As convention business quickens in Rochester, hotels and restaurants see much-needed shot in the arm
But convention activity hasn't returned to pre-pandemic levels as the number of city hotels grew.
ROCHESTER, Minn. — Rochester’s economy is receiving a sizable jolt of economic stimulus as the pace of convention business returns to levels not seen since the COVID pandemic started in March 2020.
Within a week, Mayo Civic Center will have served as host to GOP and DFL state conventions, bringing thousands of attendees and their dollars to the area. The GOP held its two-day convention last weekend, and the DFL will kick off its three-day event on Friday.
Experience Rochester, the city’s visitor and convention bureau, estimates the combined conventions will result in $2.3 million in direct spending on lodging, dining, gas and other services. Officials say the two conventions will draw 3,500 people and result in the booking of 1,700 room nights at hotels.
But the political conventions haven’t delivered the biggest economic punch so far this year.
That distinction goes to twin United Hardware conferences hosted by the Civic Center. The two events – one held in January and other planned for June – are projected to bring in 4,000 people, result in 2,200 room nights in hotels and lead to $3.1 million in economic stimulus.
“It took every square inch of the Mayo Civic Center,” said Joe Ward, president of Experience Rochester about the hardware event.
It’s been more than a decade since the city hosted both political conventions, and while both have been delivering the goods in terms of economic stimulus, there is still room for improvement, officials and hotel general managers say.
“To get both conventions is absolutely fantastic, particularly coming off the pandemic and the challenges that businesses have been facing, ” Ward said. “It’s not going to cure everybody’s year, but it's a nice little shot in the arm.”
Ward said hotel occupancy in Rochester fell to 15% in the depths of the pandemic. Last year saw a slow but gradual improvement. This year, with convention business picking up, revenues in Rochester’s hotel sector have reached 90% of pre-pandemic levels in the last four months.
But Ward also noted that four new hotel properties opened during the pandemic, so occupancies are still far below pre-pandemic levels.
“I think (hotel properties) are still out of their comfort zone,” Ward said. “If you talk to an individual property, they still have a lot of room that they’d like to improve.”
For Michael Smith, general manager of Hotel Indigo, the uptick in business as a result of the return of sporting and events to Rochester has been “such a breath of fresh air. It’s tremendous.”
He said his 178-room hotel was filled to capacity during the GOP convention, the first since it opened in January 2020, two months before the pandemic forced statewide lockdowns. At times, the hotel's occupancy hovered in the single digits during the worst of the pandemic.
While reviving convention business has been heartening, every hotel is different. And every business is recovering at a different rate, depending on the hotel and “the business you had on the books,” he said.
Still Smith, whose last day as general manager at Indigo Hotel was Wednesday, sounded optimistic about the overall turn of events.
“I feel like the hotels are ramping up,” Smith said. “I feel that we’re headed in the right direction.”
The two political conventions, part of a run at the Civic Center, have been sandwiched between “Just For Kix Nationals” dance tournaments held earlier this month and the second United Hardware event set for June 23 through 25. Thrive Women’s Conference, a Christian women’s event, is set for the fall.
And Rochester convention officials hope the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which canceled their worldwide conferences starting in 2020, will return to the Med City next year.
That three-day conference brings close to 20,000 people from the Upper Midwest and delivers $20 million in economic stimulus to the city from spending on hotels, restaurants and other venues.
“They have recommitted to coming back next July, so that’ll be great to see those folks in town again,” Ward said.