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Peoria's tourism is bouncing back from COVID, but still not hitting pre-pandemic levels

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Discover Peoria
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Peoria’s tourism market relies heavily on conventions and hotel occupancy numbers, and after dealing with the economic toll of limited travel during COVID-19, Peoria is now taking long strides towards attracting visitors and residents long-term.

In 2019, the Peoria area saw more than $656 million earned in tourism revenues. But a year later, Peoria’s tourism market came to an immediate halt when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Discover Peoria President and CEO J.D. Dalfonso said navigating the pandemic required all Discover Peoria staff to continually pivot around the economic challenges associated with isolation and stay-at-home executive orders.

“When your primary job is to bring as many people together as possible under one roof, a worldwide pandemic really puts a damper on things. So, you shift priorities to make sure that our residents are going to be the ones that will help drive this economy to sustain throughout this pandemic and then through recovery until we get the visitors back. So, it was our efforts to make sure that we paired up with other nonprofits, like our partners of Central Illinois,” Dalfonso said.

Dalfonso said dealing with COVID-19 safety mitigations yet also trying to uphold the tourism market was “a wild ride.”

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Discover Peoria
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Hotel Pere Marquette is one of the dozens of hotels in the Peoria area that was hit hard by the lack of visitors when stay-at-home orders and COVID-19 safety mitigations were in place.

“As much as you wanted to promote people to go support the small businesses that have supported us and are putting food on their own tables by trying to support their own businesses, some people were lost without jobs. Now, a great benefit of that is that the governments came in to support those that were displaced from unemployment, at no fault of their own, to really support them throughout that pandemic in a sense,” Dalfonso said.

Dalfonso said Peoria had to rely on its summer sports tourism market during 2020 to have a sense of normal tourism. He said places like the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex and Eastside Center worked with local health departments and the Illinois Department of Public Health to safely host outdoor bat and ball tournaments and events.

“We saw hotel occupancy really shoot up past forecasts of what we were expecting, which drove a lot more revenue to the cities that we represent,” Dalfonso said.

Tourism today in Peoria

Peoria’s tourism market relies heavily on conventions and hotel occupancy numbers to generate revenues, and Dalfonso said Peoria is taking multiple leaps to bring people back long-term.

Peoria's hotel occupancy (%) since COVID-19 impacted travel and tourism
March 2020: 16.20% occupancy
March 2021: 37.10% occupancy
March 2022: 50.20% occupancy
July 2022 (most recent): 66.80% occupancy

Dalfonso said Peoria area hotel occupancies have seen the highest growth year-over-year than all other Illinois destinations. This is according to the Smith Travel Research, Inc.

Though planning for the long-term is different now than it was pre-pandemic. Dalfonso said typically, Discover Peoria plans events and conventions roughly four or five years in advance. As Discover Peoria recovers from the unpredictability brought on by COVID-19, planning for the long term currently means planning one to two years ahead.

“Now, we can expand that a little bit more as we’re coming out, but still that long-term planning is only just a couple of years out. Those are determined by factors of inflation and [the] global supply chain that are large factors in hotels hoping to make profit and revenue in the right ways,” Dalfonso said.

Hotel occupancy numbers have gone upward in Peoria this year.

Dalfonso said the Peoria region has around 5,000 hotel rooms to accommodate people and families visiting Peoria.

“… our year-to-day occupancy is ticking above the national forecast of 13% over the last year. We’re currently sitting at a regional occupancy for the region at 50%, which is still lower than what we typically operate at, but it’s trending in the right direction and sooner than we predicted. From that sense, it’s going well."
J.D. Dalfonso, President and CEO of Discover Peoria

“… our year-to-day occupancy is ticking above the national forecast of 13% over the last year. We’re currently sitting at a regional occupancy for the region at 50%, which is still lower than what we typically operate at, but it’s trending in the right direction and sooner than we predicted. From that sense, it’s going well,” Dalfonso said.

Dalfonso said this trend upward in hotel occupancies will help Peoria recover economically in the long run.

“We pride ourselves in making sure that Peoria area is seen as a desirable place to do business and live and the most desirable place in the Midwest for wholesome, memorable experiences. That’s for residents and visitors alike, but as we pertain to our business with visitors, we really want to promote that our hotels are economic drivers,” Dalfonso said.

Dalfonso said hotels are a “large tax driver,” and drawing visitors to stay in the Peoria area is a huge plus for economic growth for the region.

“So, when we say we have a larger occupancy year over year, that is great, but also with that, our hotel rates have recovered to 2019 levels. There’s an effect to that, and that’s good because the more revenue you’re coming with the higher occupancy, that shows more money coming into the hotels [to] fight other parameters: inflation, global supply chain. It’s driving more hotel revenue to our destinations,” Dalfonso said.

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Discover Peoria
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One of Discover Peoria's main focuses is uplifting community events and businesses in seven counties in the Peoria area. In 2019, Discover Peoria saw $656 million of domestic travel spent in the Peoria region before the pandemic hit. Now, Discover Peoria is hoping to draw more visitors back to the city for conventions, sporting events and other attractions after two years of navigating COVID-19.

Dalfonso said in 2019, Discover Peoria saw $656 million of domestic travel spent in the Peoria region before the pandemic hit.

“It’s not just visitors coming to spend money. It’s also businesses supporting visitors and residents. It’s really a domino effect of how we get to those economic numbers when really we want to see how our work from the convention business bureau does so much of that for our quality of life.”

How inflation and national GDP tie into Peoria’s tourism rebound

U.S. Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, has been trending downward over the last two quarters, according to NPR. This past quarter, GDP went down by 0.9%, and in 2022’s first quarter, GDP was down by 1.6%.

Dalfonso said this decline in GDP and high inflation rates do pose a threat to all sides of Peoria’s economic growth, including drawing in visitors and keeping current citizens happy.

“For Peoria, seeing business travel recover to pre-pandemic levels, again, multifaceted reasons for that, but that is one driver that really hits during a recession. So, I guess without seeing that fully recovered yet, it can’t really go away. At the same time, the cost of living the inflation really makes people think about how they spend their money, where are they traveling and are they staying close to home rather than expanding further out?”

“What that means is when tourism does well, and we can invite other people to come and spend their money here, we’re collecting taxes from the outside. We’re not taxing our own residents. So, others are supporting our communities. In doing so, it eliminates discussion of potential taxes we have to place on our own residents to support the local governments and the necessary services that we rely on.”
J.D. Dalfonso, President and CEO of Discover Peoria

Dalfonso said, “There are some indications that say we will be okay, but at the same time, November and December are slower months for hotel and convention business just due to the holiday season and our destination. So, how do we combat those winter months before the conventions start coming back in January, February, March. So, we might have some dark days at the end of this calendar year, but there are many factors that can exist before then that we’ll keep a close eye on.”

Dalfonso said for tourism to not only rebound but to soar economically in Peoria, this depends on people spreading their positive experiences in Peoria through word-of-mouth with nonresidents. He said spreading negatives does trickle back economically.

Dalfonso said, “What that means is when tourism does well, and we can invite other people to come and spend their money here, we’re collecting taxes from the outside. We’re not taxing our own residents. So, others are supporting our communities. In doing so, it eliminates discussion of potential taxes we have to place on our own residents to support the local governments and the necessary services that we rely on.”

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Jordan Mead is a reporting intern at WCBU. She joined the station in 2021.