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Poised For A Comeback? St. Louis Region Tourism Industry Is Optimistic About A Post-COVID Economy

The Great River Road in Illinois is one of the region's tourist attractions. Many businesses along that highway are holding on during the pandemic.
Great Rivers and Routes Tourism Bureau
The Great River Road in Illinois is one of the region's tourist attractions. Many businesses along that highway are struggling to hold on during the pandemic.

Many people who work in the region's tourism industry are gearing up for a post-pandemic world, even though it's expected to be a couple of years before attractions and businesses return to pre-coronavirus lockdown levels.

The U.S. Travel Association points to a recent U.S. Department of Labor report showing about 40% of jobs lost during the COVID-19 outbreak have been in the hospitality and leisure sector.

"It's been the toughest year I've experienced," said David Robert, the chief executive officer of St. Louis-based Midas Hospitality, which has hotels in several states including Missouri and Illinois. He's been in the business for more than three decades.

"As an industry, you know, we lost about 50% of our revenue."

Robert's company, which operates hotel brands including Motel 6 and Marriott, was forced to furlough workers and cut pay but did not have to permanently shut down any properties.

Midas Hospitality operates the Element hotel in Midtown St. Louis.
Midas Hospitality
Midas Hospitality operates the Element hotel in the Cortex district in midtown St. Louis. It's one of the few hotels to actually open during the pandemic in 2020.

He said there are signs things are picking up, especially as more people opt for “staycations” after being locked down for roughly a year. But the region needs two key elements for the hotel industry can get back on its feet.

"The business traveler and the meetings/convention business. St. Louis has a big convention center downtown that's really not hosted anything for almost a year now, other than a few smaller events," Robert said.

It could be 2023 before the hotel business experiences a full recovery, Robert said.

Cory Jobe, who guided the Illinois Office of Tourism for about four years, anticipates a similar timeline. But he is optimistic that a rebound could start in the next few months.

"We'll see a pretty good robust comeback in May to June of this year," said Jobe, who is now president of the Great Rivers and Routes Tourism Bureau.

His prediction of what he means by a "robust comeback" will depend on how well small businesses do during this year's summer travel season. He’s especially keeping an eye on the area that includes Jersey, Madison, Macoupin, Montgomery, Calhoun and Greene counties.

"We see this peaking out sometime in August to early September when consumers have more confidence that there will be a more widespread vaccination program,” Jobe said.

Cory Jobe is in his first year as President and CEO of the Great Rivers and Routes Tourism Bureau.
Great Rivers and Routes Tourism Bureau
Cory Jobe is in his first year as president and CEO of the Great Rivers and Routes Tourism Bureau.

Jobe said he expects more people will feel comfortable heading out as the vaccine becomes more available. That is also providing an optimistic outlook for what is perhaps the region’s main tourist attraction — the Arch. It’s been through a sharp decline in visitors, yet still attracted tourists from 40 states last year.

Currently, it’s running at about one-third of pre-pandemic levels, said Pam Sanfilippo, with Gateway Arch National Park.

“We certainly want to increase that, I would think this summer as people begin venturing out a little more,” she said.

Sanfilippo anticipates visitor numbers will increase noticeably when school groups can return to the Arch. Student field trips ended a year ago, and in-person experiences are vital to the national park's education mission.

“That’s what we’re here for,” she said.

“That’s why we have these spaces and why we preserve them. So that people can visit and make those personal connections.”

Sanfilippo and others in the region’s tourism sector say 2020 changed how they will conduct business going forward. They say cleaning protocols and encouraging employees to wash their hands more frequently will likely remain once the world emerges from the pandemic.

Wayne is the morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.

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