Brad Byrd InDEPTH: COVID-19’s impact on local tourism

In Depth with Brad Byrd

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (WEHT) — Been to a concert lately or made reservations for a hotel? Chances are many of you would say no. The hotel and convention industry has been hit hard, but in the past month that may not be the case in Evansville. That may be a good or bad omen depending on where you stand in the debate over public health and reopening the economy.

Jim Wood, CEO of the Evansville Visitors and Convention Bureau, talked to Brad Byrd Tuesday.

Transcription

Brad Byrd: Jim, you shared data with us today showing how our major venues and hotels are doing in all of this. Can you break that down for me, bottom line, how bad is it?

Jim Wood: Yeah, right now we’re just a little more than 20% under where we were this time last year in terms of occupancy. So we’re very far behind. However, if you compare us to our competitive set within the state of Indiana, we’re not doing so badly. You know, the numbers show that we’re probably looking at 4.2% better than our competitive set, so we could be in worse shape. But right now, we’re slowly moving up in terms of occupancy as we get into the summer months.

BB: And of course, we’re looking at the first six months with those numbers that you sent us. A major event that always draws thousands to Evansville, the Frog Follies that’s cancelled this year. That’s in August. You are concerned about that, I would assume.

JW: Yes, we’re concerned. You know, like most destinations, we’ve lost virtually all of our convention business for the remainder of the year, everyone has decided to be cautious. They did not want to meet indoors. And so Frog Follies as well as other events, conventions that were slated for Evansville this year have canceled, a lot of them have moved into 2021, which is good for us. We’ll have a very robust year in 2021. But right now this year, we’re just going to try to get by with leisure travel and corporate travel.

BB: You sent me some pictures today of the softball tournaments and basically they’re coming into Evansville and Vanderburgh County and they attract close to 6,000 people. We’re getting some pushback, though, on social media because many of these folks are coming in with their kids. It’s an American pastime, of course, but they’re coming in in the thousands. And they at least what we’ve seen many of them are not practicing social distancing and many are not wearing masks. What do you say?

JW: Well, the event was held outdoors and so masks are optional outdoors, though we had masks available for sale for anyone who wanted to purchase one, we did distribute masks to all the players so that they could wear them while they’re in their hotels, restaurants or retail outlets throughout the Evansville area. The tournament itself, the one that was in question, Great Lakes Region Tournament was originally going to have over 300 teams, so they lost nearly 100 teams this year versus last year. So we had a couple more fields slated for it. Attendance at the box office itself was down 40% from those 224 teams that were here. So what we saw were under 100 people per field. The governor’s guideline was no more than 250 people per field. So folks did social distance at the ballpark. I was a monitor, I worked all eight fields. I watched closely. The teams and the parents sat together individually. The teams do not mingle because they’re competing with one another. They don’t know one another. So the family units have been traveling together for weeks and so that’s what you saw. And that’s what the images that we we passed fall on to you as well. So we are confident that people did a pretty good job. We had signage out there, we reminded everyone through PA announcements every 15 minutes to be mindful of others the social distance, and I saw that readily throughout the park.

BB: Our media partner, they Evansville Courier and Press did two tours, according to his report of this tournament, and reported that basically, virtually no one had a mask on in the later afternoon games, and that it did not see this tour did not see adequate social distancing. Now we have some video that we shot last week. And it appears that there were, you’re right, there were people sitting together. But when you have that many people, especially when we’ve got a spike, do you understand why some people are concerned?

JW: You know, we understand. The grandstands maybe were a third full and that was all eight grandstands at the eight different fields. I watched, I was there for every single event. We did not see groups of people together because number one, the attendance was was way down. If the reporter, and we weren’t with him when he was walking to the park, so we don’t know what he saw. But what we did see were families together, you know, you might have had six family members sitting together. That was perfectly acceptable based on the COVID guidelines that are out there. You did not see groups of people that were from different teams socializing, that didn’t happen. We had ball teams that were practicing individually. And one of the other things of note, with eight fields, we only had 16 teams out there. Then that was it per couple of hours. So that was 16 teams. The teams came in, they played, they left another group of 16 came in, they played, they left, the tournament director scheduled the event so that people would come and go quickly. And they were told not to hang around after their games. And so everybody follow the tournament director’s rules, because he added additional layers of rules for this tournament to ensure that people kept themselves distance from each other.

BB: Well, Jim, we’re halfway through this crazy year. So we will be keeping in touch with you and looking at how the commission and hotel business fairs in the coming months. Thank you very much for joining us.

JW: Thank you for having me.

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