CHICAGO– The hotel industry suffered its worst year ever in 2020 and there are worries it won’t see pre-COVID occupancy until 2024.

The pandemic led to low room occupancy, massive job losses, and hotel closures across the nation.

The Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association is working on bringing more business back to the state to fill up those hotel rooms.

Michael Jacobson, the President and CEO of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, says the COVID restrictions for meetings and events in Illinois are must stricter than in neighboring states like Missouri and Indiana.

He says things like conferences, meetings, and weddings make up half of hotel revenue in the state.

“We are trying to urge the governor to begin the conversation on what a path towards safe and responsible gatherings, but gatherings larger than 25 people looks like,” Michael Jacobson.

He also says vaccine distribution is key. He says not only because it will lead to more leisure travel but he wants hotel employees to become vaccinated.

“Hotel workers are exposed to the public every day,” explains Jacobson.

The Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association is trying to pressure health departments to prioritize hotel workers as frontline essential workers.

A report by the American Hotel and Lodging Association says leisure travel is expected to be the first to return. It says 56% of consumers expect to travel in 2021, which is about the same for an average year.

Jacobson expects to see more regional travel in 2021. He says people may not be ready to jump on an airplane but they may want to go an hour or two down the road and see something else in their state.

When it comes to business travel, Jacobson is not worried about Zoom and virtual meetings cutting down on the amount of travel. He says business travel always comes back.

“Zoom has gotten us far, but if you are trying to make a sales deal, have a conference, or do training, nothing replaces face-to-face,” says Jacobson.

There is another reason Jacobson says it is critical to get the hotels filled again. He says they are critical for the local tax base.

He says hotels provided $8 billion last year for tax revenue for local, state, and federal governments. He said without that tax revenue, each Illinois household would be on the hook for $1,600 additional dollars in property tax.

There is also concern about getting the laid off workers back on the job. Illinois laid off 20,000 hotel workers in 2020. Jacobson says that also doesn’t account for those who rely on tourism for jobs that aren’t in the hotel industry.