Rockford tourism makes comeback three years after state’s first ‘Stay at Home’ order

Published: Mar. 13, 2023 at 8:55 PM CDT
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ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) - The corner of West State and North Main streets was darkened in March 2020 when Gov. JB Pritzker issued a shelter-in-place order as COVID-19 swept across the state.

Now, three years later, the corner is again bustling as Rockford’s tourism industry makes a comeback.

“We all thought we were going to go home for a couple weeks and everything would be back,” said John Groh, president of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, whose office at State and Main was shuttered for months following Pritzker’s order. “We know that quickly changed.”

Groh remembers the dark days of the pandemic when it was uncertain when the tourism industry would resume. Outdoor events returned in summer 2020, but large indoor events like tournaments and concerts took a while to come back.

Today, all virus mitigations have been lifted, and activities have quickly returned to pre-pandemic levels.

“The industry is back and in full recovery,” Groh said. “Some events are operating differently. It’s one day versus two days.”

Other than that, it’s smooth sailing again, a boon led largely by tourism’s sports sector, which continues to serve as the main driver as others right their ships.

Last year, the city of Rockford collected more in tourism-related revenue than it did in 2019, indicating that things are looking up economically.

“In 2022, there were gains in sales tax and hotel tax and food and beverage tax, Groh said.”

The new year has also gotten off to a strong start. Thousands of visitors attended two youth athletic tournaments and spent $2 million between March 9-11, causing a citywide hotel-room sellout, something tourism officials say is a good problem to have.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Gretchen Gilmore, general manager of the BMO Center and Coronado Performing Arts Center. “Our business has actually had a great turnaround.”

Gilmore says the BMO Center and Coronado are back to booking sold-out events.