LITTLE ROCK (KATV) — It’s been 10 months since the coronavirus pandemic made its way to Arkansas and it’s taken a toll on our economy, especially within the tourism and hospital industry. On any given calendar year, the industry is touted as Arkansas’ second-largest economic driver, and Little Rock accounts for approximately 25% of the state’s total travel expenditure numbers. Pulaski County accounted for $1.8 billion in travel spending in 2019.
Now with case numbers going up and an 11 p.m. curfew still in effect for restaurants and bars, it’s going to be a long road to recovery. Gretchen Hall is president and CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. It’s the official destination marketing organization for the city, tasked with marketing and selling Little Rock as a destination for meeting, sports, and leisure travel. They manage the Statehouse Convention Center, Robinson Center, River Market, and multiple parking facilities, and are primarily funded by hotel, motel, and restaurant taxes.
“We're looking back at the calendar year of 2020, to really get our arms around the total negative effect and impact that this pandemic has had on the tourism and hospitality industry here in Little Rock,” Hall said.
With the new year, however, comes new hope, according to Hall. She said they’re expecting a better calendar year for 2021 than 2020, but as of the first week, they’re not seeing great strides.
“We're obviously hopeful that we're seeing a very slow light at the end of the tunnel with vaccine rollouts, although it's not as quickly as anyone would hope,” she said.
To understand the overall impact on tourism, Hall said you have to look at the effect on hotels. She said the majority of their guests are from out of town, and thus true travelers to the destination.
Back in June, hotel revenue was down 66%, and occupancy was down 54%. By August, things were looking a little better with revenue down 58%, and occupancy down 47%.
“Those numbers, we've talked about it all year, they weren't really that great,” Hall said.
From March through November, Hall said the revenue per available room was down almost 50 percent compared to the same time period in 2019. When you dig a little deeper, she said the downtown properties suffered even more, with total rev-par down 69%.
“They still need a lot of support to survive this long term,” Hall said.
At the peak of the pandemic, Hall said eight Little Rock hotels had to temporarily close down.
“I think all of them have had to drastically reduce staff, they've drastically reduced expenses,” she said.
All but the Capital Hotel have since reopened. In a statement, a spokesman for the Capital Hotel said: “The Hotel will reopen but the uncertainly of COVID-19 makes specifying a date not possible. Please see our website by clicking the COVID-19 button on the landing page for additional information.”
Hall said what’s kept a lot of hotels afloat is being able to tap into some of the federal relief programs and help from the state. The CVB worked with state partners in the tourism department and the cabinet secretaries to develop additional relief programs.
“That provided them kind of an additional lifeline at the end of the year,” Hall said.
Hall said Little Rock accounts for about 25% of the state’s total travel expenditure numbers every year, so when revenue is down, it impacts not only those within the industry but everyone.
“It generates an awful lot of revenue for private businesses, revenue for our government agencies through tax generation,” she said.
Hospitality and Food Service:
Back in April, little rock was looking at a little more than 110 million dollar loss in the restaurant industry. That lead to the closing of several restaurants.
Including the first quarter before the pandemic when the numbers were still good, Hall said revenue was down a little over 11% for 2020. Sub-categories like private clubs, caterers, and fine dining establishments suffered even more, with a 25-35% revenue reduction.
“The Convention and Visitor's Bureau, we have the tax receipts for prepared food in our restaurants and our lodging because that's our primary revenue source,” Hall said.
Convention and Visitor’s Bureau events:
Typically in the summer, the CVB hosts 50 to 60 events per month at their various facilities. In July, Hall said they only hosted four.
Back in April, she said 80 events had been canceled, and another 60 were postponed to later dates. By June they had lost more than 214 events, resulting in a $23 million economic impact. In August, they were at 325 total event cancellations and a $36 million economic impact.
Despite the cancellations and events that were postponed, Hall said they were able to host a couple of events in 2020. Due to the cancellations, the CVB alone last a total of $2.5 million in direct revenue, not including the 30 events that were postponed.
“The overall trickle effect and impact of those cancellations is huge in within the destination,” Hall said.
Hall said they have about 10 events planned for the first quarter of 2021, but they’re still working out the details. Those include lunch events and galas. Right now, they’re evaluating whether they will be conducted in-person, virtually, or a mix of the two.
“Still a little bit of unknown as we're working through all of the current protocols, and the protocols continue to change,” Hall said. “They're smaller in scale than most, but we do think that we can host those in a safe environment under all of the current guidelines and protocols, and we're happy to be able to do that.”
The CVB keeps its online calendar updated with information, events and activities taking place.
Hall said she expects things to get better as more people are vaccinated and become comfortable with traveling again. However, it could be 2023 or even 2024 before the industry makes a full comeback. She said we must listen to the healthcare industry and continue adhering to the protocols in the meantime.
“Ultimately, for meetings and conventions and large events and group gatherings to happen, we have to get full control over this pandemic, and the virus, and the spread of the virus and get to a comfort level for individuals to travel again,” Hall said.
The CVB is focusing on those who feel comfortable traveling now. Hall said they’re most interested in outdoor activities.
“We’re blessed to have a lot of those outdoor activities here in Little Rock, and we're promoting those more heavily right now,” Hall said.