By Karen Ackerman Witter
Scott Dahl, director of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (SCVB), describes Springfield as a convention city and tourism city. There are approximately 3,500 travel and tourism-related jobs in Sangamon County, representing $110 million in total payroll, so COVID-19 has had a huge impact. Hotels are at a record low occupancy; the March occupancy rate was 34.6%, compared to 60.7% in March 2019. April was even worse, since hotels were still open in early March. Hotels in Springfield normally employ approximately 2,000 people but only 500 are currently working. A total of 227 scheduled events have been cancelled, with an economic impact of $22.5 million.
However, Dahl is optimistic that the hospitality industry will rebound. “Tourism will lead the economic recovery in Springfield,” says Dahl. The SCVB, Downtown Springfield Inc., hotel industry, historic sites and attractions, and others are committed to make this happen. The near-term focus is on regional tourism and staycations. For 2021 and beyond, restoration of the convention market is a priority for 2021. Dahl explains that as things begin to reopen, Springfield is well-positioned to attract travelers who may feel more comfortable driving to a destination than getting on an airplane. The wild card will be how willing and able people are to travel, given traveler sentiment coupled with the severe economic hardships facing many families.
SCVB marketing is targeted at six regional drive markets: Eastern Iowa, Southern Wisconsin to Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Western Kentucky and Paducah, St. Louis and Ohio. Dahl cites Springfield’s affordability, walkability and outstanding historic sites and tourist attractions as major attributes.
Smaller, regional meetings are Springfield’s niche for meetings and events. These range from very small events to conventions with up to 3,000 individuals. A variety of national organizations also find Springfield attractive due to our Lincoln sites and connection to Route 66.
Amy Beadle, SCVB sales and marketing manager, is constantly working to attract new meetings, while also maintaining relationships to ensure annual events return year after year. Beadle says meeting planners want an experience for their members, and Springfield has a lot to offer. She is hopeful some mid-sized meetings will return in the fall, but the main focus is on 2021 and beyond.
Several conventions for car enthusiasts were scheduled for 2020. The American Truck Historical Society was scheduled to bring 2,500 individuals, along with their historical trucks, to Springfield in May. The Corvair Society was scheduled for June; the International Ford Retractable Show was booked for August. Securing conventions is often a long-term process that involves submitting bids and building relationships over time. As an example, the SCVB had been working since 2005 to host the American Truck Historical Society. Fortunately, the meeting is rescheduled for 2022, without having to go through the bidding process. The other car conventions are also being rebooked for 2021 and 2022.
Many conventions are booked years in advance and cannot simply be rescheduled for the following year or two. Jason Thoron, sales and marketing manager for the Crowne Plaza, says the hotel was supposed to be hosting the National Button Society in August, which had reserved 1,000 room nights. The meeting was booked six years in advance and is now being rescheduled for 2025.
Thoron is also president of the Springfield Hotel and Lodging Association, which works closely with the SCVB. Hotels are putting new practices in place to ensure travelers’ safety. These include new cleaning protocols, ready access to hand sanitizers, shields at registration desks and more. Thoron says the hotel industry is giving a lot of thought to changes that will be implemented to ensure visitor confidence. Contactless room service and check-in, changes to housekeeping schedules and procedures, and adjustments to food service and meeting protocols are some things under discussion.
“The downtown economy is built on tourism,” says Lisa Clemmons Stott, executive director of Downtown Springfield, Inc. She says they were planning for the best spring ever, so it is especially disappointing to have things closed down. COVID-19 is forcing everyone to pivot and think about things in a new way, says Stott. One positive example she cites is the potential to expand outdoor dining downtown. Customers may consider this a better option as restaurants reopen. Expansion of outdoor dining could be a win/win situation and enhance the vibrancy of downtown.
Leisure travel will be promoted for the remainder of the summer once sites begin to reopen. This will also be an opportunity for local residents to rediscover what’s in their own backyard. The SCVB will be rolling out Passport Programs to encourage people to explore Springfield, while Living Legends will feature local entrepreneurs along Route 66. Beadle says the local hospitality industry is focused and determined to be prepared.
“The tourism and hospitality industry are resilient and bands together,” says Beadle.
Karen Ackerman Witter is a freelance writer in Springfield. She also serves as president of the Kidzeum of Health and Science’s board of directors, one of many tourist destinations currently shut down due to COVID-19.