Stateline travel and tourism industry looks to return to normal, may take some time

Updated: May. 19, 2021 at 10:54 PM CDT
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ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) - As Illinois ready to reopen its economy, visitor bureaus across the state prep for more activities and visitors as tourism rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local officials say in 2019, tourists around the state spent nearly $43 billion but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, those numbers were estimated to be cut in half for 2020. But during the pandemic, one of the safest ways to be around others was to be outside. Some businesses, like Rocktown Adventures, boomed and nearly sold out of some supplies. Owners say they hope this trend will continue.

“Kayaks flew off the shelves. The last few weeks have been the busiest we’ve ever been. The first feeling was thinking how this is going to affect the economy. We sell wants, not needs and how is the economy going to affect the want market if you will,” Kevin Versino says.

He’s not worried now. But as summer creeps closer, his business is one of several attractions joining efforts to reignite tourism in the Rockford region. The Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau hosted the 2021 Illinois Council of Convention & Visitor Bureaus spring membership meeting Monday through Wednesday at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Rockford Riverfront hotel and conference center to talk about these efforts with state leaders.

John Groh, President and CEO of Rockford’s visitor’s bureau says, “That was a period that was all about you know holding on and getting through, and we are looking for a period that looks like recovery.”

This campaign is the first new tourism marketing campaign since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials say travel spending is down 43 percent and the campaign highlights not only our community as a travel destination but sites around the state. Statewide, there were about 400,000 people employed in the tourism and hospitality industry prior to the pandemic, according to Illinois Council of Convention & Visitor Bureaus Chairwoman Jayne DeLuce.

Jayne DeLuce of Visit Champaign County says, “People might think we’re competitive in the fact that we want something for our own community. While that’s true, I want to see business in Champaign, John wants to see business in Rockford. We want to see it in Chicago. We want to see it in Shelbyville, where ever it is. We’re actually very cooperative in how we do that.”

Tourism is a chain reaction. Events and attractions draw in customers who frequent area businesses and when businesses thrive, the whole community benefits. Versino says, “We’re thinking if we can expand the footprint in which people are aware of us, increasing more visitation to Rockford. Benefiting our business, benefitting area businesses as well, and helping raise the profile of Rockford as an outdoor destination.”

Groh and state officials say the outlook for sports tourism will be brighter than the return to normal for business travel and conventions to have a slower recovery.

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