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Chicago’s tourism, hospitality industries on comeback trail, after summer surge of hotel bookings

The average hotel occupancy rate on summer weekends was 71% — 85% during Lollapalooza. Counting weekdays, summer capacity reached 51% overall. July hit at 57.5%, the best occupancy rate for Chicago since February 2020, the month before the stay-at-home shutdown.

The Chicago skyline is seen from Maggie Daley Park in the Loop.
Latest occupancy figures show Chicago hotels starting to turn to corner from the low point of the coronavirus pandemic.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

There’s no place quite like Chicago in the summertime, even during a surge of coronavirus cases tied to the Delta variant.

That much is evident from the barrage of encouraging news about the city’s rebounding tourism and hospitality industries disclosed Wednesday by Choose Chicago.

The agency charged with selling and marketing Chicago says summer in the city has been big business for hotels that have reawakened from their pandemic-induced slumber by booking two million room nights in June, July and August.

That’s still just 60% of the rooms booked during the summer of 2019. But, it was enough to generate nearly $400 million in hotel revenue, more than $69 million in tax money at the state, county and city levels.

The average hotel occupancy rate on summer weekends was 71% — and it reached 85% during Lollapalooza weekend. Counting weekdays, summer capacity “topped out at” 51% overall, reaching 57.5% in July.

That’s the best occupancy rate Chicago has recorded since February 2020, the month before the stay-at-home shutdown that prompted scores of major hotels to close their doors.

Chicago’s overall hotel inventory now stands at 43,921 daily rooms, 98% of “previous peak capacity.”

Choose Chicago credited its “Seize Your Summer” campaign with generating $79 million in hotel revenue from May 1 to Aug. 22 after 4.8 million searches for hotels and 500,000 searches for flights.

The agency said its Expedia campaign alone “drove more than 121,000 room nights” and $44 million in revenue from May 3 and Aug. 19.

Overall employment in Chicago’s “leisure and hospitality” industries rose 45% over a 13-month period ending in June after a pandemic-induced freefall — from 159,589 jobs in August 2019 to 74,491 jobs in May 2020.

Although tourism is driving the comeback, conventions are adding fuel.

McCormick Place reopened with the reimagined and abbreviated Chicago Auto Show and has 72 shows “on the books” from August through December. Those shows are expected to attract 1.4 million patrons who have booked 1.7 million room nights at Chicago hotels. Fourteen of those meetings will make their Chicago debuts.

Another 380 “short-term, hotel-based meetings” have been booked from August through December. Those events should generate 576,000 room nights.

Michael Jacobson, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association, could not be reached for comment on the encouraging news.

Earlier this year, Jacobson urged Mayor Lori Lightfoot to grant his request for a hotel-only version of the Payroll Protection Program that helped restaurants survive the pandemic.

Jacobson wants Lightfoot to earmark $75 million of the $1.9 billion avalanche of federal coronavirus relief on its way to the city to help Chicago hotels staff up for a full reopening. That’s roughly $1,500-per-room at every city hotel.

The unprecedented request was made at a time when the Westin River North, the Sheraton Grand, the Hilton Chicago and the Palmer House Hilton had just begun their slow reopening after being closed for more than a year.

Jacobson argued then that Chicago hotels had gone “a year without a penny of revenue,” needed to rehire up to 200 people “just to open their doors,” but didn’t “have the capital on hand after being closed for a year to get those paychecks up and running.”

“Then business will pick up with Lollapalooza and with conventions to sustain those paychecks. We just need that initial influx. We just need a little boost because hotels haven’t gotten a penny of support from the city of Chicago throughout this all,” Jacobson told the Sun-Times.