CINCINNATI — Roughly 4,500 people will head to Cincinnati over Fourth of July Weekend for the 133rd annual International Moose Convention.

From June 30 through July 4, the group will discuss the global operation of its lodges and fraternities.

The Cincinnati Reds are on an extended homestead, including a weekend matchup with the Chicago Cubs. And everyone knows Cubs fans travel well.

This holiday weekend is an important milestone for the local tourism and hospitality industries that suffered greatly during the past 18 months due to the pandemic.

"Certainly the pandemic had a debilitating impact on the travel and tourism industry locally and really around the country," said Julie Calvert, president and CEO of the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB).

What You Need To Know

  • Loss of 166 conventions/conferences due to COVID had a negative economic impact of $114 million

  • Some events starting to return to the region

  • Leisure travel still far outpacing business trave

  • Numbers expected to be back to near 2019 numbers by 2023

Calvert recalled March 7, 2020 as the date of the "big drop-off."

Duke Energy Convention Center
Duke Energy Convention Center in downtown Cincinnati (Provided)

"Events were canceling, meetings were canceling, (hotel room) occupancies really just started taking a downward spiral. And that continued throughout 2020," she said.

In total, 166 groups canceled conferences or conventions in Cincinnati/Hamilton County last year, per the CVB. Duke Energy Convention Center hosted only 20 events in the 12 months following the start of the pandemic.

Those canceled events equal 132,000 lost hotel room nights. The CVB estimates that 1,730,000 people would have stayed in those rooms — and ate Cincinnati food, drank Cincinnati beer and bought Cincinnati goods.

That never happened.

The negative economic impact of losing those events was $114 million, Calvert said. And that number only reflects events scheduled through the CVB.

It doesn't include the impact of losing signature events, like the Taste of Cincinnati, the Western & Southern Open, Cincinnati Music Festival or Oktoberfest Zinzinnati, one of the largest events of its kind in the world.

"The convention business, along with events, trade shows, meetings and galas, and the events we host... are a critical component of the health of downtown Cincinnati," said Ric Booth, general manager of the Duke Energy Convention Center. "Hotel room nights create the base of our funding and bring countless ancillary dollars into the Central Business District," he added. "As our local restaurateurs and small business owners know: when conventions come to town, everyone downtown prospers."

Calvert said that at its low point, hotel occupancy was at 16%. Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) only saw 300 to 400 passengers a day for a time.

To help stabilize the downtown economy, the city of Cincinnati and Hamilton County worked with the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber to put funds and other resources into the hands of small businesses.

Streateries popped up and small business grants were created. Funds were raised to provide childcare provider support. Free protective equipment for workers and hand sanitizer for businesses were made available.

Hundreds of millions in federal relief as part of the American Rescue Plan didn't hurt.

The CVB- and chamber-led “Get Your Cincy On” campaign aimed to get people to support local businesses.

“We want to encourage people to shop, dine and stay in our hotels, and to support their neighbors,” said Hamilton County Commission President Stephanie Summerow Dumas. “I believe all of our collective efforts mean we have a brighter future ahead for all of us.

The release of COVID vaccines and lifting of many restrictions has helped travel and tourism pick up in recent months. Candace McGraw, CEO of CVG Airport, said she expects passenger volume this summer to be at 75-80% of 2019 totals.

In the past month, they've seen about 10,000-12,000 individuals going through the security checkpoint on peak travel days, she said.

"As conferences and other larger gatherings (like trade shows) begin to return this summer and fall, we anticipate domestic leisure travel to make a full comeback by the end of this year," McGraw said. She added that corporate and international travel will gradually recover into 2022 and 2023.

Terminal at CVG Airport
The terminal inside CVG Airport

Business travel is also a major economic driver for the local hospitality industry. McGraw said that over the last two months, national data indicate a 20-point improvement in business travel but only to about 35% of 2019 levels.

Calvert said people are feeling "pent up" and looking for things to do. There's plenty of locals taking stay-cations or people visiting from across the region, she said. That's good for the bars, restaurants, museums and other businesses.

But they need business travel to return.

"We're seeing a lot of activity on the weekends with hotel occupancy rates in the 80s (percent range), but it's still a little soft during the week," Calvert said. "We know that it's going to pick up as people continue to feel safe."

Things are improving though, Calvert said. She noted a conference the city played host to in fall of 2020 as a sign.

The International Aviation Forecast Summit brought c-suite leaders from airlines across the world to downtown Cincinnati in October. Originally, the event would have hosted about 800, but only around 100 showed up in person.

Still, it was a good starting point, Calvert said. Some hotel rooms filled up. Bars and restaurants had out-of-town guests. And things looked more like normal.

"It was a really good time to host that event because it gave us a front seat for analyzing trends and looking at the industry forecast and recovery for the airline industry," Calvert said.

Booth said lifting capacity restrictions has the convention center at “almost business as usual." He said by fall they hope to be 80-90% back to our normal operation. Approximately 85-90% of the canceled events have rebooked, with the latest to return in 2022.

The National Private Truck Council took place earlier this month. It brought about 1,000 people to the area for the two-day conference.

Other events this summer include the Pure Romance convention, a comic expo, a regional homeschooling conference and The Flying Pig Marathon.

"We have a really strong convention lineup for now through the rest of the year. That tells me people are getting out and ready to get out," Calvert said. "We are excited for the rest of this year and what's to come."