Head trip: How COVID-19 is affecting Cleveland's travel and tourism industry

Joe Savarise has two words for the effect of COVID-19 on the hotel and travel industry:

“Absolutely devastating”

“We are on track to have the worst year on record for hotels,” says Savarise, the executive director of Ohio Hotel and Lodging Association (OHLA). “We’re talking worse than the Great Depression. We hit historical low occupancy numbers within days of some of the [stay-at-home] orders in March, and occupancy in most hotels was virtually zero through May.”

Savarise notes that these trends have continued even as other businesses and parts of the economy have reopened.

<span class="content-image-text">Cleveland Downtown Hilton</span>Cleveland Downtown HiltonIn Cleveland, hotel room occupancy was less than 42.5% in August, compared to 71.5% in August 2019. Savarise states that most hotel need to be above 50% occupancy to stay open.

Room rates in Cleveland dropped as well—from an average of $109 per night to $89 per night.

The result has been massive job displacement—both in hotels as well as other complementary businesses. Of all those employed in Cleveland, around 8.5% of workers were employed in the hotel or travel industry prior to the pandemic.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association estimates that almost one in four hotel or hotel-supported jobs were lost during the pandemic.

“I know of hotels that are just running on skeletal crews of five people at this point, where the general manager is making beds” says Savarise.

The decline in occupancy does not just effect hotels, however. Groups like Destination Cleveland—the agency that markets Cleveland and helps promote tourism to the city—have also suffered.

“The industry is decimated,” says Emily Lauer, senior director of public relations at Destination Cleveland— an organization that is funded primarily through the sales tax on hotel stays, which has dropped by 50% this year. The agency announced in September that it had to lay off 45% of its employees due to declining revenue.

Lauer says the top two reasons visitors come to Cleveland is to visit friends and family; or to attend sporting events or annual festivals. With events cancelled and family members social distancing, spending across Ohio’s hospitality industry has plummeted.

Yet in the midst of those grim numbers, Lauer did highlight one upswing:

“The real winner here has been creativity” he says. “What we have seen is a lot of creativity from business owners about how to get up and running while still staying safe.”

Lauer credits relaxed city regulations on restaurants—which allowed restaurants to expand their outdoor patios—in helping businesses to come up with innovative ways to keep their doors open.

Destination Cleveland has also sought to re-ignite the tourism and hospitality industry through its three-part, Rediscover Cleveland campaign.

The campaign first encouraged businesses to commit to a series of sanitation standards called Clean Committed. More than 500 businesses have already signed on.

Destination Cleveland also created online and app-based resources to encourage Clevelanders to get out and visit local attractions, restaurants, and tourist destinations.

Meanwhile, cultural institutions have used the pandemic as an opportunity to innovate on existing programming to try and attract those tourists and visitors who do venture out.

<span class="content-image-text">Great Lakes Science Center</span>Great Lakes Science CenterInnovating at the Great Lakes Science Center

For Scott Vollmer, the vice president of STEM learning at Great Lakes Science Center (GLSC), innovation has always been an integral part of GLSC’s mission.

“If there is one lesson I learned from world class entrepreneurs and inventors, it’s to prepare for the unexpected” says Vollmer. As a former vice president of program development at the Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, he’s met with creators of ubiquitous inventions—from the digital camera to the microchip processor—and boasts three patents himself.

I guess you could say innovation is in my blood,” Vollmer boasts. So, when coronavirus forced the museum to close its doors to the public in early March, Vollmer’s first instinct was to create something new.

Within three days of the center closing, Vollmer and his team started broadcasting daily live science videos. The videos tripled the museum’s YouTube subscribers, and featured everything from front lawn watermelon explosions to interviews with NASA astronauts.

GLSC then pivoted to in-person summer camps, even as other camps remained closed. The center’s Curiosity Camps followed all CDC safety guidelines, requiring children to wear masks, work in groups of less than 10, and stay eight feet apart.

For those who preferred to remain at home, GLSC shipped science supplies to children and continued recording lessons to share virtually.

“We had 1,100 kids come to camp through the summer,” says Vollmer. “And not a single kid got sick.”

Once the school year re-started, GLSC found ways to build on and adapt the lessons learned from the summer camps. GLSC’s new Learning Labs provide in-person instruction for small groups of children during the week while parents are working.

Students complete regular classroom assignments with the assistance of GLSC educators and can stay at the Center from 7:30am to 5:30pm. Parents pay by the day, and GLSC has offered scholarships to some families who can’t afford the $ 59 daily fee.

“It provides flexibility to the parents, and unpredictability for us,” says Vollmer, who adds that his team is committed to adapting and remaining agile despite the unpredictability.

In the process, GLSC has adopted an approach that is already deeply engrained in the science community—test an idea, observe its impact, and make changes to improve the process.

<span class="content-image-text">Cleveland Museum of Art</span>Cleveland Museum of ArtCleveland Museum of Art: Creative Offerings

The Cleveland Museum of Art was also able to leverage its existing assets to create new programming.

“We already had a strong technological infrastructure in place prior to the pandemic, which we used for our Art Lens app,” says Kelley Notaro Schreiber in the marketing communications department. “We built off of that to create Home is Where the Art Is [digital library].”

Home is Where the Art Is allows individuals to view the collections Online, offers video series, and releases weekly creative activities for families.

The collections were viewed over 426,000 times online since April 2020—up from 254,000 during the same months last year.

Once the museum re-opened to the public, it enforced health measures such as social distancing, mask wearing, and timed entry for visitors. Reserved tickets for the museum are regularly sold out days in advance.

Ongoing Challenges

And while businesses and institution have responded creatively amidst the crisis, industry leaders emphasize that federal relief and public policy changes will be necessary to save hotel and tourism jobs on a larger scale. This is particularly true for the hotel industry.

“There is no take-out option for hotels,” explains Savarise. “There aren’t many creative options hotels can take to continue to bring in revenue.”

The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) has emphasized the need for Congressional relief packages to help hotels to survive the pandemic.

“Prior to the pandemic, hotels proudly supported one in 25 American jobs,” the AHA stated in a press release. “a recent AHLA member survey, conducted September 14 through 16, found that if Congress fails to pass another COVID-19 stimulus bill, 74% of hotels would be forced to lay off additional employees, and two-thirds of hotels (67%) would not make it another six months.”

The AHLA estimates that in Ohio, failure to pass an additional relief package would lead to the loss of over 86,000 jobs—either from hotels or from industries that are supported by hotels.

Shuttered hotels would not only mean fewer jobs, but a continued decline in hotel tax revenue.

The OHLA has also advocated for changes in public policy in order to allow for hotels to adapt to social distancing guidelines.

Currently, hotels and convention centers cannot host more than 300 people at a time, regardless of the size of the venue. The Ohio Travel Association (OTA) and OHLA are advocating for a cap that is based on the size of the venue, not a flat number.

Finally, the OHLA points to other states—such as Illinois—that have provided a Hospitality Emergency Grant Program to aid businesses in the travel and hospitality sector, combined with Congressional relief, might serve as a bridge to get the industry over troubled waters.

Cleveland is in a great position in terms of selling the destination and the community to travelers,” says Savarise. “We just need to protect the travel infrastructure we have.”

This is the second story in a three-part series on how COVID-19 will affect the way Cleveland worships, the city’s travel and tourism market, and working remotely and the commercial office space market. It is made possible with funding from Google's Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

About the Author: Sydney Kornegay

Sydney Kornegay is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Aidemocracy, The Columbia Star, and Observatario Economico. She has a master's degree in International Development and Economics from Fordham University and is the director of adult programming at Refugee Response in Cleveland.