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Bloomington-Normal hotels started to rebound in 2021. Then omicron came

Carol Reitan Conference Center.jpg
Eric Stock
The head of the Bloomington-Normal Hotel and Lodging Association said convention business has started to return but concerns about coronavirus persist.

The hotel industry in Bloomington-Normal overcame staff and supply shortages to have a strong finish in 2021, before the coronavirus omicron variant came and stunted that rebound.

Ray Ceresa is president of the Bloomington-Normal Hotel and Lodging Association. As Executive Vice President of Hospitality and Asset Management at Tentac Enterprises, he runs three hotels, including the DoubleTree by Hilton and Eastland Suites in Bloomington.

Ceresa said the last coronavirus surge hurt occupancy rates over the last month.

“From July to the end of the year were record-breaking months of business and then the new omicron variant hit and that slowed the entire market," Ceresa said. "It’s still affecting all the hotels right now."

Ceresa said the business travel industry remains the hardest hit, especially when it comes to conventions. Some started to cancel again when coronavirus cases spiked over the fall and winter. He noted the DoubleTree in Bloomington made only half of what it typically makes in food and beverage sales last year.

Ceresa said in response to concerns about COVID-19, hotels have pledged to do all they can to limit the risk of COVID spread.

“We are cleaning the elevator buttons more often and telling our corporate clients and our business clients what we are doing to keep their employees and their guests safe,” Ceresa said.

Ceresa said economic factors related to the pandemic have made those ramped-up sanitation efforts more difficult. He said many hotels are still struggling to hire workers. He noted the lodging association had to cut back on meetings because the hotels were understaffed.

“Department heads that would normally participate in our association, they were cleaning hotel rooms and working the front desk and working in the kitchen — not necessarily managing, just trying to keep up,” Ceresa recalled.

Ceresa said the DoubleTree has refilled all 40 positions it cut at the start of the pandemic and has hired additional workers too, though he said some staffers have been moved to other departments while conventions and dinner meetings continue to fall short of pre-pandemic levels.

Ceresa said hotels have started paying higher wages. He noted one major hotel operator recently upped starting pay from $11 to $15 per hour. “You can’t sell the hotel rooms if you can’t clean the rooms,” Ceresa said.

The state minimum wage rose to $12 in January.

Ceresa said while 2021 showed major improvement over the previous year, when Bloomington-Normal hotels needed emergency relief to offset a $25 million drop in revenue, last year brought its own challenges, including staff shortages, supply chain bottlenecks, higher costs and a still-hesitant traveling public.

‘A saving grace’

Ceresa said Rivian has been a "saving grace" for Bloomington-Normal hotels for all the workers the electric-vehicle maker has hired in the last year, along with Ferrero, which is bringing in many international travelers to its chocolate-making plant that’s under construction in Bloomington.
He likened the increase in business to what State Farm used to provide Bloomington-Normal hotels but said that has waned in recent years. Ceresa said he's confident leisure travels will come back faster than corporate travel.

Ceresa referenced the return of the Bloomington Gold corvette show that left Bloomington two decades ago as a sign of a better spring and summer ahead. “I’m expecting our hotels to be sold out in full,” he predicted of the June 10-11 event. “Is it going to full up the entire town? I hope so.”

The Bloomington-Normal Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) has estimated the corvette show will pump more than $1 million into the McLean County economy.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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