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Tourism & Hospitality Outlook: Cara Walker Whiteley

General Manager, La Quinta Inn and Suites-Airport Plaza and Walker Hospitality Group

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Cara Walker Whiteley has worked in the hotel industry since 2005, and she’s using her experience in management at Walker Hospitality Group and as president of the Springfield Hotel Lodging Association.

SBJ: What is the current state of travel and tourism in Springfield?
Whiteley: Before all of this happened, we were very optimistic that 2020 would be a banner year for travel and tourism. Springfield typically runs around 63% occupancy all year long. We hit bottom the first week of April, and our occupancy was in the low 20% range. We’ve rebounded just a little bit, and our citywide occupancy numbers are 30%-40%, and people are ecstatic. Never would you have thought that you’d be celebrating numbers like that.

SBJ: What is the key to recovery for the industry?
Whiteley: Customer confidence is huge in getting travel to return in all segments. Knowing when the vaccine will be available for the masses is really going to drive that customer confidence to where people will start rebooking and local governmental jurisdictions will start lifting some of the travel restrictions.

SBJ: The American Hotels & Lodging Association says 71% of hotels won’t survive another six months without further COVID-19 relief. Locally, we haven’t seen permanent hotel closures. Does Springfield have a specific advantage over other markets?
Whiteley: For Springfield in particular, we probably have not been hit as much as some of the bigger, more urban markets because we attract people from within a driving radius. Then we have the lakes and great hiking. Springfield is lucky in the natural amenities that we offer for vacationing.
SBJ: What consumer behaviors have emerged from the pandemic that will affect the way hotels do business?
Whiteley: Vacationing typically used to be in your summer months or in conjunction with school calendars, but as school is taking a virtual approach and as people work from home, those sessions have kind of been extended. The flip side of that is people have now learned how to do remote work, so there might not be such a big demand for people to travel for work.

SBJ: Other than enhanced sanitation measures, what trends do you foresee lasting beyond the pandemic?
Whiteley: I think people will want the best value, and that’s not always in price. A cancellation refund policy – making sure we’re transparent and communicating that will be important.

SBJ: In September, the AHLA projected 40% of those employed in hotels would still be out of work in February. How have those layoffs affected the local industry?
Whiteley: If you can’t really drive any demand, your next option is to manage the expenses. Organizations have really had this year to figure out how to cut costs. You’re not even talking about breaking even anymore; it’s how we weather this for the long haul. A lot of people have been let go and permanently furloughed, and those that are still surviving this industry are wearing a lot of hats.

SBJ: What does the timeline to recovery look like?
Whiteley: There are several statistics the hotel industry is always looking at: occupancy and rate. I really feel confident that demand will come back when vaccines come out, but the rate component is what I think is going to take many, many years to recover.

SBJ: Contactless check-in, virtual tours and mobile apps have become part of the guest experience this year. How important are these technologies to daily operations?
Whiteley: The whole landscape has changed. Whereas in the past, I think people were looking at those types of technologies as an added convenience or something to make the guest experience a little easier and more efficient, now it’s really a matter of public health and safety.

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