Great Rivers & Routes Tourism CEO sees brights spots in pandemic-stricken industry


ALTON — The hotel industry has been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the recovery process may take several years.

Locally, though, there are signs that the turnaround will at least begin in 2021.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association recently released its State of the Hotel Industry 2021 report, examining the economics of recovery after the industry experienced its worst year on record in 2020. The disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic resulted in historically low room occupancy, massive job losses and hotel closures across the nation.

“If you look at hospitality and travel together, it was millions of jobs lost and billions in revenue,” said Cory Jobe, President and CEO of the Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau. “The hospitality and tourism industry was probably the most decimated industry in terms of the economy, and hotels took the brunt of that.”

Still, Jobe remains upbeat about the prospects for this year in the region served by the tourism bureau.

“We represent six counties and what’s good for us is that we are a second- or third-tier destination in terms of leisure travel,” Jobe said. “We anticipate a pretty good rebound this summer and fall because consumers are looking for a place for a road trip.

“They want to get in the car with friends and family and unwind and reconnect with nature and outdoors and we have a lot of space. Primarily, our travel is leisure, but we also have a big meetings market and a big sports tourism market, and we have talked to several hotels in the region that are seeing an uptick in bookings because of sports tournaments.”

Business and group travel will be largely contingent on widespread vaccine distribution and is not expected to begin to return until the latter part of 2021, and the industry does not expect pre-pandemic travel levels to return until 2024.

The report projected that business travel is expected to be down 85 percent compared to 2019. This is expected to last through April 2021 and then will only tick up slightly.

Travel for leisure will be the first to return, with 56 percent of consumers expecting to travel in 2021, which is roughly the same amount as an average year.

The report also noted that nearly half of consumers see vaccine distribution as the key to travel.

“Business travel is going to take some time to rebound,” Jobe said. “The big urban centers are heavily dependent on business travel and major meetings and conventions. Our type of destination will fare much better, but there is no mistake that our hotels have taken a hit.

“We see vacation rentals and B and B (bed and breakfast) and those sorts of things coming back in the summer and the fall. But we don’t see a full robust return to the 2018 or 2019 numbers until at least early 2024.”

While hotels are projected to add 200,000 direct operations jobs in 2021, this will remain nearly 500,000 jobs below the industry’s pre-pandemic level of 2.3 million employees.

In addition, half of U.S. hotel rooms are projected to remain empty.

“It’s quite a devasting impact when you think about the losses of the hotel industry and the small businesses that provide services to hotels,” Jobe said. “It’s had a major ripple effect in the economy.”

When the pandemic does end, Jobe cautions that it will be a slow and sometimes painful process for the hotel industry to return to pre-pandemic levels.

At the same time, he sees reason for optimism in 2021.

“We have been stressing the word ‘patience’ and it will take some time to get back to the ways things were before,” Jobe said. “But we do see some bright spots, including here in Alton, where we have two cruise lines that have booked 1,600 room nights starting in May through the rest of the year.

“The recovery is not going to happen overnight, especially for meetings and conventions. Thankfully, we’re not a top-tier destination or a major urban center where that is a bigger concern, but we do see the opportunity to grow.”