(Tourists and locals alike are getting out more now after two years of isolation | Photo by Nate Wyeth Photography/Visit Bend)
As 2022 unfolds and the summer tourism season approaches, it is safe to say that most of us are daring to feel a little bit optimistic about the coming months. Health officials say the Omicron surge is behind us, and people are chomping at the bit to travel and gather. This state of events should mean that the hard-hit hospitality industry will have the opportunity to stage a comeback this year. We at Cascade Business News checked in with a variety of sources around town, and so far, the forecast — and current bookings — are encouraging.
“Meeting and convention demand has seen an increase recently,” says Erick Trachsel, director of Sales & Marketing for the Riverhouse on the Deschutes, home to Oregon’s largest convention center east of the Cascades. “Last week, we received more RFP’s (requests for proposals) than we had in the previous three weeks combined. People are excited about getting together for in-person meetings after having to meet virtually for the last two years.”
After experiencing significant cancellations over the past two years, Trachsel says, “Thankfully, our spring and summer on paper should produce revenues that exceed 2019 levels.” The primary focus for the Riverhouse — which has more than 41,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting and event space and can accommodate groups of five to 1,600 guests — is making sure the team has the staff needed to meet the demand they are now seeing, he says.
Kevney Dugan, president & CEO of Visit Bend, says that the most significant evolution his team has experienced over the past two years has been to establish ways to reinvest in Bend as both a destination and a community. “We’ve worked hard to ensure the landmarks, attractions and wild places bringing visitors to the area remain protected and preserved,” he says. “This focus ultimately formed the Bend Sustainability Fund, which reinvests room tax dollars into tourism-related facilities that drive existing demand or create new demand for the destination.”
Visit Bend has launched a new marketing effort focused on group sales to ensure meeting planners know that Central Oregon has the resources and options they are seeking, says Dugan. “This effort has already begun to drive new RFPs flowing into the community, and we can share these requests with stakeholders interested in hosting meetings and conventions.” He adds, “We expect to see a strong rebound when it comes to meetings and gatherings as restrictions are lifted and we move into the endemic phase of COVID.”
Geoff Hinds, director of Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center, says that WinterFest, an all-facility event that was held at the Expo Center over President’s Day weekend last month, served as the kickoff for what is shaping up to be a very busy season. “Events are going well. We have a number of events we’ve already hosted, and more on the horizon,” he says. A Monster Truck Show was held at the Expo Center at the end of February, and March brings the Central Oregon Sportmen’s Show; then the Future Farmers of America annual convention, followed by the High Desert Stampede Rodeo. “And we have added the inaugural Central Oregon Agricultural Show. We have three busy weekends back-to-back in March.” He adds, “In addition, we have some exciting events coming up, including the Oregon Off Road Rally in May, and a brand-new event called Overland Expo PNW, the largest adventure travel expo in the nation. There are a lot of cool new things coming.”
Hinds says the Expo Center is on the rebound, and the staff is starting to be able to produce more and more events, including a return to the facility’s historical events as well as the addition of new ones. “While we were able to produce some really successful events in 2021, we are excited to be able to add even more activities in 2022 and beyond.”
As of this month, Hinds says the calendar reflects that the bulk of the large events traditionally held at the Expo Center have returned for 2022. “We do still have some that we were planning to bring in 2020 and 2021 on the horizon, but they aren’t quite ready to come yet.” He adds, “The impacts are lessened, and we are able to regain our footing, but we aren’t quite at 100 percent yet.” For fiscal 2022, so far, Hinds says there have been 37 unique events between July 1, 2021 and February 2022 that had to be canceled or rescheduled. “But that has pretty much ended. Last month was the first month that we didn’t have events that were cancelled and rescheduled.”
At a joint breakfast hosted by the La Pine and Sunriver Area chambers of commerce held in Sunriver last month, Damon Runberg, Central Oregon regional economist with the Oregon Employment Department, said, “There are tons of people coming to Central Oregon and spending money on tourism. But the money is being spent on different things; there is less restaurant spending, and more hiking.” In his first live event presentation in two years following 67 Zoom presentations, Runberg said the unfortunate news is that labor struggles continue to affect tourism here. “People say there has been a ‘great resignation.’ But I say it’s a ‘great re-shuffle.’” Workers are leaving one job to take another one that offers higher pay and better benefits, he said. “Why would someone take a seasonal restaurant job with no benefits when they can get a great job somewhere else?” Some of this labor crunch that is affecting the hospitality industry here was “baked into Central Oregon’s present and future long before COVID,” Runberg said. “Boomers are now hitting peak retirement age, and they are a big part of our work force. We knew this was going to happen. COVID just exacerbated an issue that already existed.” A possible solution to staffing for hospitality jobs, he says, could be to tap into the youth labor market.
Element Bend, an extended-stay hotel that opened in February 2021 and has a 926-square-foot event space, got off to a sluggish start according to Sales Coordinator Denise Mercer, but bookings have increased dramatically recently. “It’s been a slow start, for sure. Winter was pretty slow, but I feel like this week, the inquiries are going through the roof. People are ready to get back to some semblance of normalcy,” she says. In mid-February, she says they began getting “tons of inquiries, which is a good feeling.” She continues, “People are so ready to get back out there in any capacity. They are tired of working remotely; they just want to get out and meet their colleagues in person rather than on Zoom calls.”
During the pandemic, Element Bend stayed busier than it might have because they housed essential workers, Mercer says. “No one wants to take advantage of a pandemic or global crisis, but we are fortunate to be an extended-stay hotel, and the host hotel for the National Guard that was deployed here. We also had a large number of traveling nurses, so it’s kept us fuller than some other hotels. We have been able to help these essential workers.”
The event space has also been utilized by locals during the pandemic, she says. “This past year, we have had a lot of community support. We have been able to offer The Bulletin Room, our meeting space, for small community meetings. That has been nice, even though we haven’t had many conventions and conferences coming in from out of town. But local companies, with five to ten people, have come in and held meetings where they can spread out and be COVID safe.”
That trend seems to be shifting now though, she says. “Right now, most of the calls I am receiving are just inquiries, but the bookings are beginning to come in.” The hotel now has blocks of rooms booked for wedding parties this summer, she says, and it was sold out for last month’s President’s Day weekend. “I feel like it’s a positive sign that everyone is ready to get out there. Room bookings are picking up dramatically, mostly with tourists.”
Hinds agrees that everyone is ready to get out and have fun. “We are excited to be getting back to a new level of normalcy, and our community is, too,” he says. “But we continue to make sure everything is done safely and responsibility, with the understanding that while we are through the most trying times of the pandemic, public health is, and remains, an important focus.”