Chicago tourism could return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024, industry leaders say

Chicago tourism has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels but 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%, compared to 81% during 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 generated during the same period before the pandemic, according to Choose Chicago.

Industry leaders expressed optimism at a news conference on Wednesday about the rate at which tourism is returning. In the week leading up to the July 4 holiday, hotel occupancy exceeded 2019 levels for the first time since the start of the pandemic, said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association.

The recovery will be significant as a proxy for Chicago’s economy as a whole.

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

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

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

The foreclosure likely won’t bring about noticeable changes for travelers at the hotel this summer, but it’s not likely to be the last hotel foreclosure, Jacobson said.

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

Still, Glenn Eden, chairman of the board at Choose Chicago, said he was optimistic not only that travel would return in full force to the city, but that the city could re-imagine what travel to the Midwest is like.

He attributed the delay in the city’s recovery in part to an unfair comparison with smaller cities. It stands to reason that smaller cities would return faster than Chicago because there were fewer travelers to bring back in the first place, she said.

Another factor likely at play is the city’s now-lifted COVID-19 mask and vaccine policies. Travelers, especially business travelers, may have opted out of coming to Chicago when they booked earlier this year or in previous years while the mandates were in place because they weren’t sure how open the city would be based on their scheduled trip. Jacobson said. . One example, he said, was the Sweets & Snacks Expo, which went to Indianapolis in 2021 while McCormick Place was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, and starting in 2024 will rotate for 10 years between Indianapolis and Las Vegas.

But the city’s virus policies likely brought other business gatherings to Chicago, helping them feel safer, he said. And states’ policies on political issues like gun control and abortion rights are likely to play a growing factor in bringing more business meetings and conventions to the city, she said.

Attendance at the convention has recently been around 70% of pre-pandemic levels, and he expects it to rise, 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 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 caused big changes in where visitors book hotels, Jacobson said.

Despite their optimism, industry leaders warned against new regulations at an industry turning point. The chamber of commerce’s Lavin called for policies to help with job training and retention, and incentives to attract conventions.

“This is still a very urgent time for this critical element of our city’s economy,” he said.

sfreishtat@chicagotribune.com

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