EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Evansville’s travel and hospitality industries are taking a financial beating during the coronavirus pandemic, and they know recovery will take time.
Businesspeople are used to ebbs and flows in the economy. But this situation is far different. Damage from COVID-19 has been sudden, steep and devastating.
The public will have to feel safe before they start boarding airplanes, checking into hotels and dining out in large numbers again. Industry officials said they can play an important role in restoring comfort. Yet, they also know COVID-19 remains a reality, even as states gradually reopen and public health data shows some improvement.
“We went through something similar after 9/11,” said John Dunn chairman and CEO of Dunn Hospitality Group, owner of hotels in Evansville, Indianapolis and Louisville. “For us, it took nearly two years to get back to normal. But this, in my judgment, is 10 times worse than 9/11. I wouldn’t expect it within two years. It could take as much as five years. It’s not just about bringing business back. It’s about changing the way we’re going to have to do business.”
It means protocols that were unthinkable only a few weeks ago.
Dunn said his company’s hotels are among those taking guests’ temperatures before allowing them to check-in. Guests also must sign waivers denying symptoms or known exposure to someone with COVID-19.
Travelers already expect cleanliness, but industry officials said restoring confidence requires going above and beyond: frequently wiping down handles, doorknobs, elevator buttons and anything else guests might touch.
Data about coronavirus patterns is ever-changing. Travel industry officials said they are trying to keep up.
“We are meeting every day because we are inundated with webinars and different websites that enlighten us about the CARES Act and sanitation and all of that, so we can pass it on to different hotels,” Dunn said.
The pandemic has cost Evansville’s hospitality industry multiple major events that fill hotel rooms, which, in turn, supports local jobs and tax revenues.
An annual regional conference of Jehovah’s Witnesses, held over two June weekends at the Ford Center, is postponed. The NCAA Division II men’s basketball championship, also at the Ford Center, was canceled in March. Some concerts and smaller-scale events through the spring and summer are off the calendar.
Tropicana Evansville, which draws a stream of out-of-town visitors and has hotels and restaurants on its casino property, closed March 16 and is eyeing a mid-June reopen with heightened safety rules.
“Obviously it’s going to look a little different from property to property because they all have unique nuances,” said Matt Bell, executive director of the Casino Association of Indiana. “But there will be things like hand sanitizer stations throughout the floor. It’s going to be important our team members and guests have an opportunity to wear masks.
“We’ll set up our floors to accommodate social distancing, and that could look different casino to casino. Whether it’s occupying every other slot machine, or moving them to provide social distancing. We could do things like limit folks at a particular table game. We’ll have aggressive cleaning procedures, wiping down machines, tables and rails, trying to minimize touchpoints.”
Youth softball and baseball tournaments at Deaconess Sports Park are canceled or postponed. But Jim Wood, CEO of the Evansville Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the park will have a full August of tournaments if the pandemic continues to loosen its grip.
It’s possible local venues that draw crowds for events will take temperatures at the door as they reopen, as some hotels are already doing.
Wood said that from property to property, business to business, there won’t be a “blanket policy” on new safety protocols. Management companies must decide what’s best for their brand and their guests.
“There’s still a lot of evaluating going on,” Wood said. “I think decisions are being made in corporate board rooms as we speak.”
Before the pandemic, Evansville Regional Airport showed considerable momentum, with the completion of a $20 million renovation and consistent year-over-year growth in usage. The airport connects Evansville to five major hubs, and it offers seasonal Florida flights via Allegiant.
With COVID-19 having largely halted travel, EVV plans a new marketing campaign called EVVantage focused on enhanced safety.
It mandates best practices for social distancing, mask usage by employees, plastic shield barriers, surface disinfection and touchless transactions, said Leslie Fella, EVV marketing and air service director.
Changes at EVV emphasized in the new marketing effort incude:
- Social distancing markers. Nearly 100 floor markings and signs will give guidance on 6-foot distancing around TSA screening lanes, airline ticket counters, rental car agency counters, gate and boarding areas, baggage carousels and other common areas.
- Plastic shields in many key high-traffic areas, including ticket counter and rental car agency counters
- Mandatory face masks for EVV employees in contact with the public. Mask use by passengers and guests at the airport is “strongly encouraged,” according to EVV.
- Reduced seating in the airport’s Iron Compass restaurant and bar, as well as the common area outside it.
- Enhanced sanitation with emphasis on surfaces and high touch areas such as handrails, elevator buttons, escalators and seating, following state and federal guidelines. About a dozen new hand sanitizing stations are being placed throughout the airport, as well as PPE dispensers.
Leslie Fella, director of marketing and air service, and others said this type of protocol and messaging is paramount for the travel industry as it tries to recover from a sudden, dramatic downturn that nobody saw coming.
“It’s about overall peace of mind,” Fella said. “It’s all the things we are doing in the airport and packaging that with all the amazing innovative things airlines are doing to keep people safe.”