As travelers postponed vacations and meeting planners canceled events in response to the coronavirus pandemic, it significantly impacted a Spokane community that was gaining momentum as a tourism and convention destination.
More than 35 events were canceled because of COVID-19, resulting in 30,000 vacant hotel rooms and $21 million in lost tourism revenue, according to Visit Spokane.
“That’s a huge hit, and that doesn’t even take into account the loss of the NCAA tournament in March and some of the other (Spokane) Sports Commission events they had coming in,” Visit Spokane spokeswoman Kate Hudson said. “The 35 events were all conventions that Visit Spokane booked, and it takes years to book this business. It’s a lot of work from our sales team and, so, to see it all disappear within a matter of weeks was really hard to watch.”
The hospitality industry in Washington state was among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with 136,000 filings for unemployment benefits since the beginning of March, according to data from the Washington State Employment Security Department.
Area hotels laid off thousands of employees as occupancy levels dropped nearly 64% from March 15-May 2, compared to the same time period last year, according to Visit Spokane.
Julie Cohen, Spokane Hotel Motel Association president, hasn’t seen an impact on hospitality that’s comparable to COVID-19 in the 20 years she’s been in the industry.
Cohen, the regional general manager of the Holiday Inn Express Downtown Spokane/Sterling Hospitality, said the property remained open, but lost about half of its projected occupancy in March and April because of groups and corporate travelers canceling their reservations.
“The whole industry has changed. We don’t know what it will be like next year,” she said.
Cohen said the property is continuing to build on its foundation of corporate accounts, which are gradually coming back as states are easing stay-at-home restrictions.
The property hosted various essential business workers staying in Spokane, and that could potentially spur new long-term customers for the hotel, Cohen said, adding she is hoping local events postponed to September and October will draw more guests.
“I absolutely hope we have flattened the curve and that we are able to get back to business,” she said, adding she is looking forward to bringing back her employees, who she said are like family.
Hudson, of Visit Spokane, said the organization is part of a recovery team consisting of community leaders working toward getting businesses safely back open.
Hudson said there’s an emphasis from event planners to postpone events rather than canceling them altogether. The Public Relations Society of America, which had a conference booked in Spokane in June, is rescheduling the event for next year.
Visit Spokane, which is partially funded through hotel taxes and works to bring events and tourism into the community, has also booked a couple of smaller conventions next year, is continuing to market the region’s outdoor activities and remains hopeful the tourism industry will continue to gain momentum, Hudson said.
“We’re really focusing on safety with meeting planners, and we’re working really hard to continue to book as much business as we possibly can,” she said.
On Tuesday, Visit Spokane installed new signage at the Visitor Information Center at Riverfront Park, a project that has been in the works since 2018. Permitting for the signs was approved as Spokane County moved into Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan last week.
“The signs are important to us, and we’re hoping that they will be a beacon for visitors to come back,” Hudson said, adding the organization has seen an uptick in requests for visitor information packets from people nationwide. “People are wanting to travel. They are curious and they are interested in Spokane. So we are taking that as a sign of hope.”