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Weddings, summer sports leading way out of pandemic economic doldrums

What’s one word — and one word only — to describe the 2021 hospitality and entertainment season in the suburbs?

“Relief,” said Heather Larson, president of Schaumburg-based Meet Chicago Northwest. “Opening Day was June 11, 2021. The state of Illinois restrictions (COVID-19) came off — no masks, no space limitations, we could conduct business again.”

But hold on. Larson added that the Omicron variant “reared its ugly head” in late fall, which inflicted a sour note on the perceived progress made over the summer.

“Then the mask and Cook County vaccine mandate shut us down again in January and February 2022,” she said. “This uncertainty kept meeting and event planners from wanting to book our region. We lost a lot of programs to Indiana and Wisconsin in 2021.”

That leads us into the summer 2022 season, where Larson said “we are still feeling COVID-19 financially.” For example, meetings will be a hybrid model with both in-person and virtual components, she said. Less travel, less local revenue.

sound grim? Maybe on the surface, but there is plenty to be excited about this summer in the Chicago suburbs, which provides both residents and out-of-towners to enjoy what the region has to offer. For example, in Larson’s domain, that includes the USA Climbing Youth National Championships July 25-31 at First Ascent in Arlington Heights, along with its Youth Climbing Festival July 21-23.

Bounceback continues

Want another word to describe the 2021 hospitality and entertainment season? Try nimble, the choice of Beth Marchetti, executive director of the DuPage Convention & Visitors Bureau in Oak Brook.

Where 2020 was obviously challenging, Marchetti said, 2021 was the beginning of the recovery.

“(It was) shifting sands … the sands were constantly shifting below us,” she said. “To have different mandates in different counties was opportunistic, but problematic as well. We were able to shift some business from Cook County because we didn’t have the same mandates.”

But fast-forward to 2022 and like several other areas, there is plenty going on. Weddings, for one, bounced back in a big way in 2021 and have continued their positive arc this year. Summer sports, too, is a big boon; Marchetti said that 70,000 hotel rooms are already on the books directly related to sports.

Then there is the 100th anniversary of the Morton Arboretum and the same century-long celebration of Oak Brook Polo. And don’t forget the DuPage Community Arts Festival coming to the county fairgrounds Memorial Day weekend.

Cort Carlson, executive director of the Aurora Area Convention & Visitors Bureau agreed with Marchetti that weddings in particular have been “huge.”

“Many of our wedding venues are booked up,” Carlson said. “Some of the trends are going toward a smaller, more specialized venues, (like) more rustic farm-type venues.”

RiverEdge Park in Aurora will host a full complement of concerts, including the return of Blues on the Fox June 17-18. What’s interesting about that event is that the full lineup from 2020s event that got canceled is back this year.

Carlson also said by and large, restaurants are doing well — the only issue there is finding the pre-COVID-19 staffing to get regular hours back on track. Marchetti said restaurants in DuPage County are seeing good numbers, in part because residents supported restaurants at the height of the pandemic and are still doing so now. But, she added, “some smaller businesses are still really hurting.”

Maureen Riedy, president of Visit Lake County in Gurnee, noted that the recent seventh-annual Lake County Restaurant Week was well attended.

“We were very pleased with the interest and enthusiasm from customers who wanted to support local dining establishments and their workers,” Riedy said.

Corporate market slow to recover

Riedy said Lake County is starting to see a rebound in business travel and corporate meetings, which impacts hotels and restaurants. But Larson said a full recovery isn’t going to happen this summer. In fact, it’s probably a ways off.

“The corporate meeting market will likely not see a full recovery in room nights and average daily rate until the latter half of 2023,” she said. “While workers are slowly starting to come back to the office, many companies are still banning travel they don’t consider essential.”

Marchetti was less optimistic, noting that statistics reveal a full recovery for the business and convention markets won’t happen until 2024 or as late as early 2025. Still, there is reason for hope because the slow road to full recovery starts this summer.

“I think people crave seeing their colleagues,” she said. “When we have face-to-face meetings, there is such enthusiasm. You can’t get that on Zoom. You can feel the energy. There are some transactions that are hard to do via the internet.”

Safety still crucial

This is true, but safety will still be top of mind, especially for office workers and business travelers, Larson said, and probably always will.

“Everyone, and I mean everyone, has Zoom fatigue,” she said. “People want to get out and meet one another. They want to be with like-minded people. That’s what meetings and events provide: For individuals with similar interests to come together in unique ways. And now we know better than ever how to meet safety.”

Marchetti said DuPage County is statistically the healthiest in Illinois, per Niche.com. But safety still has a commanding presence.

“We just continue to follow the CDC guidelines, and the DuPage County Health Department,” she said. “I think people have to do what is comfortable for them. If people are comfortable wearing masks, they’ll do that.”

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