By Regan Mertz, Missouri Information Corps
When Colleen Sundlie opened Cafe Dhibs in November, she experienced an influx of customers during the holiday season. The cafe is nestled into Commercial Street in Springfield’s historic district, which draws in-state and out-of-state tourists.
Sundlie expected the same to happen during the summer tourism season.
Then COVID-19 hit.
Sundlie had to shut the cafe’s storefront. Luckily, the cafe had a small window that she was planning to eventually convert to a drive-thru.
“We opened the drive-thru within a week of everything shutting down, and we set up our online order process the same week,” Sundlie said.
This allowed her to keep her employees throughout the pandemic. They had to adjust to local COVID-19 safety regulations by wearing gloves and amping up sanitation measures.
Since March, businesses like Cafe Dhibs that depend on tourism have been hit hard by the pandemic.
Tourism is one of Missouri’s largest industries. In fiscal year 2019, Missouri had 42.9 million visitors, according to the Missouri Division of Tourism. (The state defines visitors as people who travel from out of state or at least 50 miles in-state). Missouri’s tourism industry employs over 300,000 people — or 1 in 12 Missouri residents — and tourists spend about $17.7 billion annually.
But hotels, attractions and restaurants are all experiencing severe losses. State officials estimate that Missouri lost $2.16 billion in tourism spending between Feb. 29 and May 9, according to the Jefferson City News-Tribune.
In response to the pandemic, the state’s Tourism Commission created an Economic Recovery Task Force. Balancing safety and the economy has been a dilemma for weeks.
“People need their employment. So, the economics of this are from care and concern about citizens of our region. It’s a balancing act — how can you protect people safely but also don't go under financially,” said Kathleen Ratcliffe, a member of the task force.
The task force does not include any public health officials, but it is making safety recommendations that will be shared with the tourism industry. It is up to the industry to consult guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and local public health departments to ensure employees and visitors are safe.
One accommodation that some restaurants around the state are making is increasing outside seating.
“We set tables outside now that the weather has warmed so folks can sit outside, but we did close the inside because it was so small,” Sundlie said. “It was just too hard to social distance.”
Many restaurants reopening in St. Louis have outdoor dining spaces like patios and rooftops.
Restaurants must place tables at least 6 feet apart whether they’re indoors or outside, but some people may still be uncomfortable inside an enclosed space, Ratcliffe said.
“As the summer goes on, you can sit outside. The weather is conducive to that, not like January, you know, so I do think that people will really enjoy it,” Ratcliffe said.
A large part of tourism is overnight stays in places like hotels.
Tracy Kimberlin, president and CEO of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau and a member of the task force, said because no one was traveling, Springfield’s hotel occupancy dropped to about 22 percent, which was made up of mostly essential construction and transportation employees.
In early June, occupancy was back up to about 40 percent, compared to the 75-80 percent occupancy during a typical summer, he said.
“Overnight travel has been devastated and is probably one of the, if not the most, impacted industries,” Kimberlin said.
Before the pandemic, there were over 123,000 hotel supported jobs in Missouri. Around 45 percent of hotel-supported employees lost their jobs in March, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association.
Large hotels in Missouri continue to lay off employees, according to reports of mass layoffs filed with the state.
At the beginning of June, Crowne Plaza Hotels and Resorts laid off 1,488 employees at multiple locations around the state. On July 1, Ameristar Casino Hotel in Kansas City laid off 578 employees. In mid-August, Argosy Casino Hotel and Spa in Riverside plans to lay off 289 employees, and River City Casino and Hotel in Lemay plans to lay off 329 employees.
The Springfield Hotel Lodging Association has endorsed safety guidelines for hotels and guests from the American Hotel and Lodging Association. The guidelines include things like hand washing and sanitizer protocols, case notification methods, COVID-19 training, face coverings, physical distancing and cleaning and disinfecting products and procedures.
Kimberlin said people will take shorter trips this summer. International travel via cruises and flights isn’t at the top of most people’s lists right now, but he predicts travel among states will come back quickly.
But it could be 2-3 years before the industry returns to where it was before the pandemic, he said.
Springfield has lost over 60 conventions and sports events this year because of cancelations — a loss of millions of dollars, Kimberlin said.
Even if conventions return, capacity limits will make them drastically smaller. A convention center in Springfield that could fit 1,500 people before the pandemic can only hold around 300 now, Kimberlin said. This limits people’s ability to network, and meeting planners are looking to build in a virtual component to conventions, he said.
People will be able to attend in person, but they can also pay a fee to attend remotely via Zoom or Skype.
Some meeting planners worry they’ll lose revenue, but others see it as a way to increase revenue, Kimberlin said. If you attend remotely, you are eliminating the travel fees such as transportation, lodging and food.
These hybrid conventions may be here to stay — at least for smaller groups. But Kimberlin believes virtual components may make conventions more challenging because sometimes face-to-face conversations can’t be replaced.
This is true for Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
Running a museum requires Kendrick to shake hands, give hugs and take photos with patrons. But Kendrick has accepted he may not get to do that anymore.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit during an important year for the museum: 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues in Kansas City. Two of its events had to be canceled or postponed: a national day of recognition for the Negro Leagues by Major League Baseball and the huge Heart of America’s Hot Dog Festival.
Tourism in Kansas City is especially important to the museum because it is home to the Royals.
“(A)s major league teams are coming in to play the Royals, their fan base comes in as well, and they're looking for another baseball thing to do. And we're that other baseball thing to do,” Kendrick said.
Kendrick must create a tour schedule based on a limited capacity for visitors. He plans to use guidelines issued by the CDC, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and Kansas City’s public health department.
Kendrick said he also expects to close the museum’s main theater, which runs a 15-minute film every hour.
But the museum’s other exhibits provide a safer experience for the museum goer, Kendrick said. There aren’t many things to touch, so interactive experiences won’t change much. There are also audio clips that patrons can still listen to because they’re played over speakers rather than through headphones.
The museum is a non-profit, and Kendrick said fundraising can be difficult under normal circumstances. The pandemic makes it even harder, he said.
As the tourism industry re-opens in St. Louis, the Dinner Detective Murder Mystery Dinner Show, is facing multiple issues.
The performance takes place in hotels around the city where guests are served food during a four-act play. The company shut down completely because the play is interactive and hotels weren’t doing banquet services.
Once the company has the OK to reopen, there will be restrictions on capacity and guest interactions, Jason Siebold, executive producer for the Dinner Detective, said. The show will have half as many guests as usual.
Since the dinner is a murder mystery, the show usually includes physical clues. Now those will be virtual.
“This is going to be a new normal. It has changed our business, and there will be no going back for us,” Siebold said.
Before the dinner and show, there is usually an “interrogation session” where guests interact with one another, but this will be canceled to limit close interactions.
Hosts will wear masks and gloves, and the hotels will provide sanitation stations. Guests will be asked to wear a mask, but that can’t be enforced during dining hours.
“Obviously when you eat you can't have a mask on, so what we're relying on is for guests to wear masks,” Siebold said.
Protecting public health
In St. Louis, Ratcliffe and the tourism industry are trying to figure out how to keep businesses afloat and workers safe.
“The economic development for the region is solely driven by those visitors, whether they are coming for meetings, conventions, business travel or leisure travel. And all of those sectors have been decimated,” Ratcliffe, president of Explore St. Louis, said.
In early April, Ratcliffe and industry leaders began developing safety recommendations for retail, hotels, restaurants, transportation and large venues. These were shared with public health departments who reviewed them and provided feedback. They were then approved by the mayor and the county executive for St. Louis County.
For its part, the St. Louis County Public Health Department is looking at guidelines for the tourism industry that other states are developing. The department referenced other large departments in states like Ohio, Texas and New York to determine where the best practices are, Katrina Utz, policy adviser for the Administration Division for the St. Louis County Department of Public Health, said.
“We watched the cases that come in every single day. We monitor the trajectory of cases (and hospitalizations), so if it's going up or going down we will be adjusting our guidelines based on that,” Utz said.
The safety protocols are posted to websites like the Explore St. Louis website for tourists to view.
The website also includes a virtual view of St. Louis as well as restaurant carryout and delivery services. Many people have used it to help homeschool their children and fill up free time, Ratcliffe said. She thinks this could continue for some time.
“You have an entire summer of time to fill, and you want to keep kids’ minds active,” Ratcliffe said.
Ratcliffe also believes many Missouri residents will travel to St. Louis for the attractions it offers. Once people grow more comfortable with traveling, visitors from Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky and Arkansas will flock to Missouri, she said.
Kendrick, who is a member of the state’s tourism task force, believes one of its goals is to ensure safe travel within the state, while still being prepared for out-of-state tourists.
Missouri residents should take this opportunity to explore what their home state has to offer, Kendrick said. He posed a comparison to New York City: the Statue of Liberty is woven into its skyline. It’s always present, so the city’s residents don’t think to tour it.
“Oftentimes, we leave home to go to other cities to take on the exact same experience in another city,” Kendrick said. “The challenge for us is to make sure that we can make those things available to (residents) and do it in a way that is safe for those who are working in our institution but also those who will be taking on the experience.”