Between travel restrictions, health concerns and a boom in virtual business meetings, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the travel industry, as demonstrated by plummeting hotel occupancy and average daily rates. Travel virtually stopped in April says Tracy Kimberlin, president and CEO of Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc. In fact, Springfield’s hotel occupancy rates in April dropped to 23.2% – a record low – compared with 65% the April prior.
Those numbers mirror Springfield Business Journal’s 2020 Economic Growth Survey results. Conducted in April, most respondents predicted COVID-19 would most negatively impact three related industries: restaurants, food and beverage (according to 76%); travel and tourism (69%); and hospitality (42.4%). In addition, nearly half of respondents expected business travel would be reduced even after threat of the virus subsides.
Since April there have been some signs of rebound. Hotelier Bryan Magers, founder of Bryan Properties LLC, has reopened two Branson area Hampton Inns. The Hilton brand hotels were shuttered while people sheltered at home. His newest hotel, Tru by Hilton in downtown Springfield, didn’t close but went from 80% occupancy pre-COVID-19 to roughly 20-30% during the height of shutdown orders. By early July, hotel occupancy had grown to nearly half capacity.
It may help that Hilton and other hotels have addressed changing hygiene expectations to bolster confidence in the safety of travel for business and leisure. As demonstrated with more than 63% of SBJ survey respondents concerned about personal health and safety, Magers says it’s an important first step.
Magers is grateful Hilton partnered with the Mayo Clinic in developing disinfection protocols. Among them: ontactless check-ins; door seals applied after rooms are cleaned and inspected; sanitized and wrapped TV remotes; wall-mounted hand sanitizing stations; and restricted housekeeping unless guests opt in.
“They also remind us that we should implement strict limits on occupancy in areas of the hotel,” Magers says. “And to always watch the entrances where most of the traffic comes in and out.”
The Springfield industry overall rebounded a bit with June occupancy rates rising to nearly 50%. Those numbers don’t reflect much business travel, though. Meetings, conventions and sports are pretty much gone for the year, Kimberlin says, with at least 68 groups canceling in 2020.
“It’s going to take a while for this to come back,” he says. “Most of the forecasting folks in the travel industry are saying it will probably be 2023 before we’re back to normal.”
Magers feels lucky his existing properties are in the Ozarks.
“Our [COVID] numbers are so low that people are realizing that they can go to Branson and they can come to Springfield. And I think that’s why we have had such an increase in occupancy,” Magers says.
Still, in light of the current economy, two Bryan Properties hotel projects – one slated for Springfield, one for Columbia – will stay on hold for now.
Even when the pandemic ends, Magers says updated hygiene protocols will remain.
“We’ve got to treat our customers like we like to be treated. It just gets down to that,” he says. “I think the people that are truly caring about their customers will survive.”
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