Rupal Patel, owner of Comfort Inn & Suites Hotel in Carbon Cliff, has brought in her teenage daughter to help with laundry because, like numerous businesses in the hospitality industry, she’s had a hard time finding workers.
More often, she and her husband will pick up shifts, especially late-night ones.
Hotels that closed for months in 2020, like Patel’s, have seen a rebound in leisure tourism this summer with people traveling more in the wake of available vaccinations. But beyond the shortage in staff, the hotel industry isn’t back to normal by any means.
Michael Jacobson, president and CEO of the 650-member Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, said hotel occupancy across Illinois wasn't expected to fully rebound to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.
The Quad-Cities region as a whole has 6,500 hotel rooms in 73 hotels, and leisure travel has made up a significant chunk of hotels’ business as companies’ travel is slower to return.
“Weekends have been driving the bus from an occupancy standpoint,” President and CEO of Visit Quad Cities Dave Herrell said.
For example, on Aug. 6, a Friday night, nearly three-quarters of Quad-Cities hotel rooms were occupied, but the previous Tuesday, just over half were occupied.
“The summer has certainly been exceeding our expectations on hotel occupancy ...," Herrell said. "But as we get closer to Labor Day, and as we move into the fall, those numbers are going to decline.”
Illinois as a state was dead last for hotel occupancy rates in the month of June, driven by Chicago’s reliance on business travel, which has been slower to return than leisure travel, Jacobson said. Fifty-six percent of hotel rooms were occupied statewide in June.
“That shows that Illinois is lagging behind other states in terms of the recovery,” Jacobson said.
States known for outdoor attractions were higher on the list, Jacobson said. Jacobson and Herrell both get their numbers from STR, a hotel research company that tracks hotel occupancy and other metrics.
The Illinois Quad-Cities was just below the middle of the state pack for occupancy rates, Jacobson added. In Rock Island and Moline, 62% of hotel rooms were full in July, which is better than Chicago, at 59% occupancy, but below the highest at Effingham, with 73% occupancy.
Patel, the Comfort Inn and Suites owner, is preparing for a slower winter.
“What a lot of people don’t know is that in the hotel industry, it's primarily small business owners …” she said. “We are exactly like the restaurant next door.”
Patel pays franchise fees to carry the Comfort Inn brand and follows mandates so her hotel is consistent with other Comfort Inn hotels, but she still owns the business.
This is what she’s staked her and her family’s financial future on, she said.
“We have to succeed,” Patel said.
The Comfort Inn and Suites closed for a couple of months beginning at the end of March 2020, when uncertainty of the new virus was at an all-time high. Once the hotel reopened and people felt more comfortable traveling, new challenges came about. The hotel “quarantined” rooms, where staff would wait 24 hours after cleaning and another 24 hours before giving it to guests, making a portion of the 73-room hotel unusable. Then, with events canceled and businesses forgoing travel, there were fewer guests, but as a 24/7 hotel, Patel couldn’t leave the hotel unstaffed.
The return of events offered a shot in the arm this summer, especially the nearby John Deere Classic for Patel’s hotel.
As leisure travel picked up this summer, business travel has been much slower to return. That is a trend for airlines as well, and several Quad-City area businesses previously told the Quad-City Times and Dispatch-Argus that travel departments were continuing to hold off on far business trips for different reasons: convenience and cost savings of virtual meetings and not yet wanting to risk potential spread of COVID-19.
But Jacobson is confident business travel, which is a critical part of Illinois’ hotel industry, will eventually rebound.
After the Sept. 11 attacks and the 2008 economic recession, he said, businesses were a little more cautious to return to traveling than vacationers were. He said now with the delta variant raging through the country, a lot of companies that were saying they would start traveling again by Aug. 1 or Labor Day were now delaying that as far as January. He said hotels statewide were trying to accommodate more leisure travel or find creative ways to stay in business until business travel picked up again.
“After 9/11 there was all this conversation of business travelers ever hit the road again,” Jacobson said. “They hit the road again. Yes, we have Zoom. Zoom has done us well during the pandemic, when we had no choice. But I think if you had a choice as a salesperson to be in the room and shake hands with someone and meet with them face to face to try to make a sale or do it over Zoom, you're always going to choose in-person so it's going to rebound, it's just going to take a couple years to do so.”
According to a report recommending development for downtown Moline, the broader market for hotels in the Quad-Cities is "approaching saturation." Herrell said the Quad-Cities did have a lot of hotel rooms for a market of its size, but that projects that look to drive population growth and attract tourism will help the Quad-Cities grow into its supply of hotel rooms.
For Patel, a pandemic, combined with a shortage of workers, has meant she's been working around the clock. In a female-dominated industry, she's not the only one who brings her kids in to work with her because earlier in the year schools were closed.
She took her first vacation last month in more than a year.
She was gone four days. Then, it was back to the grind.