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Local hotel occupancy, air travel increase as tourism industry climbs back

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ROCKFORD (WREX) — Some industries the pandemic hit the hardest in the last year were travel and tourism companies. But now that more people are vaccinated, they're looking to hit the road…and the sky.

The Fairfield Inn and Suites in Rockford is just one of many hotels along I-90 that's finding new life out of the pandemic.

"We are booking groups all the time, so it's looking much better," Janet Eyster, the General Manager of the Fairfield Inn, says.

We spoke to her last March when the pandemic was just starting. At the time, she told us her occupancy tanked to just 28 percent.

"I had to lay-off almost half of my staff," Eyster said on March 25, 2020.

Now, a little more than a year later, her occupancy almost doubled year over year.

"Everybody that I laid off that wanted their job back is back working for me, and we now currently have open ads for hiring," Eyster says, explaining there was a hiring freeze until the beginning of 2021.

John Groh, the President of the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, says these are the signs of recovery in the tourism sector.

"As Americans become increasingly vaccinated and as case counts have been on the decline, people are beginning to travel again, both for leisure and for events like sports tournaments and business travel," Groh explains.

That's what Eyster says she's been hearing from guests.

"Everybody was doing the Zoom meetings and things, but I think we're starting to see more companies coming and traveling again," Eyster says.

And that increased travel is happening at the Chicago-Rockford International Airport. According to Zack Oakley, the airport's Deputy Director of Operations and Planning, airlines are aggressively promoting deals to get passengers to fly. That shows in the year over year numbers as well.

"In March of 2021, we saw 25,000 passengers pass through our terminal, and in March of 2020, we saw 14,800 passengers pass through our terminal," Oakley says.

Oakley says he thinks the airport will continue to see growth in those numbers.

"It's going to be gradual, but it's going to be steady," Oakley says with a smile.

While Oakley, Groh, and Eyster are happy with the positive returns thus far, they still say a full recovery may be a year away.

Eyster and Oakley add that hotels and airports remain vigilant against the virus and masks are required. Plus, they are still cleaning and sanitizing frequently.

Richard Bodee

Richard Bodee is a reporter at WREX. He joined the 13 WREX team in June 2019 after graduating from DePaul University with a Master’s degree in broadcast journalism.

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