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Delayed: Tourism industry struggles through COVID-19 impact

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Springfield-area event calendars, usually packed with spring activities, are instead filled with cancellations and postponements as the impact of the new coronavirus intensifies.

Currently, the city of Springfield prohibits public gatherings of 10 or more people, after City Council unanimously passed an ordinance March 17. A continually rising number of scheduled activities in and around Springfield have been impacted by the size restrictions meant to increase social distancing and slow down the spread of COVID-19. Some events are being pushed down the calendar, while others won’t be rescheduled at all.

The affected events include athletic competitions, fundraisers, festivals, concerts and theater productions.

One of the first impacted was the National Christian HomeSchool Basketball Championships, which is Springfield’s largest annual group event at 10,000 attendees, according to the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau. Officials with the tournament announced the cancellation March 11. The CVB projected the March 14-21 event would generate over 7,000 room nights at local hotels and spur $5 million in economic impact, according to spokeswoman Susan Wade.

As public gathering restrictions tighten locally, most short-term events can’t legally happen now in Springfield, said Tracy Kimberlin, CVB’s president and CEO.

“There will be plenty of other cancellations. We’re trying to get a handle on how many are being canceled,” he said, noting some groups don’t notify the CVB upon making postponement or cancellation decisions. “I’ve been in this industry almost 50 years and I’ve never seen anything that comes close to this.”

Budget watching
Kimberlin said he thought weeks ago the coronavirus could be an issue, noting staff has “done a lot of thinking” on what needs to be done for the organization to get by in the short-term.

“I expect we’ll have to cut our budget by $500,000 this fiscal year,” he said of the $4 million total. “We just finished our budget for next year and that might as well be thrown in the trash.”

Budget cuts will impact this and next fiscal year’s projections, impacting payroll to capital expenses, he said. An open position won’t be filled and part-time help will be temporarily eliminated. A planned remodel of the tourist information center will be postponed, while attendance and travel to all remaining trade shows this year is cut, he added. However, cutting full-time staff isn’t currently being considered.

“That would be the last thing we would do at this point,” he said, adding those people will be needed on board when the post-virus recovery happens.

Staff cuts are also not in the works at the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce & Convention and Visitors Bureau, said President and CEO Jeff Seifried.

However, roughly 20 of the 33 full-time staffers are now working remotely for an indefinite amount of time, he said. Roughly 70% of the organization’s $13 million budget is devoted to media advertising and promotional efforts, which is currently on hold, because of the coronavirus.

“We have chosen to freeze all media spending until we get on the other side of this,” he said. “We are not planning on any [personnel] cuts at this time.”

The travel industry is struggling mightily, Kimberlin said, as hotel revenue in Springfield was down 18% in the first week of March compared to the same time last year. He expected the revenue decline for hotels in the rest of March to be “much, much worse.”

Springfield-based O’Reilly Hospitality Management LLC cut staff due to the impact of COVID-19, according to CEO Tim O’Reilly. He said an undisclosed number of “temporary” layoffs have been made among the company’s 1,800 employees in nine states.

Hotel developer Earl Steinert of EAS Investment Enterprises Inc. said he’s also temporarily laid off staff. He operates three Hampton Inn & Suites and a Home2 Suites by Hilton Springfield North. Each hotel employs near 40, and Steinert estimated half of the workforce was let go.

“We’re telling them it’s temporary layoffs and hopefully they are,” he said. “That depends on the virus and how long it lasts.”

Steinert said occupancy levels in March have fallen to around 20%, a drop off of $500,000 from the typical March. His hotels normally are about 80% full during the month, he added.

While he is concerned about the dive in business, he said he could hold on financially for the foreseeable future.

“In my case, I can handle the downturn,” he said.

Uncertain impact
While fears of the coronavirus continue, the Trump administration instituted a travel ban March 11 between many European countries and the U.S. Impact on the national travel and tourism industry could be severe.

According to data from the World Tourism Organization, a United Nations agency, global international tourist arrivals in the U.S. could decline this year by 1% to 3%. An early January forecast estimated 3% to 4% growth. The drop could result in a loss of $30 billion to $50 billion in spending, according to the agency.

Seifried hopes that happens before Branson gets too far into its tourist season, which kicked off this month. He said it’s too soon to project the financial impact throughout town.

“That impact is based on when is the soonest we can all open back up for business,” he said.

Among the biggest events canceled in Branson was the Missouri State Archery Championship, set for March 19-21. Officials expected to have 22,000 participants and nearly $5.1 million in economic impact, Seifried said. It’s set to return in 2021 to the Branson Convention Center.

Like Kimberlin in Springfield, Seifried said he expects more events will be impacted. However, he noted the organization has observed more postponements and rescheduling rather than cancellations at this time.

The Silver Dollar City theme park attracts over 2 million visitors each year, but that will have to wait to begin this year. Officials have pushed back the season opening to at least March 28, from the planned March 17 date during many schools’ spring break.

“We are watching the situation very closely,” said Lisa Rau, SDC spokeswoman. “It’s an ever-changing situation.”

Silver Dollar City last year set a record attendance of 2.2 million guests. Rau said the park has opened in mid-March since 2005, averaging 140,000 visitors each year over the two-week period. She said park officials intend to make opening decisions based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rau added employees will be paid during the current opening delay period and refunds for those who purchased group or individual tickets online will be offered, declining to disclose financial details.

Local tourism leaders say they’ll need to organize a plan to attract visitors when the coronavirus threat passes.

“It’s hard to find a silver lining, but we have to look to the future and see how we can come out of this,” Kimberlin said. “Rather than crying in our soup, we need to be planning for the future and be ready to come out swinging when the time comes.”

Web Editor Geoff Pickle contributed.

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