By TIM CARPENTER
TOPEKA — Damage to the Kansas tourism economy during the COVID-19 pandemic can be illustrated by impact of closing the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene.
The largest attraction in Abilene has been closed for months, blocking access to the $9 million exhibit space opened in August 2019 after an eight-month renovation. Nearly 150,000 people visited the museum last year. That was expected to double in 2020, said Kelly Peetoom, president of the Travel Industry Association of Kansas.
“The 2020 travel season was predicted to be Abilene’s best year in a long time. In contrast, it is Abilene’s tourism industry’s worst,” Peetoom said.
He told a joint House and Senate committee considering potential of economic recovery from the pandemic Thursday that Visit Overland Park projected year-end revenue would be 40% less than in 2019. COVID-19 has cost Overland Park about $44 million in economic returns from conventions and meetings, he said.
In Garden City, Peetoom said, Finney County is open for business but limited travel in the Garden City area is hitting small businesses, restaurants and lodging the hardest hit. About 30 events were canceled at a cost of millions in lost tourism dollars, he said.
Transient guest tax collections in Olathe are down 65% compared to the same time last year, he said. The Olathe Conference Center has cancelled or rescheduled 95% of bookings for April through December of this year, he said.
“Many industries and economic experts have stated that our country is in a recession due to the pandemic,” Peetoom said. “I am here to demonstrate that the hospitality tourism industry is in a depression.”
Mike Logan, who owns the Bottleneck and Granada live music venues in downtown Lawrence, said both closed March 15 due to the pandemic and the bars wouldn’t return to previous operational levels until summer 2021.
The hesitancy of performers and their fans to gather for concerts remains an obstacle to resumption of events, he said.
“The venue industry is injured,” Logan said. “Our business model is based on touching shoulder to shoulder in a crowded auditorium. We rely on a national inventory (of) touring artists who get in a bus and come across the country. They need to be able to make a full trip. Our industry is limited by a national reopening of touring artists.”
He said the entertainment and hospitality industries needed ongoing help from state government. He said restaurants operating at 30% to 50% of seating capacity must still meet mortgage debt, property tax and other routine business expenses during the pandemic.
Michelle Meyer, who is an owner of Holy-Field Vineyard and Winery in Basehor, said the 26th year of operation during the pandemic has been a struggle.
“We’re almost three decades into business,” she said. “Being a heritage brand like that is really beneficial because you have the longevity that people recognize and the quality and the value. For younger businesses, I think it has maybe been a little more difficult. Those are the types of businesses that we really need to support.”
She said Holy-Field shifted to curbside sales of wine, because the operation has relied upon on-site sales rather than shipping wine directly to consumers.
About two-dozen events scheduled for the winery have been called off since March and the banquet portion of their business is still idled, she said.
“When you can’t let people into your business, you can’t really introduce them to new things,” she said. “For wineries, we’re in the hospitality business. We like to talk to people and share the fruits of our labor — literally. That makes it difficult.”
Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.