New bridge, sporting events cushion drop in QC tourism numbers

Sports tourism, a diversified tourism portfolio and construction of the new Interstate 74 Bridge are among the reasons Quad Cities visitor spending outperformed expectations last year despite a worldwide pandemic.

Dave Herrell, president and CEO of Visit Quad Cities, said Friday that those also are key factors that will continue growing tourism’s economic impact on the Quad Cities in 2022.

The head of the area’s tourism bureau said he had anticipated overall tourism spending to drop by 30% last year due to an epidemic of canceled trips and events fueled by COVID-19. Instead, tourism’s impact on the Quad Cities was down by 21.5% over 2019, which had been a record year for tourism in the region, according to figures compiled by Tourism Economics. The decline also was nearly half the 42% drop seen in nationwide travel spending reported by the U.S. Travel Association for 2020.

“Our destination’s ability to regain the momentum we had from 2019 is critical,” Mr. Herrell said last month in announcing the 2020 numbers (the most recent data available). “Working closely with our state partners and Tourism Economics, we expected the sharp decline in 2020 but outperformed our forecast. Now, we need to continually align with our stakeholders as we move out of the downturn and increase the urgency for destination marketing if the QC is going to compete for business and leisure travel.”

Statistical highlights for the region include: 

  • Total employment: 8,000 jobs in 2020.
  • Tourism economic impact: $958.7 million in 2020 vs. $1.2 billion in 2019 (record year).
  • Local taxes generated: $65.14 million vs. $74.8 million in 2019. 
  • State taxes generated: $62.87 million vs. $76.48 million in 2019. 

Economic impact numbers for 2021 won’t be available until next fall. Those future statistics will determine how well the Quad Cities region recovered as well as where the region stands after some COVID-19 travel restrictions were lifted and tourism venues and events reopened.

For now, the bureau is concentrating on growing the tourism industry in 2022. For example, Mr. Herrell said Visit Quad Cities is working to capture more of the Monday-through-Friday business travel dollars that are spent in our community. 

Sports tourism also will continue to be a major driver of tourism spending in 2022. Sporting events and venues, such as Bettendorf’s TBK Sports Complex and the TaxSlayer Center in Moline, helped fuel the record $1.2 billion tourism spending in 2019.  Sports venues and activities also helped the Quad Cities reach $958 million in spending in 2020, Mr. Herrell said. 

Overall, day-trippers will continue to have a significant impact on tourism travel spending in 2022, he said. Thanks to a new data collection system, visitor statistics now are available to Visit Quad Cities in a matter of days rather than months. Bureau staff can track who the region’s visitors are and from where they travel. For example, Mr. Herrell said, we now know that more of our community’s visitors come from Chicagoland and the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, area than other locations.

A number of those QC visitors are sports tourists who make one- or two-day road trips to the Quad-Cities for youth, amateur and professional sports tournaments and events, Mr. Herrell said. 

Maintaining and enhancing the numbers and types of events and destinations in the Quad-Cities also will play a key role in tourism’s recovery in 2022, he added. Unlike communities which must rely only on a single, large-scale venue such as a massive convention center for its tourism dollars, the Quad Cities is fortunate to have a rich smorgasbord of tourism locations and attractions, he said.

The new Interstate 74 Mississippi River Bridge — which opened its newest and final span late Thursday — also has and will continue to have an impact on tourism spending. During the four years the bridge was being built, Mr. Herrell said the region benefited from the dollars that out-of-town construction workers and contractors spent to live, work and play in the Quad Cities.

As construction winds down, and the finishing touches are put on the river crossing, it will continue to impact the tourism industry, but in a different way. 

“We now have this really compelling structure we can use in marketing the Quad Cities,” he said. The bridge can serve as a landmark and destination for Quad-Cities visitors who want to explore the ‘mystery of the Mississippi River,’” Mr. Herrell said.

The region has a rich Mississippi River history but the community has not told that story as well as other communities south of us, said Mr. Herrell. The unique basket-handle design of the bridge, he said, also can provide a centerpiece and a catalyst for sharing our story to a traveling public eager to explore the iconic river.

As the bureau prepares for the coming year, it also must continue to deal with a stubborn virus that refuses to give up its hold. Mr. Herrell said the Quad Cities has benefited during the pandemic from its reputation as a safe place to visit.

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