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Hamilton County To Assist With Tourism Marketing After Huge Losses Due To COVID-19

downtown cincinnati
John Minchillo

The Hamilton County Commission will likely vote Thursday to use $2 million from the county's transient occupancy tax (hotel/motel tax) fund to begin marketing the area for tourism. Another $2 million will come from funding the county received from the Congressional CARES Act.

That would allow the Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Regional Tourism Network to bring back some staff, who've been laid off as the industry went dark because of COVID-19. 

CVB President Julie Calvert said other nearby cities including Columbus, Indianapolis and Louisville are already working.

"The longer that we go without our customers and our visitors hearing from us, other people and other regions are going to very quickly fill that hole," Calvert said.

Local hotel and motel occupancy rates have plummeted because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Calvert said the month-to-date occupancy in Hamilton County is 28.5%, and that represents a 57.1% decrease from 2019. In Downtown Cincinnati, the rate is 13.4%, which is an 81.2% decrease from 2019. The county's number is higher because officials had relocated some families from homeless shelters to hotels and motels in the county to protect them from COVID-19.

Calvert said the CVB projected "zero" revenue from the county bed tax for April, May and June. And it predicts a 75% reduction in July and August.  That's a large part of the funding needed for the CVB to do its work.

Officials said they expect leisure, or personal travel, to resume first. That would be followed by people traveling for business reasons, and then group, or convention, travel last. Cincinnati has not hosted a convention since February.

Local hotelier Bimal Patel said the local hotel industry has been in a bad place since March 10.  

"We're probably the first coal miners in this coal mine with our canaries that are probably gasping for air, and everybody is behind us looking at us," Patel said. "And we'll probably be the last ones out."

County Administrator Jeff Aluotto said the county is taking a risk advancing hotel/motel tax dollars to the CVB for marketing since those revenues are declining with rooms empty. But he said that won't changing without telling people to return to the region.

"The question is how do we go about positioning ourselves to ensure that as the economy opens up again that our convention/tourism industry is capable of quickly responding," Aluotto said. "And bringing that business back and driving room nights in our hotels as quickly as we can."

At the beginning of the year, county's transient occupancy tax fund was projected to have a year-end balance of $16 million.  That's now projected to be $9 million.

Much of the transient occupancy tax covers bond payments used to expand the Duke Energy Convention Center. Any leftover money has been used to pay for expansion work at the Sharonville Convention Center, and to help promote tourism in the county.

Last year, the county also pledged money from the tax to allow the Port Authority to issue bonds to purchase and demolish the former Millennium Hotel in Downtown Cincinnati.

Local leaders are working on a plan to redevelop that site to serve as the anchor hotel for the convention center to be able to attract more groups to the city.