Out-of-town guests are returning to Springfield after tourism took a nosedive in 2020. Visitors are choosing different accommodations based on national trends, economic concerns and the deterioration of what used to be a jewel in the Queen City’s crown.
“The travel industry has come back with a vengeance since the pandemic,” Springfield Convention Visitors Bureau President Tracy Kimberlin said.
On June 27, the Springfield City Council will consider the final vote on a bill to spend about $4.2 million with the Springfield Convention Visitors Bureau over the upcoming fiscal year. The money from the city will be used to fund a 27-point plan to market Springfield as a regional, national and even an international destination for tourists.
The City Council’s meeting about the CVB contract resulted in a discussion of three distinct changes to Springfield’s tourism economy: the deterioration of what was once the epicenter of conventions in Springfield, the emergence of short-term rental properties as the choice over hotel rooms, and the economic impact of sports in Southwest Missouri.
What is the CVB and what does it do?
The Springfield Convention Visitors Bureau is a 501(c)6 nonprofit with a staff of about 20 employees. A volunteer board of 15 business leaders is responsible for its oversight. The CVB also oversees the Springfield Sports Commission. The CVB’s job is to market Springfield to potential visitors in other parts of the Midwest and the rest of the United States. It also works to attract and keep large events in Springfield.
The organization’s 2022-2023 marketing budget is primarily funded through the hotel tax, which requires hotels, motels and tourist courts to pay a 5-percent tax on the rental receipts for transient guests’ sleeping accommodations.
The Visitors Bureau reported that tourism dollars have risen significantly since the depths of the pandemic, and inflation is part of the equation.
In May 2022, CVB data shows the average nightly rate to rent a hotel room in Springfield was $101.40. That’s a 12.6-percent year-over-year price increase from the average nightly cost of $90.04 in May 2021. There were more than 120,000 room rentals in Springfield in May 2022. That’s with Springfield’s hotels losing market share to short-term rental platforms like Airbnb and VRBO.
In May, Springfield had a hotel room occupancy rate of 70 percent, which stands above the Missouri rate of 59.8 percent and the national average of 59.1 percent, but down from the May 2021 rate of 71 percent for Springfield. While it’s more expensive to travel in 2022 than it was in 2021, people are traveling.
The consumer price index (CPI) for Springfield hit 8.8 percent in May 2022, which means the cost of just about everything is increasing. Springfield Mayor Ken McClure questioned Kimberlin on how inflation affects hotel rates during a council hearing June 13.
“As we’re seeing inflation all over, what’s the impact on what one would pay for a hotel room?” McClure asked.
“It’s not different in the hotel business than it is in any other business,” Kimberlin said. “The average daily rate in Springfield has gone up significantly. Part of that was before the rise in inflation, and it was just a question of demand increases.”
What has become of University Plaza?
The conversation at council turned to the current state of some of Springfield’s once-prized tourism properties, whose condition appears to be deteriorating.
Springfield City Councilman and Cardinals baseball fan Richard Ollis checked out the area around Hammons Field recently, which spurred some questions for the CVB.
“I go down to the ballpark and downtown quite a bit, and I’ve noticed that a couple of our hotels, one being the Q, looks like it may be shuttered,” Ollis said. “I walked through the University Plaza the other day and there were 55-gallon drums catching rainwater coming off of the roof,” Ollis said. “What’s your strategy on booking events at those facilities, and are they still viable booking facilities?”
“It’s a major problem. Our biggest and used-to-be-best convention hotel is in a sad shape right now,” Kimberlin said. “It’s a terrible reflection on not just Atrium hotels, but on the city of Springfield.”
John Q. Hammons built University Plaza and oversaw development of several other nearby properties, like Hammons Field and the Springfield Expo Center. He died at the age of 94 in 2013. The John Q. Hammons Trust then assumed control of his properties.
Alpharetta, Georgia-based Atrium Hospitality owns 82 hotel properties in 29 different states, boasting almost 22,000 hotel rooms. In Springfield, the company operates University Plaza, the Courtyard Marriott by the Springfield-Branson National Airport, the Residence Inn and the closed Q Hotel and Suites. It also operates the Chateau on the Lake Resort in Branson, three hotels in Kansas City, hotels in Joplin and St. Charles and the Capital Plaza Hotel in Jefferson City.
The John Q. Hammons trust’s largest creditor, JD Holdings, took ownership of many of the hotels Hammons built throughout his career. The JQH Trust held onto Hammons Field and an adjacent parking lot under the terms of its bankruptcy plan, with JD Holdings agreeing to cover operating expenses, much to the frustration of Minor League Baseball’s Springfield Cardinals.
The Revocable Trust of John Q. Hammons and its 75 subsidiary companies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2016.
“John Q. Hammons was in bankruptcy for a couple of years, so there was no money invested in the property the last several years of his ownership, and Atrium has not invested anything either,” Kimberlin said.
Kimberlin said the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, Mayor Ken McClure and City Manager Jason Gage have had talks with officials from Atrium Hospitality. According to Kimberlin, Atrium executives are trying to decide whether they will act to Improve University Plaza or sell it.
“We have had several major problems with convention groups there, ranging from issues such as leaky roofs, no hot water, no air conditioning,” Kimberlin said. “When you rent a hotel room, you really expect to have the air conditioning and the hot water working, even in the most basic of hotels, so it is a major problem.”
Ollis asked about the University Plaza Convention Center on the south side of St. Louis Avenue, and the Springfield Expo Center on the north side of the street. Both are under the command of Atrium Hospitality.
“Yes, they’re both being used, but unfortunately, we hold our breath every time they are used in that the groups are going to have a halfway decent experience while they’re there,” Kimberlin said.
Kimberlin said there have been large groups that have taken their conventions to other cities as a result of the deterioration and lack of staffing at University Plaza.
“The Future Business Leaders of America had all kinds of issues with their convention — 4,000-to-5,000 students — they almost left, but didn’t,” Kimberlin said.
The University Plaza complex offers up about 170,000 square feet of meeting space.
The next largest convention center is the Ramada Oasis Convention Center, which has 26,000 square feet of space, according to its website. University Plaza has a total of 46,818 square feet of space, and the Expo Center can accommodate up to 123,182 square feet.
“That’s an important part of our convention picture here in the community, and I certainly hope Atrium is going to step up and take their properties to a livable level, hopefully beyond that, where we can be confident and use that facility as we move forward,” Ollis said.
University Plaza Hotel and Convention Center General Manager Michael Bloom said the property’s long term future is up for review.
“We’re exploring plans for capital improvements at the University Plaza Hotel & Convention Center in downtown Springfield to potentially refresh and enhance previous renovations,” Bloom said in an email to the Springfield Daily Citizen.
While the Convention and Visitors Bureau staff and some City Council members were openly critical of Atrium Hospitality, Bloom said the University Plaza staff will continue to work with them.
“We value our collaborative relationship with the Springfield community as we create a welcoming environment for all,” Bloom said. “We look forward to continuing our discussions with representatives from the city of Springfield and the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.”
Short-term, app-based rentals take hotel guests
While some of Springfield’s tourism spots struggle, another factor is at play in the tourism economy. Short-term rentals are on the rise (and they’re not required to pay the hotel tax).
The Springfield CVB paid a company called AirDNA to research and report on short-term rentals in Springfield. The company has agreements with app companies Airbnb and VRBO to obtain data on rental units.
“They can tell us how many short-term rentals there are in Springfield, how many of them were booked and what the price was,” Kimberlin said.
As of June 2022, Springfield has about 480 short-term rental properties, according to AirDNA. Some are rooms; some are entire houses. About 70 percent of the properties are listed through Airbnb, 12 percent are listed on VRBO and 18 percent are listed on both platforms. Most of the properties have two bedrooms.
The average rate for an Airbnb or VRBO property in Springfield is about $124 per night.
A Los Angeles-based corporation called Sleepover, Inc. owns 26 of Springfield’s short-term rental properties.
In May 2022, Kimberlin said about 375 room or house rentals happened in Springfield.
“Had those properties been charged hotel tax and had remitted hotel tax, both the city and the CVB would be $25,000 richer from that one month,” Kimberlin said. “We will lose this year, probably, somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000 total tax, so half to the city, half to the CVB, roughly.”
A short-term rental, as part of its license with the City of Springfield, is required to pay sales tax.
“In all likelihood, if they’re not licensed, they’re not paying,” Gage said.
Focus on sports tourism
Instead of focusing on trying to attract conventions to fill a single space, the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau is bidding to attract more sporting events.
“The CVB has shifted a lot of our efforts to sports,” Kimberlin said. “I work very hard to try to get sports facilities here in Springfield improved, and we have checked off some boxes in that regard, and I’m hoping that we can check off a couple more.”
The USA Pickleball Middle States Regional is booked for June 1-4, 2023, and May 30-June 2, 2024, at Cooper Tennis Complex. Springfield edged Chicago and Milwaukee for the right to host the pickleball tournament, which is expected to draw between 800 and 1,000 players, plus their loved ones and other spectators.
“Our tennis facilities here stack up with about anywhere, so therefore, so do our pickleball facilities,” Kimberlin said.
In March, Springfield hosted the National Christian Home School Basketball Championships at 25 different venues. It marked the 13th year for Springfield to host the event. The tournament hosted more than 360 teams from all over the United States, leading to more than 8,000 hotel room nights and an estimated $4.2 million injection in the Springfield economy.
Springfield is also host to Missouri State High School Activities Association championships in softball, golf and tennis, and nearby Ozark is slated to host the high school baseball state championships at U.S. Baseball Park through 2025.
Councilman Ollis said he is optimistic about the potential for Betty and Bobby Allison Sports Town, a multipurpose complex in west Springfield with outdoor and indoor venues for a multitude of sports.
“I’m really excited about what’s going on in sports and sports tourism in our community,” Ollis said.
The Springfield sports economy isn’t undefeated in 2022. Columbia handed Springfield a loss when it won the rights to take the MSHSAA high school basketball state championships back to the campus of the University of Missouri in 2023.
In professional sports, Springfield has the Springfield Lasers of World Team Tennis, the Korn Ferry Tour’s Price Cutter Charity Championship golf tournament, and the Double-A baseball Springfield Cardinals. The Cardinals are last in the 10-team Texas League standings as of June 23, with 27 wins and 38 defeats. They are also at odds with Atrium Hospitality and its holding company, JD Holdings.
In 2021, the Springfield Cardinals released a statement criticizing JD Holdings and Atrium Hospitality for increasing parking fees in its lots to $20, an “outrageous price” the team said gouges baseball fans.
The Cardinals bring fans from all over southwest Missouri and beyond to see games at Hammons Field. While attendance has declined since the team’s establishment in 2005, it rebounded in 2019 to 328,217 fans in 69 games, an average of 4,757 fans per game. With the 2020 season wiped out due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cardinals returned with 172,134 fans in 59 games in 2021, an average of 2,869 fans per game that ranked ninth in the Texas League.
A 2008 amendment to the Hammons Field lease agreement between the Hammons Revocable Trust and the Springfield Cardinals shows that the Cardinals can next opt out of the lease on Jan. 6, 2025, if the team pays $189,340.74 to do it. The Cardinals pay $500,000 per year plus $1 for each ticket sold (up to 200,000 tickets) to lease Hammons Field.