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Lagging work travel keeps urban hospitality numbers down while tourist destinations set records

Posted at 6:00 AM, Sep 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-16 09:52:46-04

SANDUSKY, Ohio — While business travel and large conventions are waiting out the latest COVID-19 case upticks, regional travel is helping businesses that wondered if they’d ever recover from COVID shutdowns set new records.

“We were spending yesterday in Pittsburgh and the downtown is just, like, it’s empty,” said Theo Hollerbach, who is driving from Florida to Michigan and talked to News 5 in Sandusky.

Communities like Sandusky say businesses there are thriving despite the pandemic because visitors are looking for outdoor activities in places where they think they can avoid large crowds.

He wasn’t surprised to find out less-populated cities like Sandusky and Geneva-on-the-Lake are seeing plenty of guests while downtown Cleveland hospitality numbers still trail their pre-COVID-19 levels.

“There’s a little more activity and you kind of feel safer because of COVID because you figure there is not as much concentration, not as many tourists,” said Hollerbach, admitting that the perception of extra space might actually lead to bigger crowds in cities like Sandusky.

A recently-finished bike trail along the water in Sandusky gives visitors an activity and good way to get around the city.

Business owners like Jim Ervin and Dick Ries at Sandusky Segwave and Andrea Crawford at Crush Wine Bar are happy to have the business, regardless of where it comes from, after fighting through COVID-19 shutdowns and capacity limits for much of the pandemic.

In early 2020, Lake Erie Shores & Islands hospitality data for Erie and Ottawa Counties showed the occupancy rates were down an average of 44% from spring through summer compared to 2019. The data set for the same time isn’t complete yet, but June and July occupancy percentages are substantially higher than the same figures pre-pandemic.

Jim Ervin explains how his Segways work outside his tour business in Sandusky.

“Downtown [Sandusky], physically watching people move, the city is busier so I know it’s not just us,” said Ervin.

What’s helped his business is targeted advertising in the Toledo and Cleveland areas, leaning into the fact that many people are putting off larger trips to the coasts or overseas, but are ready to venture out even if COVID-19 is still around.

Cedar Point sits across the bay from Sandusky's Jackson Street Pier. Local businesses say the park's draw is a huge help getting visitors to check out the rest of Sandusky.

“They’re not going to Cleveland, they’re not going to Columbus or getting on a plane and going to Florida,” said Crawford.

Instead, Crawford says she’s been rewarded for getting creative to keep her business open through COVID-19.

Crawford resorted to selling bottles of wine and other drinks when she couldn't open her restaurant for indoor dining during the worst of the pandemic.

“We see bachelorette groups again, we see the girls having their wine club nights,” said Crawford.

Two hours away in Greater Cleveland’s eastern tourist community, Andrea Bushweiler’s Lakehouse Inn in Geneva-on-the-Lake is doing much better than when we first talked in April 2020. The Inn had just completely shut down and she thought if they couldn’t open around Memorial Day a few months later, they might not be able to salvage the summer business.

Guests at The Lakehouse Inn get ready to eat at the restaurant, where seating now spills onto the patio and all the way down the hill towards Lake Erie.

Governor Mike DeWine lifted his Stay Safe Ohio health orders right before Memorial Day Weekend in 2020 and despite dips in business as COVID-19 cases spiked last winter, Bushweiler says the Lakehouse Inn has done pretty well since.

“We’ve been in business for over 20 years and we’ve had months last year and this year that have been record months for our lodging,” said Bushweiler.

Masks are required for workers but not guests at The Lakehouse Inn while the business takes other steps outlined on the sign to keep everyone safe.

The property’s spa and restaurant business are another story, limited by capacity restrictions and social distancing practices. Still, Bushweiler, Crawford, Ries, and Ervin agree: tourists are going where they can find a lot of things do outside and they’re benefiting from it.

In Downtown Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, the issue is more nuanced.

Euclid Avenue Downtown Cleveland
Destination Cleveland says leisure travel is rebounding in Cuyahoga County but mid-week, work travel has been slow to bounce back during the pandemic, keeping hospitality numbers down.

Downtown Cleveland Alliance reports show occupancy rates have rebounded slightly from their pandemic lows but not all the way to 2019 levels.

Destination Cleveland President and CEO David Gilbert tells News 5 Cleveland Cuyahoga County occupancy rates are a little better because they are catching more of the regional tourism travel that does make its way to Greater Cleveland. He says the downtown numbers have struggled because business and convention travel has been one of the last pre-COVID habits to return and those customers often sustain the market during the week.

Downtown Cleveland
Downtown Cleveland on March 17, St. Patricks Day, shortly after Ohio's shutdown orders went into effect. What would normally be streets filled with people enjoying the holiday were completely empty.

“We actually look great [for convention travel] for 2023, 2024, 2025, 2026,” said Gilbert, pointing out that that the goal when events were getting postponed at the start of the pandemic was the reschedule for a future date and not simply cancel them altogether. “We’re actually way ahead of the curve from where we normally are.”

In the meantime, Gilbert expects the hospitality numbers in 2022 and 2023 to remain lean even if Cleveland is able to bounce back faster than hospitality businesses around the nation.

Businesses assemble their booths in the Huntington Convention Center getting ready for the first downtown convention in April 2021 since COVID started more than a year earlier.

Still, Gilbert says the NFL Draft only brought in about a third of the revenue that Destination Cleveland was banking on based on pre-COVID estimates, which he still counts as a win because it wasn’t sure the event was going to allow fans at all until the last few days before it started.

That experience has tempered expectations for the February 2022 NBA All-Star Weekend.

Intro will bring the NBA All-Star Weekend across the river to Ohio City by committing to hosting events during that weekend.

“We certainly hope that everything we’re planning is going to be absolutely full bore, that all the people that show up can be in that arena, sold out, and all the parties around town and so on but there are a lot of things you simply can’t control with COVID,” said Gilbert.

Destination Cleveland also got more than 1,000 businesses to be part of its Clean Committed program, which means they promise to meet certain sanitation guidelines.

You can find more information about that program here.

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