Corrections & Clarifications: A previous version of this article misnamed the organization where Kim Sabow works.

Absent from the lobby of the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown over the past six months has been the bustle of business travelers and convention guests meeting in the lobby. 

With 1,000 rooms, the hotel is the state’s largest hotel. Located in the heart of the fifth largest city in the country, the Sheraton draws many of its guests from large events planned in its own meeting rooms, as well as those at the nearby convention center. Many of these events are planned to coincide with Phoenix’s gorgeous winter and spring weather. 

So on March 31, as the public health warnings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 caused groups to swiftly postpone or cancel travel plans and events, the hotel closed its doors and furloughed many of its employees.

“Something of this magnitude and this length has never disabled the hospitality industry as it has,” said Jon Erickson, director of sales and marketing for the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown.

As a small bellwether after months without guests, the downtown hotel will reopen on Nov. 1. 

“You know there is some light at the end of the tunnel and some light we’re starting to see,” Erickson said.

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The return of meetings and conventions

The cancellation of large events like Phoenix Fan Fusion, which can attract as many as 75,000 visitors to downtown Phoenix, and other conventions has significantly impacted the tourism industry. 

Cynthia Weaver, spokeswoman for the Phoenix Convention Center, said since March 52 citywide conventions, which were projected to bring 172,864 attendees, were  canceled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many attendees would have booked rooms in downtown hotels to attend those events. 

The glimmer of hope is that both the city and hotels are starting to see those conventions rebook. Weaver said among the cancellations, 19 conventions projected to draw in a total of 55,508 attendees have rebooked.

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She said Phoenix Convention Center and Visit Phoenix, the nonprofit responsible for promoting tourism to metro Phoenix, continued to promote the area and booked new conventions for future dates despite the pandemic.

So far, they’ve landed 72 new conventions for dates in the future. Combined with the conventions that have rebooked, that’s a total of 91 conventions with a projected 367,242 attendees booked this year for future events. 

Weaver called that a record number of attendees scheduled to visit Phoenix for future conventions.

A man crosses Monroe Street near Second Street in front of the Phoenix Convention Center in downtown Phoenix on March 16, 2020. (Photo: David Wallace/The Republic)

Meeting during the pandemic

It’s not unusual for conventions to be booked years in advance. But after months without bookings, the resurrection of event planners looking toward the future marks a small ray of hope. Many of the groups they hear from need to conduct education or training that they believe would be more effective in person rather than virtually. 

They’re trying to figure out when and how to make that happen safely. 

“People are telling us that they want to meet. They want to meet in person,” Erickson said. 

Still, warnings from public health officials about meeting in large groups are still in place given the absence of a vaccine. With hope that one might be available soon, Erickson said the Sheraton is seeing some groups who had planned events in the first couple of months of 2021 push those events to June, July, September and October instead of canceling outright. 

Event planners, he said, hope pushing those schedules back a bit will allow more time for a vaccine to arrive and the virus to be contained. 

In the meantime, he said it’s not uncommon to receive a request for events that can accommodate hybrid attendance with some people attending in person and socially distanced while others attending remotely.

The typical request right now is for smaller events, around 75 to 100 people, which Erickson said the hotel can safely accommodate given the amount of space in its meeting rooms. For instance, he said a table that normally might have had 10 people might now have four, and they could space those tables for proper distancing. 

“We’re starting to see those smaller groups because it’s a little bit easier. They’re a little bit more nimble and traditionally a little bit more localized,” said Erickson. 

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Return of consumer confidence in air travel

As the seasons change, so do the types of visitors Phoenix draws. It turns from a destination drawing locals, as well as visitors from drive markets like California and Nevada, to one bringing in Midwestern and Canadian visitors flying to escape the cold.

So resorts and hotels in the Valley are also carefully watching what happens with air travel. 

“The airline industry is obviously vital and integral in our industry. It’s a key component of our ecosystem,” said Kim Sabow, president and CEO of theArizona Lodging and Tourism Association, a trade group representing the industry in Arizona. 

“One of the factors in making the Valley such a popular resort destination is we have great airlift and we have a great airport,” said Mark Vinciguerra, the general manager of the Phoenician.

In an interview with The Arizona Republic in early September, Kyle Mabry, global head of leisure sales for American Airlines, said while demand hasn’t returned to normal, the airline has seen increased demand for warm weather destinations, like Phoenix, for winter bookings. 

Resorts in Phoenix have seen some evidence of that as well. 

Pam Gilbert, the director of sales and marketing for the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, said during the summer they wouldn’t see rooms booked much more than a week or two in advance. 

“Now we are seeing people starting to book the holiday season or the winter or next spring and that’s really good to see from a leisure market standpoint, ” Gilbert said.

But with resorts adapting their cancellation policies to allow flexibility if guests decide they don’t think it is safe to travel, it’s one thing for someone to book.

Now the resorts wait with their fingers crossed that those guests arrive. 

You can connect with Arizona Republic Consumer Travel Reporter Melissa Yeager through email at [email protected]. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram. 

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