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Vigo tourism slammed by virus impact

Tribune-Star - 3/18/2020

Mar. 18--Tourism in Vigo County is taking a direct hit from the COVID-19 fallout.

Events that normally infuse Terre Haute with spring visitors have been canceled. Among the victims are spring graduation at Indiana State University, which had been slated for May 9, and events such as a state youth bowling championship and Special Olympic Indiana activities.

"This past weekend was a rough one," said Allison Morrison, "as we experienced about 50 cancellations in a 12-hour window, which is basically unheard of for us," she said of situation at Holiday Inn Express on the city's east side.

Morris is a general manager at Dora Hotel Company LLC, which operates four hotels in Terre Haute. They include Holiday Inn Express, Hilton Garden Inn, Candlewood Suites and Home2Suites.

The Holiday Inn Express has an advantage. Being located next to Interstate 70 on Indiana 40/46 makes it the first visible hotel in Vigo County for travelers headed west on the freeway. "That is a saving grace during this time, to allow travelers, who feel safe enough to stop, that they do have a place to come that is taking this as serious as the rest of the nation," Morris said.

"We are sanitizing all high touch areas -- such as elevator buttons and door handles -- once an hour. We have moved our continental hot breakfast buffet to what we call a grab-and-go breakfast," Morris said, "so everything coming in is pre-packaged and sealed."

Hotel staff also wear disposal sanitary gloves and are disinfecting room key cards.

Additionally, the Holiday Inn Express has dropped its daily rate to $99 from $104 a night to compensate amenities lost including a fitness center as well as a pool and spa, all of which are closed, Morris said. "We are focusing on occupancy right now instead of rate," she said.

The hotel has 83 rooms and Monday evening it had sold 40 rooms "which does not sound like a lot, but with everything happening, I was very happy with those numbers. If we can maintain a 50 percent occupancy, and at bare minimum a 40 percent occupancy, we should be safe-ish," Morris said.

The hotel is operating on a minimum crew to control and cut costs, Morris said.

"Revenue was never really the best in the month of March, but now it is extra not great," Morris said, adding that corporate brands are removing penalties for not reaching financial benchmarks. "It is uncharted territory for everybody and everyone is just flying blind."

Erica Free, manager of the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Terre Haute, said the hotel "is definitely feeling the effects" of COVID-19 fears in terms of hotel reservations.

"We have had a lot of cancellations, extending from now through May. It is bigger than 50 percent, it is a major impact. Especially as Indiana State University has cancelled its graduation," Free said. "Also, most companies nationwide now have travel bans, so they are not allowing people to come here."

Additionally, the hotel will be impacted as it relies on ISU students for staffing. Those students began online learning this week, and will go on spring break next week. They will then continue online learning for the remainder of the semester, which ends May 8.

At the Hampton Inn on Terre Haute's south side, an employee said the hotel sustained 60 cancellations from bowling teams scheduled to be in the city as well as graduation ceremonies at Indiana State University. "It is a very big hit," the employee said, "this is stretched out until May."

David Patterson, executive director of the Terre Haute Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the CVB closed its facility until April 6 to follow national recommendations of social distancing for the coronavirus. Patterson said many spring events have been canceled and that will reduce the number of people coming into the county.

"We were two weeks into the Indiana State Youth Bowling Championship and a decision was made to suspend the remaining six weeks of that tournament," Patterson said.

"Special Olympics (Indiana) has also canceled the preliminary rounds of basketball and swimming," Patterson said.

Special Olympics Indiana last week stated it would suspend all sports trainings, competitions and other activities involving athletes through March 31. That included cancellation of the 2020 State Basketball Tournament, including the Women's State Finals, all Men's Sectional competitions on March 21, the Youth State Tournament on March 28 , and the Men's State Finals March 28-29.

Another event canceled for Vigo County was a Bass Sportsman Club outing slated for this weekend at the Wabash Valley Family Sports Center, Patterson said.

"This will have a short-term negative effect on the tourism industry in Vigo County," Patterson said of the coronavirus, "and we anticipate more closures and cancellations," Patterson said.

Patterson said no decisions have yet been made for two major upcoming events. That includes a volleyball tournament sponsored by Crossroads of America and Team Indiana slated for April 18 and 19 that attracts 900 to 1,000 people, and the Midwest Classic Youth Soccer Tournament set for April 25 and 26, which attracts 1,000 to 1,200 people.

Other upcoming events that could be impacted include a Gatorade Challenge Basketball Tournament slated for June 5-7 to be held at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology as well as in gyms of three junior high schools in Vigo County, and Special Olympics Indiana summer games the following weekend at ISU.

The drastic dip in tourism and the closure of area restaurants and bars will affect collection of the county's food and beverage tax, said Vigo County Auditor Jim Bramble. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb this week ordered restaurants, bars and nightclubs to allow only drive-through or delivery services, banning all dine-in or table services.

Last year the county received $2,305,829 from the food and beverage tax, higher than projections ranging from $1.2 million to $2.1 million. That tax became effective in September 2018. However, businesses owe tax collections to the state a month after collections and it takes two months before the county receives funds, Bramble said.

Since its start in 2018, the county has received $3,237,982 through March 1 of this year from the county food and beverage tax.

The county received $266,373 on Feb. 1 and $193,667 on March 1, Bramble said.

"I think we could see a loss of $100,000 for March food and beverage tax collections. I think collections will be down at least 50 percent," Bramble said, adding the county would not know the exact impact until May.

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached 812-231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com. Follow on Twitter@TribStarHoward.

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