Detroit tourism seeks rebound after year lost to pandemic

Tourism leaders in Detroit are banking on a return of conventions and business meetings shut down last year due to the coronavirus pandemic

DETROIT -- Timothy Tharp has owned businesses in Detroit long enough to remember when parts of downtown resembled a ghost town. He’s also seen its resurgence with new restaurants, hotels and throngs of people since the city's emergence from bankruptcy.

Then came COVID-19 and people stopped coming. Tharp estimates his three restaurants and bars have lost a combined $1 million since March 2020.

“We’ve gotten used to the apocalypse over and over and over again,” said Tharp who owns Grand Trunk Pub, the Whisky Parlor and the Checker Bar in and around downtown. “We crawl out of the ashes and rise again every 10 years. That’s what we do.”

Groups and companies already are booking dates in Detroit for this year and next. Businesses also are putting together Detroit-specific packages featuring high-end hotels and swanky restaurants, an effort to attract short-stay visitors who can drive in from nearby states.

Detroit is not alone. Convention and tourism leaders across the U.S. are banking on a comeback from the virus, which forced most Americans to stay close to home for months last year.

The costs of COVID to the convention and business meeting industry is “not even believable,” said Sherrif Karamat, president and chief executive officer of Chicago-based Professional Convention Management Association and the PCMA Foundation.

In the U.S., losses are estimated at $300 billion. The year before the pandemic, conventions generated more than $1 trillion globally, Karamat said.

“Almost all of that went away,” he said. “It would have been the 15th largest gross domestic product in the world.”

As some businesses found it difficult, if not impossible, to connect and bring people together face-to-face, the global supply side — hotels, convention centers, restaurants — suffered.

Lessons learned over the past year will help the industry adjust to restrictions and the need to keep people safe, Visit Indy Chief Executive Leonard Hoops said.

Since July 1, 2020, Indianapolis has hosted 32 groups inside the Indiana Convention Center and more than 239,000 people attending their events.

The Indianapolis metropolitan area hosted this year’s men’s NCAA basketball tournament, which saw games played at multiple venues. The number of fans attending any one game was limited to 250. Mask-wearing was required, although that rule was not always adhered to by fans.

About $620 million was spent in the region during the tournament.

“You had to be masked, have temperature checks and health screenings,” Hoops said. “If it’s safe to go to Target with a mask on and safe to go to Kroger with a mask on, why isn’t it safe to go to an event with a mask on?”

Meanwhile in Detroit, the pandemic came at a pivotal time.

The city’s population has shrunk by more than 1 million people since the 1950s. That, along with downsizing in the auto industry and other manufacturing, all but decimated Detroit’s tax base, leaving the city broke. A state-appointed emergency manager took over in 2013 and herded the city through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. In December 2014, Detroit exited bankruptcy financially leaner and nearly debt-free.

Its downtown convention center in 2013 hosted only seven groups, which brought about $47 million in direct spending to the area’s economy. In 2019, 29 groups had booked events through the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, bringing in $148 million in direct spending.

As confidence and reinvestment returned, it became easier to market Detroit as a destination. Big events pumped millions of dollars into the Detroit area’s economy.

In 2019, the annual North American International Auto Show brought in an estimated $430 million. That public event is not booked through the convention and visitors bureau. The auto show was canceled last year and won’t happen this year. It will be replaced by an outdoor event called Motor Bella in September at a racetrack called the M1 Concourse north of the city. Organizers hope to return to the downtown TCF Center convention hall in 2022.

About $40 million came with the 2009 NCAA men's basketball Final Four, which was held at Ford Field, while the 2006 Super Bowl brought in an estimated $274 million.

Not many big conventions are expected this year, but 2022 promises to be a rebound year, said Claude Molinari, president and chief executive of the Detroit convention and visitors’ bureau.

Over the past month, events have been booked that could bring nearly 40,000 visitors and about $41 million to the region. Some that canceled last year, such as FIRST Robotics and the International Women’s Forum, have signaled they will return in the future.

Meanwhile, the Injection Molding and Design Show will debut next March at Detroit’s TCF convention center. It is expected to attract 4,000 people and fill up hotel rooms. Another 5,000 are expected to attend the June 2022 Silicone Expo USA in Detroit.

“I’m really looking at (2020) as a pause and not a shutdown,” Molinari said. “We were ready to take off just before the pandemic and we are ready right now coming out of it.”