'It's Killing Us': Coronavirus Trickles Through B-N Economy | WGLT

'It's Killing Us': Coronavirus Trickles Through B-N Economy

Mar 13, 2020

The Bloomington-Normal hotel industry started 2020 off strong.

Booking were solid thanks to big events like the Illinois High School Theatre Festival at Illinois State University. And Grossinger Motors Arena in Bloomington hosted three state finals for wrestling, competitive cheer, and competitive dance.

Now, the coronavirus has changed all that.

“It’s killing us,” said Ray Ceresa, president of the Bloomington Normal Hotel & Lodging Association. “We had a very, very positive outlook for our market for the year. This week, we just took three or four steps backward. It’s frustrating.”

Two major Bloomington-Normal events have already been canceled: the Special Olympics Illinois state basketball tournament, and a robotics competition for high schoolers at ISU. The Special Olympics tournament led to 900 room bookings for 3,000 visitors. The robotics competition had 1,000 people and 225 hotel rooms.

Now, those people and bookings are gone. They will not be buying gas, dining out, or shopping in Bloomington-Normal. The estimated economic impact for the Special Olympics tournament alone was $287,000, according to Crystal Howard, president and CEO of the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. 

“Our industry is the industry right now that’s getting hurt the most because people are not traveling,” Howard said.

At Central Illinois Regional Airport, the situation continues to change, almost hourly, said spokesperson Fran Strebing. Currently passenger loads are running about 60-65% of normal, she said.

Leisure and hospitality is the third-largest employment sector in the Bloomington-Normal economy. There were around 12,300 leisure and hospitality jobs as of December, or around 13% of all nonfarm jobs in the area, according to Illinois Department of Employment Security data.

Workers in that sector are among the lowest-wage earners in Bloomington-Normal. Their average weekly wage was $331, well under the countywide average of $999, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The coronavirus could impact those workers the most.

At the DoubleTree Hotel and Conference in Bloomington, where Ceresa is general manager, he’s already instituted a hiring freeze and is cutting back on hours for some of his 125 employees. A typical room attendant (housekeeper) can clean around 16 rooms per day, Ceresa said. A crew will typically wrap up by 4 p.m. But on Thursday, they were all done by 1 p.m.

“So we’re already seeing hours automatically being shaved because of a lack of work,” said Ceresa. He said he hopes he can avoid laying people off.

And it’s not just major event cancellations that are reducing bookings.

Business travel has also slowed. State Farm has extended its business travel restrictions through April. Ceresa said the insurer has also stopped allowing some “externals” (like outside vendors) onto its Bloomington campus, further decreasing demand for rooms.

Howard said one hotel told the CVB it's already lost $100,000 in business from the slowdown of individual travelers.

“It’s scary,” he said. “I thought being in the middle of the Midwest, we’d be isolated from a lot of this. But that’s not the case. Yesterday the entire country was impacted.”