The summer brought signs of recovery for Illinois’ tourism industry, but hiring woes and the delta variant are hurdles to full recovery
CHICAGO – After a brutal 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic kept travelers home, visitors are starting to return to Illinois’ tourism attractions. More than a million people visited Navy Pier in July alone.
But while summer tourism picked up around the state, particularly at outdoor destinations, in many cases it still fell short of 2019 levels, and some hotels and restaurants struggled to hire enough workers. Meanwhile, the delta variant of the coronavirus and rising cases nationwide are adding a new hurdle to tourism’s rebound.
“It’s been a rough couple of years for the entire hospitality industry. Tourism in the city was very strong, and the last couple years have been very difficult,” said Bob Habeeb, CEO of Maverick Hotels and Restaurants, with two hotels and two restaurants in Chicago. “And I know that there’s a lot of frustration in the hospitality community, a lot of people are looking at their business and saying, ‘When will it get better? Will it get better? And can I survive?’ ”
City tourism officials said they’re cautiously optimistic about the future after a summer that was far stronger than last year, when many attractions dealt with shutdowns and capacity limits.
After a record-setting 120 million people visited Illinois in 2019, only 67 million came last year. Their spending plunged to $23.3 billion, a little more than half 2019 levels, according to the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
While the state doesn’t yet have statistics for 2021, several Chicago attractions and tourist destinations said July was their best month since the pandemic began.
Navy Pier, a largely outdoor lakefront experience that has frequently been named a top attraction in Chicago, saw an “easier than anticipated” summer, said Navy Pier marketing executive Nick Pullia.
“Because we’re a big open space with nice breezes off the lake, I think people felt safe putting a toe in,” Pullia said. “(They were) venturing out to Navy Pier as their first place to go after being shut in for a long time.”
The Pier announced a full reopening April 30 after operating at half capacity. Just over 1 million people visited in July, down from 1.7 million in July 2019.
Habeeb, CEO of Maverick Hotels and Restaurants, opened the Sable on Navy Pier in March of this year, just as mask restrictions were lifting and people were getting the COVID-19 vaccine. The timing worked well, said Habeeb, who also runs Navy Pier’s Offshore Rooftop & Bar.
“People were really eager to do something special, like stay in a hotel on Navy Pier.”
Though it hasn’t been “a banner year,” it hasn’t been a bad one, either, Habeeb said. Late-night crowds at his restaurants have been smaller, while group business — weddings, and similar events — has been “way up” for the summer.
The Lincoln Park Zoo had 701,747 guests visit this summer, less than half of the 1.5 million who visited during the summer of 2019 when the park, which offers free admission, required reservations, said Chris Jorgensen, director of guest services.
Festivals also reignited Chicago’s tourism, with hotel room occupancy rates peaking at 85% during the late July and early August Lollapalooza weekend, according to Choose Chicago, the city’s official tourism organization.
Even as delta variant coronavirus cases reached a high, prompting new mask mandates, the festival drew 385,000 attendees, or 96% of the record 400,000 who came in 2019.
Indoor attractions have seen some strong numbers in the city as well.
Overall visits to the Art Institute this summer were at 73% of 2019′s attendance numbers, but the museum attracted more paid visitors this summer than typical pre-pandemic summers, said executive director of public affairs, Kati Murphy.
The museum held exhibits that were especially popular, such as the Obama Portraits.
The stronger numbers in Chicago followed city and state campaigns designed to bring tourists back this summer.
Choose Chicago realized it needed to work to draw visitors to the city, board chair Glenn Eden said.
“Every one of our competitors in other cities are fighting for the same visitors to come back,” he said. “Right now more than ever, because there was a lot of pent up demand.”
Choose Chicago created two online campaigns — an Expedia campaign and the “Seize Your Summer” campaign, both online and banner ad efforts — to entice browsers to book trips to Chicago.
The state, meanwhile, focused on travelers trading far-flung destinations for road trips with its $6 million “Time for Me to Drive” campaign, a play on REO Speedwagon’s “Time for Me to Fly.” TV, digital and print ads ran in seven states, including Illinois, starting in May, according to the state’s economic development office.
Both city and state officials pointed to rising hotel occupancy rates as evidence the campaigns paid off.
Hotel room occupancy within the city for the summer reached about 60% of the rooms booked in summer 2019, and yielded nearly $400 million in hotel revenue, according to Choose Chicago.
The rest of the state, which is less dependent on business and convention travel and international tourists, saw occupancy rates return to 2019 levels faster. Hotels in portions of the state beyond the greater Chicago area saw monthly occupancy rates roughly equal to or better than 2019 by July, according to data from STR, a global hospitality data and analytics company.
Even as vaccination rates increased and travel restrictions eased, many people continued to seek out destinations that were popular last year: spots within driving distance where social distancing was easy.
The Kearneys, of Des Moines, had been trying to make the rounds of cities across the U.S. before the pandemic but opted for a long weekend trip to Galena in northwest Illinois in June.
“It’s a beautiful place, and it didn’t feel super busy. … Mostly, we just took advantage of the opportunity to get out of town and not be at home for the first time in awhile,” said Patrick Kearney, 53.
Mackenzie Hackert, owner of zip line tour operator Long Hollow Canopy Tours in Galena, initially thought concerns about the delta variant might make for a quieter 2021 season, but she now thinks it may have boosted visits.
“Everyone was thinking we’d go back to masks and maybe a shutdown, so people are trying to get those trips in before it happens,” she said.
Galena’s Jail Hill Inn is sold out every weekend through the end of the year, with only a handful of rooms available midweek, owner Matthew Carroll said.
“There were some dark times last year, and you’re just thinking, ‘How is this going to pan out?’ ” he said. “I think Galena’s in a unique bubble. We’re not a big city people aren’t ready to go to just yet.”
Outdoor destinations that fared well last year continued to see strong numbers this summer.
After state parks and historic sites reopened in May 2020, visitor numbers for the final seven months of 2020 totaled 28.4 million, up about 6.4% from the same period in 2019, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Nearly 12 million visited in the first five months of 2021, including more than 908,000 who went to Starved Rock State Park.
Terisa King, who co-owns Kishauwau’s Starved Rock Area Cabins with her husband Jamie, hadn’t been sure whether people would continue seeking secluded outdoor destinations as travel restrictions eased this summer. But so far, each month since June 2020 has brought record-setting business, she said.
It was a sharp turnaround from the first pandemic shutdowns, when customers scrambled to cancel reservations and “we were a hairline from going under,” King said.
For some hotels and restaurants, the challenge wasn’t attracting tourists but hiring enough employees to serve them.
The Grand Bear Resort at Starved Rock, which has been at or near full occupancy every weekend this summer, blocked off as many as 20% of units at times early in the season because it didn’t have employees to handle housekeeping or food and beverage service, said Mark Johnson, vice president of marketing at parent company Sonnenschein Hospitality.
Staffing levels are better now, after the company raised wages in several positions by about 10% and offered sign-on bonuses, he said.
Lodi Tap House, near Starved Rock in Utica, hasn’t had to reduce its hours, but it’s been feeling short-staffed since younger employees began leaving for college.
To help with recruiting, the company accelerated plans to give workers employer-paid health insurance, a 401(k) match and more paid time off.
“We weren’t anticipating the void that would be left, and the challenge to fill that void,” said Luke Goucher, managing partner of the hospitality group that owns Lodi Tap House and Obscurity Brewing in Elburn.
In Chicago, too, tourism officials reported difficulty staffing attractions and hotels.
“A lot of people fled the industry, because of the uncertainty of when they get their jobs back,” Interim Choose Chicago CEO and CFO James Meyer said. “So now they’re all struggling to try and find help to fill their open positions.”
Businesses in the industry are now trying to figure out whether the delta variant will further dampen leisure travel, which usually slows this time of year as kids go back to school.
Habeeb said he is nervous about the fall. Crowds in August lightened up in Chicago, he said, and concern about the delta variant concerns is causing cancellations.
Still, some businesses are reporting more optimistic signs. Hot spots such as Navy Pier have planned fall events and are hoping a steady stream of tourists will visit. Airbnb said Chicago was its second most-booked destination for this fall, based on bookings between January and July.
Guests at Grand Bear Resort near Starved Rock typically don’t book far in advance, making it tough to get a feel for long-term trends, but so far the resort hasn’t seen any indication that rising case numbers are causing people to rethink travel plans, Johnson said.
As long as outdoor dining spaces remain open, announcements about new restrictions, like the state mask mandate, typically only have a temporary impact, said Lodi Tap House’s Goucher.
“People tend to think twice a bit, but then they get comfortable,” he said.
The reopening of Chicago’s theater scene, slated for October, also has businesses cautiously optimistic about the future of the city’s tourism.
“This summer has been very difficult for so many people in the entertainment industry and in the hospitality industry,” Pullia said. “These industries were hit very hard by the pandemic, and are coming back slowly. I think we’re gonna see them come back in a big way because people are so aching for their return.”