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COVID-19 turned the travel industry upside down. What it means for the Quad-Cities
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COVID-19 turned the travel industry upside down. What it means for the Quad-Cities

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The COVID-19 pandemic turned the travel industry upside down.

Revenues plummeted. Museums, casinos and sports venues shuttered for months on end, sending hundreds of workers home.

Entire minor league sports seasons and signature events like the John Deere Classic were canceled, while The Bix 7 road race went virtual.

Hotels rooms sat largely unused.

Some in the business compared it to sailing into a hurricane. Others compared it to the Great Depression.

"We were in a really good position and had a lot of momentum in 2019," said Dave Herrell, president and CEO of Visit Quad Cities, the official destination management and marketing organization for the region.

"It was definitely the best year for overall visitor expenditures in Scott and Rock Island counties," Herrell said.

Collectively, about $954 million in visitor expenditures were recorded in the region in 2019, prior to the pandemic, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

"Then, obviously, the bottom falls out," Herrell said. "You go from a significant amount of momentum and then you have to quickly adapt (business plans) to figure out what you need to do to survive."

Local figures for 2020 will not be available until this fall, Herrell said. But, local travel industry experts expect sizable losses of around 30% from visitor spending.

In 2020, the U.S. travel sector lost $492 billion compared to the prior year – an unprecedented 42% annual decline, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

"You're looking at a variety of revenue sources that are impacted, whether its sales tax, whether it's hotel/motel tax, whether it's food and beverage or amusement tax, whether it's gaming revenues, whether it's airport revenues," Herrell said. "It's wide-reaching from an industry perspective, including a significant amount of job loss."

The Quad-Cities travel industry supports 8,270 local jobs, according to Visit Quad Cities.

In 2020, about 65% of all U.S. jobs lost were in the travel, leisure and hospitality sectors.

Hotels, casinos, museums and other segments of the local tourism economy, though, are starting to see signs of recovery as the pandemic wanes and more Americans get vaccinated and feel the itch to travel and venture out.

"What were seeing now is a lot of pent up demand, and certainly a lot of excitement to get back out there again," Herrell said. "Now, we're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel as we begin to open up."

'We are coming out of this'

In March, U.S. travel spending totaled $69.5 billion, significantly higher than the previous four months, but still 31% below March 2019 levels.

The leisure and hospitality sector accounted for 31% of all new jobs added in March 2021. And more than seven in 10 American travelers were planning a summer vacation or getaway – up from 37% in 2020, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for fully vaccinated Americans has encouraged a return of visitors to Modern Woodmen Park, the Figge Art Museum and Putnam Museum and Science Center, helping take the brakes off an industry that has been hard hit by the fallout of COVID-19.

"We are coming out of this, and a lot of it has to do with consumer confidence," Herrell said, adding the pandemic has shed a light "on the value of tourism, that it empowers people, places, economies."

"Secondarily, it's shown that we need these revenues," he said. "And, most importantly, our people have been impacted by this. Tourism is about jobs. ... And so getting people back to work in the hospitality industry is something we're all chomping at the bit to do."

In Illinois, Gov. JB Pritzker announced a new $6 million tourism advertising campaign earlier this month aimed at attracting visitors to the state and sparking economic activity following the COVID-19 pandemic.

The multimedia campaign, featured around the theme "Time for Me to Drive," showcases various destinations in all parts of the state and aims to reflect Illinois as a top destination for road trips.

According to a news release, the campaign reflects increasing consumer trends to take shorter trips by car to destinations closer to home following the pandemic.

The advertising campaign includes television, radio, digital and print spots focused in the border states surrounding Illinois and 18 total markets.

Such a campaign could be welcome boost for the Quad-Cities, said Herrell, noting the region outpaced the Illinois and Iowa average and national average for hotel occupancy during the pandemic, largely buoyed by sports tourism.

Hotel occupancy rose year over year from about 28% to roughly 50% for the first half of May compared to the same time last year, according to Visit Quad Cities.

Over the last eight years, hotel revenues in the Quad-Cities averaged $94.7 million. In 2020, that figure stood at about $64.5 million, Herrell said.

"While a lot of our hoteliers got crushed in the process, it wasn't as bad as it could have been in comparison to other markets," he said. "Sports tourism has demonstrated for us that it is a market and sector that works well for the Quad-Cities, due to accessibility and venues like TBK Bank Sports Complex (in Bettendorf) and others that bode well for the recruitment of youth and amateur sporting events."

Several tournaments relocated from Illinois to the Iowa Quad-Cities during the pandemic, due to Iowa's relaxed COVID-19 guidelines, Herrell said.

"Sports tourism is a little bit like Teflon," and helped the Quad-Cities visitor economy sustain itself over the last several months, he said, with the region hosting the Missouri Valley women's basketball tournament in March and NAIA Men's golf championship at TPC Deere Run earlier this month.

"That is something we need to continue to leverage," Herrell said.

Fleeing 'the concrete jungle'

Additionally, the pandemic sparked a surge in popularity across the nation in attendance at outdoor sites, with national and state parks logging record crowds, as many turned to outdoor recreation as a refuge to escape their COVID confines.

According to Roman Weinberg, director of operations for Go the Distance Baseball, attendance at the Field of Dreams Movie Site in Dyersville dropped from just over 130,000 in 2019 to around 100,000 during a 2020 summer season impacted by COVID-19.

Weinberg said the site normally attracts visitors from all 50 states and dozens of foreign countries on an annual basis, but with its popular Ghost Players performances curtailed in 2020, it welcomed guests from 40 states.

With the return of those performances, the addition of several new attractions and the buzz surrounding the scheduled major-league game between the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox at the site on Aug. 12, Weinberg expects attendance numbers to rebound in 2021.

The caves at Maquoketa Caves State Park in Jackson County were closed to the public for over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and annual winter bat hibernation. The park remained open, but visitors were unable to explore the caves themselves until April 15, 2021.

There is still limited parking at the park, and once designated parking spots are full visitors must wait for an open parking spot to access the park. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources website recommends avoiding weekends from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the park gets the most visitors.

"People are looking to get out of the concrete jungle, and they were looking to do things that would connect them to the outdoors," Herrell said, from biking to kayaking to camping and hiking.

"I feel that is a trend that is not going away," and one the Quad-Cities can leverage moving forward, Herrell said, with access to 100 miles of riverfront trails and places like Loud Thunder Forest Preserve, Credit Island and Wildcat Den Campground.

"It's just, how do you package that all up and then deploy that in a meaningful way to get traction?" Herrell said. "I think it's something that is definitely an opportunity to promote and push, especially with younger audiences, too."

Minor league sports are back

The pandemic, however, canceled other outdoor outings.

There was no crack of the bat at Modern Woodmen Park in 2020. There was no early showcase of the world's top golfers at the John Deere Classic, and no drop of the puck or roar of the crowd at the TaxSlayer Center.

COVID-19 shutdowns canceled many of those rituals, long counted on to bring jobs, visitors, money and exposure to the Quad-Cities.

Sports, though, are roaring back and positioned to lead a post-pandemic resurgence, according to local minor league teams and travel industry leaders, including the return of signature sporting events.

The JDC will play its 50th tournament in July. The Bix returns later that month with both a virtual and in-person race capped at 10,000 runners.

The Quad Cities River Bandits opened their season earlier this month with a new Major League Baseball affiliate in the Kansas City Royals. And the Quad City Storm expects to return in 2021.

The Quad-City Steamwheelers filed for dormancy for the 2021 season, losing out on nearly two full seasons.

Combined, the Quad-Cities three minor league sports teams generated an economic impact of approximately $50 million in annual direct spending before the pandemic hit, according to Visit Quad Cities data. Annual attendance was more than 331,000 for more than 100 events hosted by the three teams.

And the Quad-Cities saw a $32 million direct local economic impact the week of the tournament.

The Quad-City Times Bix 7 brought 13,000 runner to the Quad-Cities in 2019, hosting runners from all 50 states and 11 countries.

The TaxSlayer Center underwent $3 million in renovations during the pandemic.

"Sports, from a quality of life perspective, is incredibly important to the Quad-Cities," Herrell said.

Casino admission, museum attendance on the upswing

Attendance, too, has picked up at Quad-Cities casinos and museums.

"With vaccinations becoming more prominent, I think what we're seeing is folks feeling a little bit more comfortable and safe about visiting places," said Mo Hyder, general manager at Rhythm City Casino Resort in Davenport. "Tourism is such an important part of the economic engine here in the Quad Cities. ... And we are seeing some improvements, and we continue to see improvements."

Rhythm City Casino Resort reported $10.6 million in adjusted gross revenue and more than 123,000 admissions in April, down slightly from March, but markedly up from the start of year and the end of 2020.

For the fiscal year to date, from July to April, Rhythm City reported more than $90 million in adjusted gross revenue and more than one million admissions. That compares to $64 million in gross revenue and nearly 984,000 admissions for the 2020 fiscal year, which ended in June.

The Isle of Capri Casino in Bettendorf and Jumer's Casino & Hotel in Rock Island posted similar gains, according to the Iowa and Illinois gaming commissions.

The Figge Art Museum and Putnam Museum and Science Center in Davenport have also witnessed a rebound in the last few months.

Overall, in-person attendance at the Figge dropped about 20% from the museum's normal average of 100,000 visitors annually, and earned income fell about 55% to 60%, said Executive Director Michelle Hargrave. The latter includes admissions, special events, paid programs, retail sales and rentals.

Fortunately, the museum was able to fill the gaps from lost earned income with the $750,000 it receives annually from the city of Davenport for taking care of the city's art collection, along with about $580,900 in emergency COVID-19 relief grants. That included support from the Quad-Cities Cultural Trust as well as $264,000 from the Payroll Protection Program of the federal CARES Act and $111,5000 from the Iowa Arts Council.

The museum's board of trustees also created a match challenge during the museum's closure that raised $78,000 in community support.

But over the past few months, museum attendance has steadily increased.

"We are almost at pre-pandemic numbers," Hargrave said. "We're averaging 540 people per week. ... ... It means the world for them to be able to come back to the museum. For many, it symbolizes their re-emergence and the end of the pandemic. We've had some who hadn't ventured out in a year, and this was one of the first places they came to, because they felt safe coming here. They knew we had certain safety guidelines in place."

Iowa's cultural institutions — museums, music venues, theaters and arts councils — lost a combined total of at least $46.4 million in income last year during the pandemic, according to a news release from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.

In a typical year, Iowa’s arts, culture, history and creative industries account for 2.3% of the state’s economy, according to research by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, employing more than 42,000 Iowans working in more than 5,000 nonprofit and for-profit businesses statewide, according to the IDCA.

In 2019, the Figge generated an economic impact on the Quad Cities of $5.3 million and directly and indirectly impacted 175 jobs, according to Americans for the Arts Prosperity Calculator.

"We're all excited about this gradual return to normal," Hargrave said. "While it was great to be able to engage people in different ways, so much of what we do you need to have that in-person experience with art and seeing it first-hand. And we want our community and region and beyond to have that opportunity."

Places like Figge also serve as an important recruitment tool for area employers to show prospective hires "this is a culturally vibrant community," Hargrave said. "Similarly, I hear from visitors that when they have guests in town, this is one of the first places they bring their guests to. And we do have people from different parts of the country (along with different parts of the world) that come to see the Figge and the exhibitions we put on here."

The Putnam Museum closed for four months during the onset of the pandemic, and partially reopened in July, with attendance lagging all of last year. Attendance started to rebound in January and February, with the roll out of vaccines. And attendance exceeded pre-pandemic levels in April and May by more than 500 visitors, said museum President and CEO Rachael Mullins. 

Like the Figge, the Putnam saw a significant hit to its earned income, but held its own thanks to donations and support from the Quad-Cities Cultural Trust, Payroll Protection Program, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and National Endowment for the Humanities.

"We are now stable and starting to see our earned income returning, which is tremendous and a great sign, I think, of future success for our community that we're starting to see our community open back up again," Mullins said.

That, she said, includes a return of school and local youth groups, as well as facility rentals and summer camps, half of which are already sold out.

"We've already been hearing ... that kids and parents are really wanting kids out from behind those computer screens ... and want that engaged, hands-on learning," Mullins said, adding the museum is anticipating a busy summer.

"We also welcome a large group of out-of-towners to the Putnam," she said. "We're still seeing those out-of-town travelers in town. That certainly will be picking up, I think, now, especially with such a large number wanting to get out and visit friends and families in the Quad-Cities area. Tourism represents a large piece of the Putnam audience, I think."

Herrell, though, cautions it will likely be years before the local travel industry fully recovers and returns to pre-pandemic levels.

Experts forecast that it's likely going to be three to four years before the travel industry can get back to any kind of normalcy.

"You're not going to see a huge rebound with international or business travel," Herrell said. "So that presents an opportunity domestically to think through how we're positioned and seizing on that from a Quad-Cities perspective to drive awareness and make people understand that we're still a viable and valuable destination."

-- With reports from Capitol News Illinois, editor Bobby Metcalf and reporters Emily Andersen and Steve Batterson

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