Coronavirus pandemic taking toll on Dublin bed-tax revenues

SARAH SOLE
ssole@thisweeknews.com
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has hit Dublin's hospitality industry. The number of hotel stays is down, and bookings at such event centers as the Exchange in the Bridge Park development and conference facilities also have declined.

It could be years before Dublin's hotels see a return to the business they enjoyed pre-COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, according to Scott Dring, executive director of the Dublin Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Dring said he doesn't expect the hospitality industry to fully bounce back until 2023.

"It's going to be years before we get back to those levels," he said.

The slump in guests means more than a decrease in bed-tax revenues for the city.

Without visitors, Dublin's economy could suffer because not enough demand exists in the local market for restaurants and retail locations, Dring said.

"You have to have revenue from visitors, as well, to grow a local economy," he said.

Whereas local restaurants report experiencing a good amount of business on Fridays and Saturdays, that has not been the case on weekdays, Dring said.

Visitors to Dublin typically generate weekday business while in the city on corporate travel, he said; however, fewer people have been coming to the city than previous years.

In March, the hotel occupancy for Dublin hotels was 33.5%, according to statistics provided by the bureau.

In April, that fell to 18.5%. In July, the rate climbed to 49.2%, still far lower than the 2019 occupancy rate for July of 83.2%.

Dring said he anticipates hotel-occupancy percentage rates hovering in the mid 40s for the next couple of months.

The bureau is communicating closely with Cardinal Health and OCLC to gauge those companies' corporate travel, the "bread and butter" of Dublin's hotel business, could pick back up, Dring said.

"They just don't know right now," he said.

Jennifer Ruiz, general manager at Courtyard by Marriott Columbus Dublin, said the recent archery tournament held in the city was a big boost for her hotel.

Visitors are also coming to visit such local attractions as the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and Zoombezi Bay. Others are doing staycations, she said.

"We still need the support of our local community," Ruiz said.

Although the hotel is seeing business, it's by no means normal.

Ruiz said August recorded a 50% decrease in guest stays compared to the same time last year.

The hotel employs 35 people, and most of them were furloughed during March and April, Ruiz said.

By June, the hotel began to slowly bring back workers. Still, many employees' hours have been reduced drastically.

Dring said he estimates more than half of employees within the restaurant, hotel and retail sectors in Dublin are still without work.

Still, Dring said, the hospitality industry is hurting nationwide from a lack of travel.

"It's not just a Dublin thing," he said.

As hotels have experienced a downturn in business, the city's bed-tax revenue also has declined.

In May, bed-tax revenue was down 90% compared to the same time last year, Dring said.

He's projecting bed-tax revenue will be down 62% at year's end compared to last year.

The CVB is funded primarily by bed-tax revenues, and it has been feeling the effects of the funding decrease.

Since the pandemic came to the forefront in March, the bureau's budget is down 81%, Dring said, and the bureau has not been able to promote the city like it has in the past because of the shrinking budget.

The bureau and the Dublin Arts Council receive monthly revenue disbursements from the bed tax. Dublin's bed-tax revenue comes from the 6% lodging tax imposed on stays of less than 30 days in the city, said Matt Stiffler, Dublin's finance director.

About 35% of the annual bed-tax revenue goes to the bureau's founding and 25% to the Dublin Arts Council, Stiffler said.

The remainder is used for other items, including events administration and community bed-tax grants -- about $200,000 annually is allocated to grant recipients.

Bed-tax revenue in Dublin had been experiencing steady growth since 2014 until the pandemic hit, Stiffler said.

In 2014, the city collected $2.7 million in bed-tax revenues compared to a little more than $3.6 million last year.

Stiffler said the positive trend could be attributed to general economic health, as well as growth in Bridge Park and the addition of new hotels to the city.

Since the pandemic, the city hasn't changed its percentage allocations of bed-tax revenue to the bureau or the arts council; however, the amount of money has decreased, Stiffler said.

To offset the reduction, the city in May allocated $300,000 to the bureau to oversee the Dublin restart plan -- marketing specifically related to the pandemic, Stiffler said.

The city also provided $306,000 to the arts council for operating expenses and suspended rent for the organization from May through December. With rent forgiveness, the grant amount totaled $360,000, Stiffler said.

The bed-tax fund balance -- the surplus bed-tax revenue accrued over years -- is about $4.06 million, and the city could use that money if annual bed-tax revenues continue to decrease, Stiffler said.

Council is expected in October to consider using income-tax revenue to supplement the bed-tax fund, he said.

ssole@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekSarah