Business travel industry starts to rebound, but large group travel still sluggish

Area hotels are seeing more bookings for business travelers and events, but local and national sources say business travel is unlikely to fully rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic for some time.

Keith Rahe, president and CEO of Travel Dubuque, said the organization reviews monthly lodging reports from local hotels to judge travel levels in the area. In particular, numbers on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays can offer a good reflection of corporate business travel.

Recently, the area has seen “pretty strong numbers” for those days of the week, he said.

In September 2019, Dubuque’s five full-service hotels — Hotel Julien Dubuque, Best Western Plus Dubuque Hotel & Conference Center, Holiday Inn Dubuque, Hilton Garden Inn and Grand Harbor Resort and Water Park — reported an average occupancy of 67.2% on Mondays.

In September 2020, that percentage fell to 27.8%. This fall, it returned to 47.7%.

“Are they where we want to be? No, not yet,” Rahe said. “But compared to where it has been, it’s encouraging.”

Dwight Hopfauf, general manager of Hotel Julien Dubuque, said the hotel steadily increased bookings of corporate events this summer, rising from “a light smattering” of small meetings in June to “a very healthy month” in October.

However, many of those business events were for local companies, he said. For now, companies outside the Dubuque area still appear hesitant to travel and host meetings at local venues.

Elliot Rhoad, general manager at Holiday Inn Dubuque, agreed. He said bookings for individual business travelers have returned to a pre-pandemic level, and local businesses are hosting events at the hotel. Group travel for corporate events is still sluggish, though.

“Those type of events are just not happening, and I don’t even see that coming back in 2022, either,” Rhoad said.

A recent forecast from the U.S. Travel Association predicts that business travel will not return to pre-pandemic levels, both in terms of volume and spending, until 2024.

Local officials agreed that a full recovery will take time as businesses grapple with the pandemic’s effects on budget, workforce and operational strategies.

“Everybody is looking at how they do business … and (asking), ‘What adjustments did we make through COVID, and what does that look like coming out of it?’” Rahe said.

Hopfauf anticipates that moving forward, large corporations will continue to use video conferencing tools to hold hybrid events with smaller capacities.

However, he is confident that in-person business meetings won’t fade away completely.

“Being in an environment face-to-face is much more conducive for strategic planning and executing,” he said. “… The good old face-to-face meeting still is a healthier way to conduct business versus on a computer.”