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DuPage tourism agency seeks federal relief funds for hotels

With business travel still slumping, DuPage County’s hospitality industry faces a challenging road to recovery from the economic fallout of the pandemic, tourism officials say, and one of the higher-end hotels in the area is no exception.

As labor shortages persist, the Le Méridien at Oakbrook Center has to make do with fewer employees. Despite increasing wages for hourly staff, the hotel now has about 70 workers, still below the 99 employed before the onset of COVID-19.

“Our business has been operating at a net loss for the past two years, and we’re probably one of the more successful hotels in our competitive market,” manager Dick Turner said. “Staffing has been a continued challenge. We’re still working through that. I still clean rooms.”

To help boost hotel business, the DuPage Convention & Visitors Bureau is asking county board members to provide $2.8 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds for hotel grants and tourism marketing. That’s about 1.6% of the county’s $179 million allotment under the American Rescue Plan.

Many of the county’s hotels rely on business travel, conventions and trade shows that have been slow to rebound to pre-pandemic levels.

In the Chicago hotel market, the occupancy rate in January was 35.4% — among the lowest in the country — compared to 68% in sunny Miami, according to STR, a firm that tracks hotel data.

“DuPage is going to struggle to recover probably a little bit later than most because we do have such large, full-service hotels,” said Beth Marchetti, executive director of the county’s tourism agency.

Of the total request, the bureau would set aside $2 million to support hotels through grants. The hotels, in turn, could use the money for transportation, bid fees and other costs related to booking events.

“They’ve had to sell off their shuttles. They no longer have some of the in-house AV equipment,” Marchetti told a county board committee last week. “They need help with hybrid meetings.”

Marchetti also is proposing $750,000 for a Choose DuPage and bureau marketing program. The remainder of the funds — $50,000 — would go toward resurrecting a regional tourism effort facilitated by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

Without the funds, DuPage hotels could be left at a competitive disadvantage as other counties and communities spend American Rescue Plan dollars on promoting tourism, Marchetti and some board members said.

“We need to help our hotels,” said county board member Amy Chavez, chair of the panel’s economic development committee. “We need to help the tourism industry. We need to make sure that DuPage is a strong player in this market. We can’t let these other communities out-market us.”

Board member Jim Zay said he wants to see a breakdown of towns that already have or plan to disperse some of their share of American Rescue Plan funds for local hotels.

Legislation introduced in Springfield also calls for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to award a one-time grant to the operator of each hotel in the state in an amount equal to $1,500 for each room. DuPage has an inventory of 16,000 rooms, meaning the county’s hotels would stand to receive $24 million, Marchetti said. Even if the state were to appropriate that money, hotels would have to use at least 80% of those grants on payroll costs, including wages and benefits for their workforce.

“Our industry was decimated. Once this pandemic started, a lot of people were furloughed,” said Kym Myers, general manager of the Westin hotel in Lombard. “A lot of people were laid off. And a lot of those people have not come back.”

By contrast, the county’s grant program is meant to help hotels bring back corporate and group business. The county board could vote on the funding proposal on March 8.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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