Michael Stavros remembers it well.
It was the first day of Catersource Conference & Tradeshow, March 9, in Las Vegas, the annual premiere convention event for the catering industry.
Mr. Stavros, partner and director of business development at Phoenix-based M Culinary, said in the last year his company had been on an amazing growth trajectory.
Then a surreal wave of change hit the convention center.
“Everybody’s phone simultaneously started blowing up and that’s when the news started coming in, and the information was coming in, and the dreaded cancellations and postponements were coming in. In the amount of 10 days our industry globally had ground to a halt,” he said. “We’d never seen anything like it and I hope we never see anything like it again.”
Of course, he is referencing the COVID-19 pandemic and the carnage that would follow.
All industries have been affected by the pandemic, but hospitality and tourism were among the worst.
Travel spending is expected to decline $519 billion, representing $1.2 trillion in economic loss, according to U.S. Travel and Tourism Economics.
About 90,000 hotel supported jobs have been lost in Arizona amounting to a 40% job loss in the industry,, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association and Arizona Office of Tourism.
Experts say the hit to the hospitality and tourism industry is nine times that of the September 11 terrorist attacks fallout.
Kim Sabow, president and CEO of the Arizona Lodging & Tourism Association, said it is one of most devastating and unprecedented health and economic challenges in modern times, but is optimistic about the future.
“It was felt instantaneously,” she said. “At a time when we should be experiencing 80% occupancy, it plummeted to single digits.”
But, she said, the industry is looking to the future with a plan to re-open, and part of that is reestablishing consumer confidence.
Arizona Lodging & Tourism Association has launched the AZSafe + Clean Certification program. In partnership with the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s Safe Stay initiative, a checklist of best practices for enhanced cleaning and social distancing guidelines has been created.
Ms. Sabow said this is an industry that is founded on safety and cleanliness standards and this program will take it to the next step to re-instill consumer confidence that will be critical during the recovery period.
When travel stops the economy stops, she said.
“This is going to be of paramount importance in conveying to consumers that we are indeed prepared to welcome them back and that our businesses are safe and clean,” Ms. Sabow said. “We partnered with our national association and collaborated with all major national brands throughout the country to come up with best practices and guidance in coordination with the CDC to ensure travelers that, as they are considering to book vacations once again, or businesses looking to book business travel, they have that level of confidence that the property or business in which they are entering is indeed safe and clean and meets CDC guidelines as well as guidelines that are actually above and beyond what the industry has established.”
The hotel industry began seeing glimpses of life during the week of May 23, as lock-down measures began to ease up, with a 13% gain from the prior week, said Melissa Gogel, vice president of marketing, tourism and communications for Visit Phoenix.
She said a return to normal will likely follow the following trajectory: leisure travel within the state will return first with the drive market leading way; the next phase will include drive markets outside of Arizona, as many people will be more comfortable with the road versus the air. Air travel will follow after that.
Staycations are already being offered and will be key in bolstering the industry, she said.
“Our initial campaign will be focused on driving business back into Arizona hotels and resorts, incorporating attractions and dining,” Ms. Gogel said.
Like the hotel industry, the Phoenix Convention Center is also undergoing a cleanliness certification process.
The destination has become quiet since the pandemic caused event cancellations, and won’t see bookings until at least September.
One of the venue’s biggest events, Phoenix Fan Fusion, was postponed from Memorial Day weekend, May 21-24, to September 25-27.
Ms. Gogel said the convention center has lost bookings but future bookings remain strong.
Of the groups that have canceled, one is still in the books for 2020 and six have re-booked in future years. She said this accounts for more than 30,000 room nights or 18,000 attendees. There are 11 other prospects that would account for 52,000 room nights or 33,000 attendees.
“These future groups will bring a much needed economic boost not only to downtown Phoenix but the entire metro area and beyond,” she said. “There is a lot of upsetting and sobering news about the statistics and what has happened to our industry, but we are here to help lead the recovery and bring business back into our destination.”