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Bloomington hotel manager supports legislation to boost industry

Hotel manager Anwar Martin, left, and Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association president Michael Jacobson, right, spoke at a press conference on March 8.
Hotel manager Anwar Martin, left, and Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association president Michael Jacobson, right, spoke at a press conference on March 8.

Lawmakers and hotel managers announced a new package of bills on Tuesday they hope will revitalize the struggling hospitality industry in Illinois.

The Hotel Jobs Recovery Plan includes House Bill 5690, sponsored by Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, and Senate Bill 4184, sponsored by Sen. Elgie Sims Jr., D-Chicago. Both bills are expected to have bipartisan support.

The bills would provide $250 million in grants to hotels across the state, many of which have struggled since COVID-19 began. Hotels would receive grants of $1,500 per room. This money would come from the federal American Rescue Plan Act money awarded to Illinois. The total hospitality grant, if included in the budget, would take up 3% of Illinois’s ARPA money.

Hotels in Illinois, and particularly Chicago, have experienced record low occupancy rates during the pandemic. The Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association cites a nationwide loss of nearly $112 billion in room reservations alone. This number does not account for canceled conventions and large-scale events. Illinois lost $54 billion in room reservations in 2020 and 2021.

The state has lost 40% of its hotel jobs over the same time period, said the association. Now hotels are struggling to hire people.

In the case of the hospitality industry, the regular pandemic-related difficulties of hiring employees is compounded by a widespread belief that hotel jobs are either low-paying, not career-focused, or both. This is something the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association is working to change.

A prime example of the careers available in the hospitality industry is Anwar Martin. Martin, general manager of the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Bloomington, started as a banquet server 13 years ago before climbing the ranks to become a banquet supervisor, then food and beverage director, then assistant general manager, before becoming general manager late last year.

“I didn't have an idea that that was possible. But the more I continue to work, the more I continue to understand the industry and I actually fell in love with it,” said Martin.

The bill package stipulates that of the amount awarded to each hotel, 80% of the grant would be required to go to payroll and wages.

Martin said this grant could be a lifesaver for his hotel, which has been operating without its full staffing capacity during the pandemic.

“It'll actually give us an opportunity to continue to hire more staff. It's just been such a struggle to keep individuals on the payroll and be competitive with the other properties and businesses that are in town. This will help us be able to bring people back to work and keep the hotel functioning the way it should,” Martin said.

While these bills have been filed after the filing deadline, the sponsors aim to include these appropriations in this year’s budget. Negotiations for allocation of ARPA money and other state revenue have already begun.

The state budget must be finalized by May 31.

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Maggie Strahan is a Public Affairs Reporting program intern for WGLT and WCBU.
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