COVID-19 vaccinations boost Missouri tourism toward recovery

(The Center Square) – Memorial Day weekend often marks the end of the school year and the start of family vacations and trips.

After pandemic restrictions in 2020 kept most families in their homes, convention and tourism industry leaders throughout Missouri are witnessing the return of spring and summer travelers.

Brian Hall, chief marketing officer for Explore St. Louis, said the turning point in his market was Saturday, March 27, as 82% of the region’s 38,000 hotel rooms were occupied.

“It was like throwing on a light switch and it started during spring break,” Hall said. “I said spring break was the beginning of the end of the pandemic for travel and tourism. We saw occupancies soar.”

Missouri’s hotel occupancy rates were 52% in May, approximately double the rate of last year when the pandemic halted most tourism and business travel, according to Jeff Pinkerton, director of economic research for the Missouri Department of Economic Development. However, they remain behind May 2019 when the rate was 61%.

“The tourism industry in Missouri is starting to show some signs of recovery,” Pinkerton said. “The percentage is probably not a surprise, but we’re definitely heading in the right direction. We’re getting back to normal.”

Nathan Hermiston, senior vice president of convention sales and service for Visit KC, is witnessing a similar comeback in leisure travel. However, business travel remains stalled.

“It is an uneven recovery, but it is a recovery nonetheless,” Hermiston said. “We are having some pretty robust weekend occupancy compared to where we were.”

Megan McConachie, strategic communications manager for the city of Columbia and the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the return of in-person events signaled the start of a recovery.

“We’re definitely seeing some bright spots as we move into summer,” McConachie said. “It started with in-person graduations and now we’re moving toward more in-person events with larger groups.”

The efficacy and availability of the COVID-19 vaccine appear to be driving the return of tourism.

“The COVID-19 vaccine provides our nation and our industry hope for recovery after a devastating year,” said Chip Rogers, president and chief executive officer of the American Hotel & Lodging Association in a statement last week. “But, we expect further guidance from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and public health experts to support our efforts to ensure the safety of our workforce, guests and the general public.”

The CDC reports 49% of the U.S. population received at least one dose of the vaccine and 39% are fully vaccinated. In Missouri, 34% of adults are fully vaccinated. The vaccination rate in Kansas City is 32%, St. Louis is 28%, and Columbia is 41%. In Taney County, where Branson’s music shows, theme parks and outdoor recreation annually attract millions of visitors and contribute $1.7 billion to the local economy, the vaccination rate is 22%.

If family members are vaccinated, they seem ready to travel.

“Anecdotally, if travelers themselves are vaccinated, I think they are comfortable traveling to the destination regardless of the vaccination rate,” Hermiston said.

But once they arrive at a hotel or restaurant, they might witness staffing shortages. Missouri lost 42,600 jobs in the leisure and hospitality industry since February 2020. April employment numbers showed 5,200 people found work in the sector compared to March, but many jobs are unfilled.

“Our hospitality businesses are struggling right now, but we are hearing some good things about businesses getting more applicants,” McConachie said.

Filling job vacancies is the top concern in the leisure and hospitality sector. Hermiston learned some hotels in his region are offering signing bonuses of $500 to $600 for frontline workers, housekeepers and desk agents. Bonuses are as high as $2,000 in Florida, he said.

“Hotels are stretched as far as they can be,” Hermiston said. “I’m confident that hotels and restaurants have – and will continue – to adjust their wages to be more competitive in the marketplace.”

In preparation for Busch Stadium to return to full capacity in June, Hall said the St. Louis Cardinals offered a $250 signing bonus and free food during employment interviews for concession stand workers.

“We’re quickly becoming limited by the labor required to sustain operations for many tourism providers,” Hall said. “We’re working very quickly to recruit and train as many skilled workers as we can so we can continue to deliver the hospitality that we’re known for here in St. Louis and throughout the Midwest.”

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