If you drive by a hotel in Butler County this weekend, take a look at the number of cars in the parking lot. Chances are, there won't be many spaces open.
“We have U.S. Soccer bringing in their President’s Cup regional event," said Mark Hecquet, CEO of the Butler County Visitor's Bureau. "So, we have over 160 teams from 16 states. We expect over 10,000 people coming into town for five days.”
The youth teams begin arriving in town Wednesday for the five-day event, June 17-21, at the Voice of America Athletic Complex in West Chester. The winners go on to compete for the National President's Cup in Des Moines, Iowa.
But as those teams are playing, with family and friends cheering them on, there will also be cheers coming from Butler County hotels. Leisure travel is helping to jump-start Butler County's travel economy.
Whether it's a quick weekend trip, a stay-cation or youth athletic event, those visits equal hotel stays, meals at restaurants and retail purchases as the region looks to rebound from the pandemic.
“There’s definitely been a marked uptick in the hotels, probably in the last two months, probably since middle of March, particularly on the weekends,” said Hecquet.
In June 2020, hotel occupancy rates in Butler County were around 30 percent, he said. So far this June, the occupancy rates are at 55-60 percent, nearly double the number from a year ago. In 2019, before the pandemic, occupancy rates were at 70 percent. Hecquet said the expectation is that the number will continue to grow through summer and into the fall, thanks to a full schedule of large youth tournaments.
“We have an AAU Girls Basketball World Championship that’s in for another five days. That will bring in teams from around the country," he said. “We have multiple of these events going into July. We have an archery national championship, then we have triathlon junior national championships coming back."
The only problem: Leisure travel is only a portion of the equation to return hotels and some retailers to pre-pandemic levels. Business travel is the other piece.
“We’re just waiting on the corporate travel to come back,” said Steve Rue, general manager at the Courtyard by Marriott and Residence Inn in West Chester.
He said the leisure travelers are getting them through the pandemic, but they need to see corporate and business travelers return.
“We’re purposely built for that. So, definitely, we are looking for that to come back,” Rue said. The two West Chester properties and three others in the region are operated by Lexington Management. Rue suspects consumer confidence to financial hesitancy are impacting the return of business travelers.
"I think once businesses feel confident that it makes sense for their people to travel. I think that’s when you’ll really start to see them return," he said
Another challenge is a lack of workers. Rue said there are about 18 positions open at the Courtyard. Other businesses are experiencing the same.
“All industries in our county are really struggling with this workforce side of things, and it is a concern,” said Hecquet.
Rue said some of his staff members are working double shifts, taking an eight-hour break and are back on the job. He has also been working to fill in the gaps himself.
“I’m cleaning rooms, stripping beds. Doing whatever it needs to take, but we are looking for people actively,” he said. “Currently my Bistro is really only part time because I can’t find necessary staffing to keep it open like it should be.”
Rue said it was difficult at the start of the pandemic to have to let workers go and even close the hotel for more than two months. But, he said, they are offering incentives, like increased pay, to get staffing back to pre-pandemic levels. He said he believes business travelers will be back soon, too.
“All indicators look like the corporate travelers are going to be starting back. But I don’t see it really hitting pre-pandemic levels until Q2, Q3 of 2022,” said Rue.
Meanwhile, you can expect to see a marketing push to visit Butler County in magazines, on social media, billboards and radio. In March, the Butler County Commissioners approved $250,000 for the visitor's bureau to roll out a marketing campaign aimed at leisure travelers. It's actually a re-start of marketing the county.
“We stopped all advertising, all promotion, because it just wasn’t appropriate," said Hecquet. "People weren’t ready to travel.”
But now he said there are definite signs that many are ready.
“The weekend traffic is back. No doubt about it. Those leisure travelers are coming back."