Springtime in St. Louis is typically a boon for regional tourism. Baseball is back, the weather is improving, and cultural activities are in full swing. However, like every other facet of this American life, the COVID-19 pandemic has stopped everything in its tracks. And just like every other industry in the region, the hospitality and tourism sector is facing serious challenges.
St. Louis Regional Chamber Vice President of Investor Relations Tabitha Sarris interviewed Explore St. Louis Chief Marketing Officer Brian Hall about how COVID-19 is affecting the hospitality and tourism industry and what possible recovery looks like.
According to Hall, 30 events and conventions scheduled to take place at the America’s Center in downtown St. Louis have been canceled. Without the influx of out-of-town guests, over 90,000 hotel rooms are now unoccupied, leaving the hotels that are still open running at historic, single-digit occupancy rates – 85 to 90% down from where they ought to be this time of year.
The domino effect continues, leaving frontline hospitality workers vulnerable to layoffs and unemployment. Several regional hotels have been forced to lay off their staff and Hall described their numbers as “swollen” due to the nature of the industry’s work.
“We look forward to bringing us back online and getting these folks re-engaged in their occupation so that we can continue welcoming guests into the region moving forward,” says Hall.
Regional collaboration plays a big role in St. Louis’ response to COVID-19. These types of partnerships are essential to combat economic hardships and keep up community morale.
One of the several initiatives underway is STL Take It Home, a movement to support local restaurants impacted by the pandemic. Over 1,000 restaurants are listed on the directory created by Curbside STL. “The neighborhoods represent the entire region, the cuisine represented the diversity of our region, and there are just so many ways that you can enjoy St. Louis hospitality as it were by ordering from your favorite restaurant.”
People are encouraged to shop at their favorite restaurants for curbside pickup or delivery. Another option is to buy gift cards to use later.
Other elements of STL Take It Home include safety guidelines for curbside pickup and delivery, a social media hashtag #STLTakeItHome to spread awareness, and a link to donate to the Gateway Resilience Fund, which establishes grants to support employees, essential contractors, and small business owners in the region who are experiencing financial burden due to the coronavirus pandemic. While the fund is no longer accepting applications, fundraising efforts continue and as of April 22nd, 2,468 individuals or businesses have received over $1.3 million from the fund.
Regional museums, cultural attractions, and arts organizations have also started creating digital programming that is both educational and entertaining. A module on Explore St. Louis’ website called Virtual St. Louis features digital experiences from around the region for families to enjoy.
Conversations about recovery are already underway. Hall says he’s cautiously optimistic, but they will defer to government and health officials and their decisions. However, local tourist attractions and hotel partners are working together to provide safe experiences going forward.
Hall mentions another collaboration between industry leaders called CampSTL, a burgeoning initiative to slowly return some of the region’s attractions to capacity and get locals back into the community. Some attractions are expected to open with limited availability and slowly expand the radius of people they appeal to and the drum up business again.
“It’s a cool way to be a tourist in your own town,” says Hall. “Who cares if you only drive 12-15 miles away from home? Get out of the house and when we are able to do this, it’s going to be such a refreshing alternative to staring at the walls inside our own homes.”
Safety will be top of mind with this initiative. Hall says they will underscore the steps the attractions and hotels will take to ensure a safe experience by communicating their cleaning practices and creating more space for people to stay separated. Health and public officials will have a say in whether these procedures meet their standards, and then the process will ease into the next phase “as soon as we’re ready to turn the corner and reopen.”