From tourists to local residents wanting a staycation, the demand for hotel rooms in Kansas City is gradually returning to normal.
After COVID-19 put a stop to tourism and hospitality, people who are vaccinated and looking to get out of the house are booking more than double the number of rooms occupied this time last year. But numbers still aren’t back up to pre-pandemic levels.
In June, hotels downtown were averaging around 2,400 rooms booked a night, according to data provided by Visit KC. That’s about 65% of what hotels would have expected before the pandemic, but it’s far above the 900 rooms booked last mid-June.
So far this year, about 30% of the rooms downtown have been booked. The number in the metropolitan area was slightly higher at 45%. Hotels downtown will likely take longer to fully bounce back because they depend heavily on business and convention travel, which is coming back at a slower pace than leisure.
Chad Mohwinkle, general manager of Sheraton and The Westin hotels at Crown Center, said things are looking up.
“The phone is ringing in a way that it wasn’t even six months ago,” he said. “It’s a very positive sign for us.”
The Sheraton reopened Thursday after closing for COVID-19 and remodeling. The work involved $8 million in upgrades, including turning 70 rooms from single king beds to double queen beds, renovating its ballroom and redoing all rooms with new bedding, carpet, paint, light fixtures and chairs.
According to Visit KC, it is the last major hotel downtown to reopen after the pandemic.
After widespread restrictions on travel and business, Mohwinkle said, the company was waiting for the right time. And with vaccination rates on the rise and more people looking for rooms, this seemed to be it.
“You have to have a base amount of business to cover your fixed costs to reopen the hotel,” he said. “But we are so excited that we’ve been able to get to a point now with vaccinations and with the reopening of the local economy where we can bring our associates back to work.”
Most of the increased business has been driven by people traveling for fun. Across the country, 56% of people surveyed said they expect to travel for leisure this year — close to the same amount as in a normal year, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s 2021 State of the Industry report.
“Look, we all want to travel,” said Jason Fulvi, president and CEO of Visit KC. “’Can we please just get a vacation,’ right? We all want to go somewhere, so that pent up demand is real.”
There’s also been an increase in “staycations,” with local residents looking to get out of the house they spent a year holed up in. All the demand for fun travel means weekend rooms may be more scarce than weekdays.
“People want to make memories and experiences, and even locally, getting out of your home for the weekend and coming to the hotel and enjoying the things that Kansas City has to offer is something that people have been eager to do,” Mohwinkle said.
With the increase in remote work, business travel is slower to return. While it seems to be trending up, Fulvi said business trips may not return to pre-pandemic levels until closer to 2024.
Conventions also play a big role in the Kansas City hotel business. Fulvi said it will likely be 2023 before convention attendance is back to where it was.
“I think the last piece of the pie that’s going to be a while before it comes back is the convention business,” said Kurt Mayo, executive director of the Hotel and Lodging Association of Greater Kansas City. “We’ve lost so many conventions. . . And that’s really hurt us.”
But things are looking up for events like weddings and family reunions.
“Weddings have done great,” said Philip Strnad, general manager of Hilton President Downtown. “There were a lot of people who postponed their weddings to 2021, so we have weddings constantly. And things are getting a lot better.”
The biggest challenge the hotel industry faces right now is a surplus of open positions.
“I think as a hotelier, you want to provide the best service possible to your guests. And when you don’t have the appropriate number of staff, the service can suffer a little bit,” said Kate Higgins, general manager of Hilton Kansas City Airport hotel. “Right now, the travel industry is coming back. It’s coming back quick. But as an industry, as hotels, we can’t supplement that with our staff right now.”
Despite challenges, hotels are working to bring operations and bookings back to what they were before COVID-19.
“There’s a long road remaining ahead of us as an industry, and we are very optimistic about what lies ahead,” Mohwinkle said.