Visit Quad Cities leaders and hundreds of its supporters celebrated on Thursday, Oct. 26, the local tourism industry’s return to pre-COVID-19 levels at the destination marketing organization’s 2023 Destination QC.
Indeed, that message was delivered loudly and clearly by the event’s emcee Denise Hnytka to more than 300 guests gathered at the event at the Quad Cities Waterfront Convention Center.
“If I were to tell this story, if I were to write a headline for it, it would say these three words: ‘Tourism is back,’” the MindFire Communications arsonist and brand specialist said.
Not only that, Visit Quad Cities President and CEO Dave Herrell said, it’s expected to continue climbing in Fiscal Year 2023 on the strength of a record-breaking summer that included the Visit Quad Cities driven BixBrai weekend.
Also Thursday, the 300-plus Visit QC partners, stakeholders, elected leaders and community members learned about the ripple effect of last year’s tourism growth and how tourism dollars multiply dramatically throughout the community. Visit QC also honored these 2023 Destination Impact Award winners and longtime Quad Cities tourism champions: Beth Lagomarcino of Lagomarcino’s and John and Joan Maxwell of Cinnamon Ridge Farms.
The night also highlighted the impact made by champions like them. The event was made possible by the Quad Cities International Airport and hosted by Nancy Ballenger, vice president and general manager of the Isle Casino Hotel, Bettendorf.
“Tourism is back to pre-pandemic levels,” Mr. Herrell said. “Today’s event and our upcoming release of detailed visitor economy data underscores how the work of Visit Quad Cities is helping drive our regional economy forward.”
In 2022, for example, annual visitor spending in the Quad Cities totaled $1.14 billion and hotel occupancy rates averaged 54%. That’s up dramatically from pandemic-period lows. And those numbers are expected to climb higher in the current fiscal year.
How high? “I can personally guarantee that the $1.14 billion number will exceed $1.2 billion, which is a key target area for Visit Quad Cities,” Mr. Herrell said. “I know that’s going to happen, I feel confident in delivering that message and very soon we’re going to be able to announce that.”
That increase will be powered, in part, by a record-setting June, July and August period that resulted in a regional hotel occupancy rate of 63.8% – the highest three-month period since the pandemic. Those stays generated $45 million in revenue.
“June, July and August was off the charts,” Mr. Herrell confirmed. “This is probably not only since the pandemic, but it could have been the biggest June, July and August in the history of the Quad Cities.”
Based on data from visitor analytics collected for Visit QC by digital visitor-tracking service Datify and numbers from other industry leading groups, Mr. Herrell said the BixBRAI weekend organized around the 49th annual Quad-City Times Bix and the 50th Annual RAGBRAI race was “a great moment for our region and our community.”
He added, “That’s over 56,000 people we were tracking through Datify who were literally in Davenport in that condensed space for those two days. That weekend was phenomenal.”
It was so successful that Visit QC committed $25,000 from the event to grow its fleet of free rental bikes and begin making investments in a community bicycling club.
“We’re going to continue to scale that up because we think that cycling is good for emotional well-being and it’s good to activate our trails and it’s a healthy choice and it’s just damn fun,” he said of the Visit QC bike fleet.
Mr. Herrell also called July 2023’s John Deere Classic “a watershed moment in our region.”
“This is a big deal. It’s the only PGA Tour event in the State of Illinois,” he said. “It’s a global enterprise and what was great about this year – and I want to thank John Deere – their investment in that fan experience and that entertainment component by adding concerts on the course with Darius Rucker and Blake Shelton really took us to a whole new level as a host community and really showed the world when you take world class entertainment and a world class sporting event and meld the two together, you’re going to have a huge success.”
But, he cautioned the audience, that the latest resurgence is no time to get comfortable.
Visit Quad Cities, for example, is actively planning years in advance to position the area for bigger things in the decades ahead.
“Tourism is not red, it is not blue, it is green and we all need to remember that,” Mr. Herrell said.
If the QC is going to continue to increase tourism dollars coming into the community, the QC needs to invest in destination marketing and business development.
“We are a product,” he told the receptive crowd. “We are a consumable brand. People experience us. Brands are organic.”
That’s why, he said, “We need to continue to push destination development and do the things that we can do to make our communities more vibrant.”
Individual events and business matter, of course, but so do group events. In FY23 Visit Quad Cities generated $30 million in direct economic impact by securing group business and it will continue to do that, Mr. Herrell predicts.
Among the recent bright spots is the commitment by the Central States Shrine Association to hold its business meeting in the Quad Cities in March 2026. That will be followed in August 2026 by a Shriners’ convention, which is expected to lure 3,000 visitors to the Quad Cities. Those visitors to the Aug. 19-24, 2026, event are expected to need 5,000 hotel room nights.
Other good news includes a major national award earned by the Quad Cities sports commission (which was rebranded in March as the Sports QC Powered By Visit Quad Cities). It was honored by the Sports ETA (Events & Tourism Association) as Event Partnership of the Year for communities with populations under 500,000.
Visit Quad Cities won for the Professional Disc Golf Association’s Tim Selinske U.S. Masters Championship event held in the QC in September 2022.
Importantly, too, events like that contribute significantly to the QC tourism economy. That’s also why Visit Quad Cities is working to attract more of the already growing number of NCAA tournaments. In addition to the QC region’s staple Missouri Valley Conference women’s basketball tournament each year, the region has attracted a men’s polo tournament at Augustana College and women’s and men’s national golf championships.
Now local leaders have turned their attention to other tournaments. They’ve targeted six such tournaments to explore and are committed and relatively confident the QC can attract two of them: Division 1 women’s and men’s national golf championships in 2027 and 2028.
Mr. Herrell said he likes the communities’ chances for three reasons:
- The QC has a world class golf venue in TPC at Deere Run, Silvis.
- The JDC has “amazing professional staff” and the infrastructure that includes volunteers and other necessary event elements.
- “As (NCAA) conference realignment happens,” Mr. Herrell said, “I think the Midwest is going to be more attractive for universities considering where they’re going to be putting champion events.”
The current schedule calls for submitting bids in February and in the meantime, Visit will continue working to create the kind of experience that visitors crave, he said.
“When people come to the Quad Cities they want a level of authenticity,” Mr. Herrell said. “They want that from the people that they interact with and they want that from the tourism product.”
He also said the QC needs to continue to aggressively grow its market, thanking state leaders for their support including Illinois Office of Tourism Deputy Director Daniel Thomas and Iowa Tourism Office Manager Amy Zeigler. Among the issues the pair addressed for the Waterfront crowd was collaborative marketing in a bistate region such as the Quad Cities.
“The No. 1 thing for me is that we’re about making the visitor experience,” Ms. Zeigler said. “Nobody travels based on a city line, nobody travels based on a county line and nobody travels based on state lines. We look for the destination experience and we all need to work together to create that experience.”
Mr. Herrell also used the event to highlight the benefits of a future Tourism Improvement District (TID) under consideration in the Quad Cities. According to industry experts, under TIDs funds are raised through industry-imposed taxes and fees on hotel/motel stays. The fees are similar to bed taxes except any new dollars raised from a new TID assessment – and added to guests’ bills – must go to the district and not for government uses.
There are about 300 TIDs currently, Mr. Herrell said, adding “I want the Quad Cities to be the first and what could be the only bistate region of the United States to have a Tourism Improvement District.”
Visit Quad Cities also highlighted the need to create a larger venue to add to its 800,000 square feet of meeting and event space. That could include expanding or updating some of the region’s existing facilities such as the Waterfront Convention Center.
Mr. Herrell said by not having a larger venue the Quad Cities is losing out on potential group business it knows it could recruit. Modernizing others, such as The RiverCenter, also will be discussions for the future.
He also highlighted Visit Quad Cities’ ongoing efforts to implement key parts of the community’s tourism master plan and the evening included giving Destination Impact awards to a trio of leaders of the Tourism Master Plan Implementation Leadership Committee: Ms. Lagomarcino and Mr. and Mrs. Maxwell.
Visit QC’s annual impact awards recognize individuals and organizations that make a meaningful contribution to the regional destination’s success. According to Ms. Hnytka:
- Beth Lagomarcino embodies what it means to be a true Quad Citizen. She joined the family business in the 1980s, continuing a candy making tradition that started at the very first Lagomarcino’s storefront in Moline in 1908. Lagomarcino’s is one of the only soda fountain confectioneries left in the country, making every experience at the store special. She, her wonderful family, and team make an indelible mark on visitors and residents and put smiles on the faces of thousands. In addition to tourism leadership, Ms. Lagomarcino shares her leadership and talents with many community organizations.
- John and Joan Maxwell are fifth generation dairy farmers. They open their farm near Donahue, Iowa, to thousands of visitors and enjoy sharing their love for agriculture with people of all ages, including riverboat excursion guests. Their conservation practices won them recognition as the 2019 US Dairy Sustainability Award Winner and Iowa’s Environmental Leader Award. Mr. Maxwell serves on the Scott County Board of Supervisors and North Scott School Board. Mrs. Maxwell serves on the Scott County Planning and Zoning Committee and is vice president of Scott County Farm Bureau.