Chicago tourism approaching, but still lagging behind, 2019 levels

Chicago tourism has yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels, but it could fully recover by 2024, and possibly sooner, industry leaders said.

In the four weeks ending July 9, hotel occupancy in the central business district was 75%, up from 81% in the same period in 2019, according to research firm STR. And, in the first six months of the year, hotel stays generated 82% of the tax revenue they earned in the same period before the pandemic, according to Choose Chicago.

Industry leaders expressed optimism at a press conference on Wednesday about the pace of tourism’s return. In the week leading up to the July 4 holiday, hotel occupancy exceeded 2019 levels for the first time since the pandemic began, said Michael Jacobson, CEO of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association. .

The recovery will be significant as an indicator for the Chicago economy as a whole.

“Travel and tourism is at the epicenter of this vital hub and spoke model, and a true economic engine of our entire region,” said Jack Lavin, CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

Chicago’s pandemic-battered hotel industry has taken longer to return than in other cities, the CEOs of Hyatt Hotels and American Airlines have said. The return of international and business travelers, traditionally a key part of the city‘s hospitality industry, has been slower than the return of leisure travelers. Industry leaders have also been tasked with overcoming concerns about downtown crime, both real and perceived.

In a sign of the industry’s distress, Wells Fargo Bank recently took control of the JW Marriot Chicago Hotel in a foreclosure auction.

The lockdown likely won’t cause any noticeable changes for hotel travelers this summer, but it likely won’t be the hotel’s last lockdown, Jacobson said.

“I think when you look at the damage that’s been done to our industry, you’re not going to, as good as the numbers are this summer, you’re not going to make up the losses with a strong summer,” he said. he declares. said. “There is still a lot of hurt among hotel owners.”

Still, Glenn Eden, chairman of Choose Chicago’s board of directors, said he’s optimistic that not only will travel return to the city with a bang, but that the city could reimagine what travel in the Midwest looks like.

He attributed the delay in the city’s recovery in part to an unfair comparison with small towns. It’s reasonable for smaller towns to return faster than Chicago because there were fewer travelers to bring back in the first place, he said.

Another factor likely at play is the city’s now-lifted COVID-19 mask and vaccine policy. Travelers, especially business travelers, might have chosen not to come to Chicago when booking earlier this year or in previous years when mandates were in effect because they weren’t sure of the opening of the city by their planned trip, Jacobson said. . One example, he said, was the Sweets & Snacks Expo, which traveled to Indianapolis in 2021 while McCormick Place was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, and starting in 2024 it is expected to rotate on 10 years between Indianapolis and Las Vegas.

But the city’s virus policies have likely brought more business meetings to Chicago, helping them feel safer, he said. And state policies on political issues like gun control and abortion rights will likely play an increasingly important role in bringing more business meetings and conventions to the city, a- he declared.

Convention attendance has recently been about 70% of pre-pandemic levels, and he expects it to increase, Jacobson said. In the first six months of 2022, hotel bookings for leisure travel were at 76% of 2019 levels, and business travel at 71%, according to Choose Chicago.

“Should politics play a role in where a big event takes place? I can’t say that,” Jacobson said. “But it does play a role, and in many ways Chicago is now starting to capitalize on that.”

Crime remains a concern for tourism agencies, but it hasn’t led to significant changes in where visitors book hotels, Jacobson said.

Despite their optimism, industry executives have warned of new regulations at a turning point in the industry. Lavin, with the Chamber of Commerce, called for policies to help with training and retention, and incentives to attract conventions.

“This is still an emergency for this vital part of our city’s economy,” he said.

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