Tracy Kimberlin has worked in the travel industry for more than 31 years, much of that time serving as president and CEO of the Springfield, Missouri Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The economic firestorm sparked by COVID-19 is like nothing he's ever seen, he said, and it has already deeply marked the local hotel industry and adjacent sectors like events, attractions and restaurants. Travel dramatically slowed during the period of escalating stay-at-home orders. Every major Queen Cityevent listed on his convention calendar is canceled, Kimberlin said.
The dropoff began roughly around March 11, Kimberlin and other local travel professionals said. That was the day the National Christian Homeschool Basketball Championship canceled its event planned for March 15 to 21. Had the basketball tournament gone forward, 300 homeschool groups would have converged on Springfield, all of them dropping money on lodging, food, necessities and treats.
"I’ve been through the gas crisis of the 1970s when you literally could not buy gas," Kimberlin told the News-Leader Wednesday afternoon. "I’ve gone through a number of recessions — 9/11, the Great Recession. Nothing even comes close. This is like 9/11 and the Great Recession rolled together and multiplied two or three times over."
He paused, then said, "It's looking like 9/11 was a walk in the park."
When the News-Leader provided Kimberlin with estimates of lost Missouri hotel jobs being circulated this week by the American Hotel & Lodging Association — statewide, more than 17,000 people working in hotels are laid off already, and more than 50,000 industry-adjacent jobs suffered the same fate — the travel pro was blunt in response.
"I think they’re low numbers," Kimberlin said. "There are roughly 20,000 people working in Greene County in the hospitality and entertainment field."
"Devastated" is the word he uses to describe the state of affairs for that field, including local hotels.'All of this just happened so quickly'
It's the same word used by Cara Walker-Whiteley. She is the owner and general manager of a LaQuinta Inn & Suites located near the Springfield-Branson National Airport, and she serves as board president for the Springfield Hotel Lodging Association.
"All of this just happened so quickly," Walker-Whiteley said. "We had all the information from the news sources, from the national level that everyone else had, but we had no idea the rug would be pulled out from under us so quickly."
It was just two weeks ago when the lodging association board members met. Springfield's hotels were booked up with high school and collegiate event-goers.
"We should have been booked all to capacity for the next two to three weeks," Walker-Whiteley said. "We went right from high occupancy, with entire hotel teams ready to provide the best in service, to nothing, with nobody traveling."
It is hard to say how many locals have lost jobs so far, she added. Managers and sales directors on the lodging association board have even been furloughed. It's "still quite possible" that folks working now could see their hours cut or be laid off.
Kimberlin, the CVB president, said it was hard to fully quantify lost hotel room nights and lost travel-industry jobs because most of the people who usually provide that data have been laid off.Lodgings closed and partly closed
On Tuesday, Missouri officials posted a mass layoff legal notice by Hilton Branson Convention Center, which laid off 57 staffers last Friday.
The News-Leader was not able to reach the Branson hotel's local ownership, but a Hilton corporate spokesperson called the hotel industry's situation right now "unprecedented" in a written statement.
Jeff Seifried, president and CEO of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the News-Leader in an email, "We are all in this together and are going to do our part to keep guests and employees safe. We want to open this economy back up ASAP, when we get the all clear from the CDC."
Laurie Hayes, executive director of the Branson Area Lodging Association, expressed similar views in a Wednesday afternoon email, noting Branson hotels are "hard hit by COVID-19."
"Some properties have opted to stay open as we provide essential service to our community," she said, "however, there have been many staffing reductions and layoffs that regrettably are impacting our associates."
Sometimes, managing the crisis is a matter of consolidating resources, not just staff cuts.
Kimberlin said Atrium Hospitality recently temporarily closed The Q Hotel & Suites on St. Louis Street, shunting all of the Q room bookings over to University Plaza Hotel, an Atrium property nearby.
This affects short-term rentals, too
Adie Williams, an Airbnb entrepreneur who manages four lodgings in the Rountree residential neighborhood, said she faced mass cancellations, too. Like others, she said the dominoes began falling when the homeschool tournament was dropped from the calendar.
"It all happened in a 10-minute span," she said, so quickly and so last-minute she had to do a manual override in Airbnb's e-commerce system in order to offer refunds to her guests.
Williams said she's retained a bit of business. One person is in the middle of a home sale purchase and needed temporary lodging. Another is a medical professional working the front lines of Springfield coronavirus treatment. He's booked one of her cottages for three to four weeks to avoid bringing COVID-19 home to his family.
Williams said she's relieved to have the cancellations because if her Airbnb houses were booked as solidly as they would be in a normal springtime with nearby Missouri State University in full operations, the thought of properly cleaning each lodging in-between guests — beyond her normally high standards to the point of COVID-19 disinfection — would have been highly problematic at best.Hopes for help from Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, Hotel Vandivort is implementing enhanced cleaning procedures. It also temporarily closed itsseven-month-old V2 building off McDaniel Street in recent days, focusing guest-room reservations — which are available, a representative confirmed Wednesday morning — on its original building off Walnut Street. Its posh hotel restaurant, The Order, and its rooftop bar, Vantage, shut down last week.
"During these unprecedented times, we are focused on the human element," said part owner John McQueary in a social media message Wednesday.
"Currently, our hotel services remain open, with safety measures in place for our guests and our staff. We are only hosting a handful of guests each night, and are spreading them throughout the building to reduce possible contact."
McQueary acknowledged that as an owner it's tough "to see our business essentially empty," but he expressed a belief that "the travel industry will pick up where it left off" when the public health crisis ends.
McQueary said he is also hopeful that the $2 trillion stimulus billthat U.S. Senate Republicans and Democrats agreed upon Tuesday night will have useful provisions for the travel industry.
Kimberlin, with the CVB, is also hopeful that the feds will bail out American travel — and that nonprofit CVBs will be able to apply for some of the relief measures proposed for small-business operations. The CVB depends on hotel taxes to fund its mission to promote Springfield as a travel destination. But hotel revenue is tanking.
His calculations show that so far, Springfield hotel revenue fell 17.6 percent the week before the homeschoolers' basketball tournament got spiked from the schedule.
The next week, it fell 33.2 percent.
Last week, it fell 57.3 percent.
The hotel tax estimate for the next month is 10 percent of what it normally ought to be as travel season gears up, Kimberlin said.
"The impact in Springfield is millions and miillions and millions," Kimberlin said, "just the groups we work with that have canceled. It's 21 different groups so far, with a total of about 23,500 room nights worth about $15.8 million in revenue."
To stabilize its own finances, the CVB cut $750,000 in advertising — a move that will spread consequences into the communications sector and limit the number of potential travelers who might want to come to Springfield once the crisis ends, Kimberlin said, creating a feedback loop of problems.
Darren Harralson, an executive with Springfield-based O'Reilly Hospitality Management, recently wrote to Congress asking for help, according to a news release from the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
“We are scrambling to find ways to keep our company afloat," Harralson wrote, "and have had to move to temporary leaves for around 40 percent of our workforce. We need help quickly for both our company and our approximate 1,800 team members.”
O'Reilly Hospitality Management's CEO, Tim O'Reilly, said Harralson and other company executives were extremely busy keeping the company afloat and would not be available for interviews Wednesday.
But chief executives in the national association membership met with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on March 17 to plead their case, the national association said in a news release.
Walker-Whiteley, the Springfield lodging association president, said there are two areas where government and the wider community can help the travel industry.
"We’re looking for the whole health and public safety component," she said. "How do we keep everyone safe, keep from spreading coronavirus and keep social distancing while still operating?"
On the flip side, Walker-Whiteley wants the government to do everything it can to "provide liquidity" for hotels.
"Just to pay the bills," she said. "Anything they can do to help with cash flow, so we can retain employees and get back to work."
Kimberlin, with the CVB, thanked southern Missouri for an "outpouring" of support.
He said, "The bright side of this is that when we come out of this, we can lead the country and state out of this. Because we’ll be adding employees like crazy when the time comes."