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Ben Berthelot has served as Executive Director of the Lafayette Convention & Visitors Commission since 2012 and in that role, is an enthusiastic and effective spokesperson for the restaurants, hotels, and related industry tourism professionals that support our region’s unique cultural attributes. In this episode of Discover Lafayette, Ben visits with Jan Swift about the devastating impact of the COVID-19 shutdown on the tourism industry and the hopeful signs he is witnessing as Louisiana enters Phase 2.
Currently serving as Chair of Louisiana Travel Association, Ben Berthelot was appointed to the Resilient Louisiana Commission Hospitality/Tourism Task Force that counsels Gov. John Bel Edwards on the needs of the tourism industry as it emerges from the shutdown.
52% of local unemployment claims have come from people working in food service or accommodations. Since mid-March, Lafayette has lost 38,540 room nights with a $51 million impact to the economy which accounts for the typical meeting, sports, and convention traffic. This number does not include the loss of $50 million from the cancellation of Festival International or the additional loss from leisure and corporate travelers, and the many other annual festival attendees who stop in Lafayette while in the region.
Nationwide, eight million jobs have been lost in the tourism industry since mid-March 2020, which is nine times more than that affected by 9/11. In Lafayette, the effect has been dramatic; in mid-March, the room occupancy rate was down to 23% and revenue dropped by 70%.
One major shot in the arm that has helped local hotels and restaurants is the reopening of the youth sports market, which is a major draw for families around the region. In early June, a softball tournament that drew teams to the area netted over $1 million in economic activity and a 65% room occupancy rate on the Saturday night of the tournament.
While one night’s economic burst won’t turn the market around to profitability, Ben stated that it does go to show the immense power of the youth market on tourism in our market. He also pointed out that major investments made in sports complexes in Youngsville, Broussard, Carencro’s Pelican Park, and Erath are tremendous assets that will continue to draw in crowds. Further, many of the sports activities that attract the crowds are amenable to the social distancing requirements and limiting the numbers in attendance; most youth sports draw parents and grandparents rather than huge crowds of other spectators, and limiting the number of people in the dugouts to 10 can easily be accommodated.
Ben shared a few examples which highlight the impact on local employment: the Doubletree Hotel, Lafayette’s largest hotel, was down from 130 employees to 12; the Cajundome staff was down to 2 employees and has been dealt a major blow in revenue with the cancellation of the Cajunland State Fair, multiple concerts, and other events. At this point, no one knows when concerts will be allowed to take place.
The Resilient Louisiana Hospitality Task Force has made it known to state officials that Local venues must know by July 1, 2020 if events will be allowed to occur so that planning for Festival Acadien and other events may move forward, according to Berthelot.
Eat Lafayette began earlier than scheduled this year to help local restaurants with marketing and to remind area residents of the need to patronize locally-owned restaurants. With all registration fees waived, over 200 restaurants are participating; usually over the past 16 years, about 100 restaurants would participate. With Phase 2 allowing 50% occupancy in restaurants, Ben is optimistic that the restaurants will now enjoy a more stable base of customers returning to their establishments.
Lafayette was selected as the site for TBEX North America 2020– the Travel Blogger Exchange which is currently scheduled for October 7 – 9, 2020. With an average of $41 million in earned media exposure, this event is only held once a year in the U. S. and internationally and is an unprecedented opportunity to reach travel professionals, bloggers, influencers, and content creators on our area’s unique and rich culture. Ben explained that if the date has to be moved back, it would be expected to be held next Spring.
Both Lafayette and the cities around Louisiana will be focusing on the desirability of staycations and the amenities which are available right here for local residents. Affordability is a big plus for families that are on tighter budgets and even in ‘normal’ times, Louisianans are the biggest market for cities throughout the state marketing their attractions. Texas is our second biggest market for tourism.
There is a 38 to 1 return on investment in marketing dollars spent, and LCVC and other tourism agencies will be looking for federal and state dollars to get tourism back on track. This aid will be especially important as LCVC is funded by a 4% hotel occupancy tax. Without these needed dollars, times are tight as the agency looks to bolster the needs of its tourism community.
Ben Berthelot is a dedicate public servant who has served our community and state well. For more information on LCVC and local attractions, please visit https://www.lafayettetravel.com/.