Kane: Record year for Memphis tourism stopped day global pandemic declared

By , Daily Memphian Published: April 03, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Memphis Tourism president and CEO Kevin Kane says on March 11, the Memphis tourism industry was looking at a record year for revenue and visitors to the city. That was the same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 was a worldwide pandemic. And the reaction was swift.

“On March 12, it was over,” Kane said of a record year for tourism. “The fallout started beginning immediately and swiftly.”

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On the WKNO Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines” recorded Thursday, April 2, Kane put current hotel occupancy for the city at 30% of the rooms occupied, which is up from the immediate aftermath of the pandemic declaration.

But Kane still holds to earlier estimates of 70% to 75% of the city’s 50,000 hospitality industry employees being unemployed currently or probably in the future.

The city’s economic boom up to the pandemic declaration included a significant number of plans and construction starts for new hotels.

“If I had to predict will every hotel on the drawing board … will they all happen, probably not,” Kane said. “Will some of them happen, yes.”

The latest word on the Loews convention center hotel in what is now Civic Center Plaza from last week is that Loews executive are still moving forward toward construction within possibly a month or two delay, according to Kane.

The 500-room hotel is tied to a $200 million extensive renovation of the Renasant Memphis Convention Center that is still underway with two shifts of construction workers as a COVID-19 social distancing precaution.

“They are also on two shifts in case, God forbid, somebody on one shift or on one crew gets stricken with COVID-19 and they have to take a whole crew out for 14 days or whatever they would have to do,” Kane said. “They’ve got protocols in place to protect not only their employees but also to protect the job and continuing to go forward.”

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The renovated convention center is scheduled to make its debut in September. Kane said convention and meeting planners who had events canceled through May and June elsewhere have already been calling to see if they can book their events in Memphis this fall as a result.

Kane is serving on a statewide task force assembled by state House Speaker Cameron Sexton that is focused on the economic recovery from an event that Kane and others have said is arguably more severe than the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the Great Recession that started in 2008 because of the suddenness.

“I think this is probably the biggest thing we’ve experienced as far as the impact it’s going to have economically,” Kane said. “We think it could be 2022 before tourism and hospitality is restored fully to where we were in 2019. You’ve got the rest of 2020 pretty dicey, pretty slow. And then you’ve got 2021 -- you are really kind of building yourself up coming out of the ditch.”

That ultimately depends on how comfortable travelers are with moving around the country and how comfortable Memphians and visitors are with being part of a large crowd like that at the Memphis in May International Festival, on Beale Street or at a stadium for a sporting event.

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Kane was interviewed the same day that new national unemployment figures showed a record 6.6 million people filed new unemployment claims last week compared to the previous record of 3.3 million new claims the previous week.

The new numbers translate to 94,492 new unemployment claims for Tennessee and 12,548 in the greater Memphis area.

Kane believes the hospitality and connected service industries are most of those new claims for the Memphis area.

Tennessee reports surge in jobless claims in Memphis area

“We went from a month or so ago having a labor shortage, not finding qualified people to work at hotels and large restaurants and attractions, to now all of a sudden completely shut down and 99% of their workforce is now unemployed,” he said. “You’ve got to get these people back. You’ve got other sectors that are thriving in this crisis and they are hiring and paying great wages, doing various things because they need workers.”

“Behind The Headlines” airs Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 8:30 a.m. on WKNO. The program can also be heard on The Behind The Headlines Podcast available on this site.

COVID-19 in Memphis and Shelby County: April


Memphis Tourism Kevin Kane Loews Hotel Behind The Headlines

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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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