OTTUMWA — The rise in cases locally has slowed, but the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. Events are still being canceled. Numbers nationally are rising. Travel is iffy, at best, and large crowds raise concerns.
It all means Andy Wartenburg, director of the Greater Ottumwa Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, has an extremely difficult job. How, exactly, do you convince people to visit in these conditions?
“It is very challenging,” Wartenburg said.
Wartenburg’s report last week to the Ottumwa City Council underscores the damage the pandemic has done to travel and entertainment. In April 2019, Ottumwa’s hotels were at 52 percent capacity. This April saw that number plunge to 25 percent.
The CVB projects a 50 percent loss in hotel/motel revenues for the first quarter of this year and a 40 percent loss in the second quarter. Things improve a bit after that, but Wartenburg told the council a 30 percent loss for the third and fourth quarters is reasonable. In all, it’s a tax loss of more than $140,000 — and that’s if the second wave predicted by many experts fails to materialize.
“Folks, there’s no playbook for this. So this is our best guess,” Wartenburg told the council.
A week after that presentation, Wartenburg told the Courier Ottumwa does have some advantages. There is pent-up demand. A survey from AAA Iowa said 58 percent of respondents were interested in taking a road trip. A third said they would be willing to stay in a hotel or resort.
Wartenburg said the third phase of the current campaign, “Welcome back to Ottumwa,” tries to underscore the fact Ottumwa can be reached without major travel plans and is within easy range of a broad area for day trips.
While many events are off the summer slate, a few remain. Some seem tailor-made for the current environment. The 34th Annual Ford Powered Show on August 16 is one. It’s at Ottumwa Park. Outside. And the nature of the event makes social distancing easier than many others.
Wartenburg spoke with organizers earlier this week and said they are looking ahead. The possibility of a two or three-day event next year is being discussed, which would be a significant gain. With experts saying a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus is possible early next year, such events are within the realm of possibility.
The concern is events in the mid-term range. Fall and winter events are harder to hold outdoors.
“A lot is going to depend on where we are three, four months from now,” Wartenburg said. “It’s going to affect conferences and indoor events.”
Earlier this month, Dr. Anthony Fauci said a second wave of the virus is “not inevitable.” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been one of the most recognizable figures in public health since the pandemic reached the United States.
Fauci said people need to maintain social distancing and wear masks in public. Such steps can reduce the spread of the virus.
Wartenburg and others in his position hope Fauci is right. But there’s a long, uncertain road still ahead.