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Analysis: Launch of Oklahoma City as 'Modern Frontier' hit hard by pandemic

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Armed with new attractions, a new convention center and Omni Hotel, next spring has long been envisioned as a chance to reintroduce Oklahoma City as a destination for conventions and tourism.

A months-long effort to rebrand led to an unveiling in February of Oklahoma City as “The Modern Frontier.” The campaign showed off a city with attractions, restaurants and arts for an array of tastes. The Convention and Visitors Bureau, boosted by an ongoing rise in hotel room taxes, built up to battle for its share of the convention business.

Hotels were thriving. Passenger traffic was up at Will Rogers World Airport. While visiting over coffee in mid-February with Tabbi Burwell, senior manager over destination communications at the bureau, I couldn’t help but wonder if the big task ahead was whether a discussion was needed to seek a hotel room tax increase to meet the challenge of marketing this new modern frontier.

Everything changed the next month with the COVID-19 virus spreading from overseas, killing thousands and sending many more to hospitals.

Air travel dropped to a 60-year low, and traffic at Will Rogers World Airport was down 95%. Hotels saw an unprecedented plunge in occupancy. By early April, downtown’s historic Skirvin Hilton was among 25 local hotels closed while an estimated 15,000 hospitality workers in Oklahoma County were out of work.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports no industry took a bigger hit from the pandemic than the hospitality business with the national workforce dropping from 17 million in February to 8.7 million in April.

City Treasurer Matt Boggs estimates hotel room taxes, the money that fuels the CVB, are down 80% for April from the $1.4 million collected the same time last year.

Mike Carrier, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, spent the past 13 years building a staff to promote the “Modern Frontier.” Last week he laid off eight of the 23-member staff, including Burwell. His $1.5 million advertising budget was cut to $450,000.

Shelter-in-place requirements are being lifted in phases, and the city’s large venues, including Chesapeake Energy Arena and the OKC Fairgrounds, are being reopened. But nobody is expecting a fast rebound. Cities across the country are left with no reference to look to for how to recover tourism and convention business in the midst of a pandemic.

Industry greatly missed

The energy industry long dominated headlines as a significant part of the local economy. The convention business in Oklahoma City has an estimated $400 million annual impact. The Oklahoma Department of Tourism, meanwhile, reports the economic impact from statewide tourism is $2.25 billion.

Before the pandemic, hospitality was the fastest-growing sector of the economy.

Carrier reports all of the conventions and trade shows booked for the new convention center starting next year are still on board. But have no doubt, the job of recovery and generating new business will be slow and at times painful.

The recovery locally starts where we began with the equine shows at the fairgrounds being the only activity that kept us alive as Oklahoma City sought to rebound from the 1980s oil bust.

As with the resumption of golf and racing, the equine shows will open without spectators. Some of the championship shows might see an increase in participants, however, due to the lack of required qualifying shows and opening of the contest to all members of the organizations. Carrier said at least one show is adding three days in Oklahoma City, which in turn will generate a much needed boost in room nights for area hotels.

The task of building on the equine shows took 20 years and a lot of investment by both taxpayers and the private sector. Oklahoma City has the assets and attractions this time around to rebuild on that same foundation, but Carrier and crew face the same uncertainty as that faced by cities bigger and smaller around the country.

Whether it’s Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, Chicago or Wichita, a hospitality industry taken for granted for so long is greatly missed and will be for months to come.

Related Photos
<strong>The new 605-room Omni Hotel, Oklahoma City Convention Center and 1,100-space garage can be seen forming a new skyline to the west of Bricktown. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]</strong>

The new 605-room Omni Hotel, Oklahoma City Convention Center and 1,100-space garage can be seen forming a new skyline to the west of Bricktown. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-227b97f34df61122ecdca399e9546dd9.jpg" alt="Photo - The new 605-room Omni Hotel, Oklahoma City Convention Center and 1,100-space garage can be seen forming a new skyline to the west of Bricktown. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title=" The new 605-room Omni Hotel, Oklahoma City Convention Center and 1,100-space garage can be seen forming a new skyline to the west of Bricktown. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> The new 605-room Omni Hotel, Oklahoma City Convention Center and 1,100-space garage can be seen forming a new skyline to the west of Bricktown. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure>
Steve Lackmeyer

Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's... Read more ›

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