star hotel. The heck there isn’t. Those are the ones that are doing the best. When the Vandivort opened, they opened with a vengeance and their rates aren’t anything close to $100.
Worley: The McQuerys had a real vision and stepped out in faith that they could make that vision and Springfield buy into it, and they certainly have. The experiences that they’ve brought here are something that we can match up with anywhere in the country. And then doubling down on the second tower and having Vantage, the rooftop experience, they’ve just done a phenomenal job and opened the door for other higher-quality properties to come online. We’re looking forward to The Moxy opening. It will be very different. It’ll be an experience that’s really geared toward nightlife. We’ve seen the trend all across the country for boutique hotels. Sometimes we value engineer ourselves too harshly. If we create those experiences that are memorable, people will spend the extra money for those.
Kimberlin: I’ve often said if the Arch were built in Springfield, it would be 6-foot tall and made out of concrete. That’s what I have seen in Springfield for years. Now, we have this quality of place discussion and it is about time. The city needs to take the lead from people like Johnny Morris and the McQuearys and the O’Reillys who know what quality is and are not afraid to spend the extra money to build it.
Deane-Downing: We also need to be conscious of the differences in travelers. So, while these four-star hotels with these luxury amenities are amazing and they do have good pull to this area and certain travelers that do want to stay at those, you still have your families that are price conscious. You still have those amenities at certain hotels that you need to be able to still offer. You’ve got those extended stay hotels that have helped our doctors and nurses and extended stay guests throughout this pandemic and beyond. You’ve got your select service properties where they’ve just got those basic needs, the rate to match. All of our hotels in Springfield play a role to those travelers. People have a certain list of things that their hotels have to meet. Those families aren’t going to stay at a hotel that doesn’t have free breakfast.

Excerpts by Executive Editor Christine Temple, ctemple@sbj.net.

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