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Chicago Hotels Have Been Deemed To Be In A 'Depression' And Desperately Need Staff Back, Experts Say

CHICAGO (CBS) -- From O'Hare International Airport to DuSable Lake Shore Drive, more and more people are hitting the roads and taking to the skies lately as the city reopens.

But despite an increase in travelers, CBS 2's Chris Tye found many Chicago hotels are still seriously hurting.

When business travel doesn't happen, urban centers like Chicago and New York and Los Angeles cannot offset it with tourists. And while a lot of tourist dollars are indeed flowing through places like North Michigan Avenue, it is places like Miami and Phoenix feeling the love of the tourist dollar far more than Chicago.

The foot traffic and photo-snapping that was nowhere to be found in Chicago at this time a year ago conveys the impression that we're in the middle of a tourist-filled summer. But let's put it in sharper focus.

CBS 2 obtained the latest hotel occupancy numbers. Just 42 percent of Chicago hotel rooms are full between June 27 and July 3 – a figure up 67 percent from the same stretch last year, but down 36 percent from where we were in pre-pandemic summer 2019.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association defines Chicago's hotel sector in a continued "depression."

"The large urban markets, Chicago being one of them, are considered in a depression - not even a recession - but a depression when it comes to hotel revenue," said Michael Jacobson of the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

Revenue for Chicago hotels compared to pre-pandemic 2019 is down 59 percent. In New York, it is down 62 percent, and in San Francisco, revenue is down 70 percent.

Resort cities like Miami; Tampa; and Virginia Beach, Virginia lead the pack on reversing the revenue plunge.

"What's really still lacking is the individual business travelers coming to Chicago, and then, of course, the conventions," Jacobson said. "But that will soon change."

Ushering in that change is the prospect of conventions roaring back at McCormick Place this weekend, and Lollapalooza at the end of the month.

But even given that, efforts to staff up in advance are proving tricky.

In the depths of pandemic, Chicago's hotel workers shared fears of furloughs and layoffs. Many left the industry and the region for new work.

Now, despite sluggish sales, the hotels need them back - badly.

"We're in desperate need," Jacobson said.

Next week, there will be a major job fair for hotels. Outfits from Hilton at McCormick Place to NoBu Hotel Chicago and the Ritz will be represented – all with wide-ranging jobs to fill - from servers to sous chefs to security officers.

Hotels that are not filled are scrambling to fill up staff opening. It is just the latest in a long list of COVID head-scratchers, as Chicago arrives at summer vacation's halfway point.

Salvaging summer really hinges on the next month or so with the Auto Show and Lollapalooza. Chicago sees a drop in tourism in the winter, but the hope is business travel steadies itself by early next year.

Meanwhile, in addition to coastal and resort towns, a lot of smaller towns and rural towns are also seeing spikes. VRBO's and Airbnb's all over places like Michigan and Wisconsin are seeing surging prices straight through the fall color season.

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