Opening a hotel in a growing area of Springfield on the south end of MacArthur Boulevard, the Springhill Hotel owned by Darin Dame started out strong in August 2019. Half a year later, a global pandemic hit, forcing him to lay off employees as occupancy dropped to just a few people. Now a year removed from
Opening a hotel in a growing area of Springfield on the south end of MacArthur Boulevard, the Springhill Hotel owned by Darin Dame started out strong in August 2019. Half a year later, a global pandemic hit, forcing him to lay off employees as occupancy dropped to just a few people.
Now a year removed from the difficult decisions he faced last spring, Dame is optimistic summer will bring tourists back to Springfield and business back to his hotel.
“A lot of (this summer) is going to be based on how the traveler feels getting out. Are they going to feel safe,” Dame said.
Those in the tourism industry say more events, vaccinations, and an improving virus situation can’t happen soon enough.
“We are looking at (this summer) with hopeful optimism as more people get vaccinated and we move into the bridge phase. We know there’s a lot of pent-up demand and we are seeing that happen. We know people are traveling,” said Jeff Berg, tourism manager for the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.
With its central location and importance in American history, Springfield normally draws travelers from all of the country and world e to visit Lincoln attractions and other unique draws in the city traversed by Route 66. Tripadvisor lists the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum among the top five attractions in Illinois.
Since March 2020, the pandemic has quieted tourism in Springfield. Public health officials have discouraged travel and some places have been closed intermittently for safety reasons.
Michael Jacobson, president of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, said hotel occupancy in Springfield in February was about 31%, compared to 50% last February before the pandemic hit. He attributes that to cutbacks in tourism and the General Assembly not meeting in Springfield regularly.
“We miss them and hope they come back soon,” Berg said.
While there is reason to be optimistic about this summer, there is still reason to be cautious, especially with the virus, and the struggles businesses have faced won’t disappear right away.
“There’s still a lot of work to do before the hotel and tourism industry fully recovers and that’s something that we don’t expect until 2024 at the earliest,” Jacobson said.
Industry leaders have said more people are traveling and traveling for fun, which is key to Springfield’s tourism industry. However, business travel will take time to come back, which is also important for the city’s hotel industry.
“Springfield is unique because we all feed off each other. As a hotel owner here at the Springhill, we still want to see the Crowne Plaza do well. We need Crowne Plaza to have their conventions because they spill over into hotels like us,” Dame said.
Dame said it’s normal for Springfield’s hotel occupancy to be over 50%, but at the height of the pandemic, occupancy dropped into the single digits. His hotel is doing well at the moment because most of his customers are healthcare workers giving vaccines at the State Fairground.
Jacobson and Dame said guidance from the state that created the new bridge phase was helpful for giving the industry an idea of what will allow event venues and tourist attractions to increase capacity, which brings people to hotels. However, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have continued to rise since mid-March, pushing off a potential partial reopening. Jacobson said he’s glad the state uses those metrics to decide if reopening is possible, but more estimates on when reopening could happen would be helpful.
“Even California, which has been among the most cautious states in terms of their reopening and handling of the pandemic, announced this week they will remove all restrictions beginning June 15,” Jacobson said.
“I think the situation will change dramatically in the coming weeks as vaccinations increase and hopefully that correlates to hospitalizations and cases decreasing … Their governor understands the importance of long-term predictability.”
Dame said the hotel industry needs to see attractions like ALPLM open to capacities in the 70% to 80% range for hotels to really see a difference in the number of people coming to Springfield for tourist reasons.
“It can’t come soon enough,” said Jacobson.
The hotel industry also needs more attention from the federal government for more hotels, which are often individually owned, to survive, according to Jacobson.
At a House committee hearing Thursday, Jacobson said he wants the state to divert some of the over $7 billion they are receiving from the federal American Rescue Plan to the tourism and hospitality industry to help it get back on its feet as the nation begins reopening. He said hotels should spend 80% of aid they receive on their worker wages and hiring.
“If it wasn’t for some of the Paycheck Protection Program dollars we got during the pandemic, we probably would’ve had to shut the doors until everything went away,” Dame said. “(Some hotels) had to dip into their pockets a lot. We’ve dipped into our pockets here and there’s only so much you can dip into.”
Before the pandemic, Dame had about 25 employees at the hotel, which dropped to 12 at one point and is currently at 19. He said more federal relief dollars will allow them to rehire more workers.
There are already signs events that bring people to Springfield this summer will be a good boost for the city’s economy. The Illinois chapter of the Future Farmers of America is set to convene one of its three regional events at the State Fairgrounds in early June.
“FFA is a huge event. I think that you will see that imprint in the city and downtown regardless of where the event happens. It’s about progress and moving forward and businesses getting more business,” Berg said.
Berg said Springfield is ready when people decide to begin traveling again and have events planned for the summer they believe will draw people in, like the State Fair. For now, tourism leaders must wait for the virus situation to improve before more restrictions are lifted, which they think will get people back to traveling and attending events.
Contact Ben Szalinski email@example.com