Events, tourism return to Iowa as pandemic, worker shortage continue

By: - June 4, 2021 11:29 am

Fairgoers ride the Skyglider at the Iowa State Fair in August 2014. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

As COVID-19 restrictions lift, Iowa will see more events and tourism returning to regular scheduling in the summer of 2021.

“People weren’t able to get out as much as they might have preferred last year, so we’re anticipating a lot of people hitting the road,” said Jessica O’Riley, spokesperson for the Iowa Tourism Office. “I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand and people are going to want to get out of their home, and travel especially as they’re vaccinated and feel more comfortable getting out and about with other people.”

Most travelers are somewhat uncomfortable with flying and are looking toward road trips this summer, she said, which is beneficial for states like Iowa.

With some events and festivals returning across the state, O’Riley said she anticipates tourism returning in much higher numbers than 2020, but she doubts 2019 numbers will return.

Many events are coming back to Iowa, including the Des Moines Arts Festival, which will take place during the fourth weekend of June. Planning the event has been a roller coaster ride, Stephen King, festival executive director, said.

He said there are several changes to the festival that participants may not notice, including more distanced tents. The festival will also hold its film festival in person and stream the films online. 

“We’re still a few weeks out from the festival, so anything could change at any time in terms of COVID protocol,” he said. “We will have the usual array of visual and performing artists, live music, and food. It will look a little different because things are spread out a little bit more.” 

King said the decision to hold the festival in person has been received well by the public and he’s excited to see the event return for artists and art lovers in the state.

The Iowa State Fair is also preparing to return in full force in August. Gary Slater, CEO of the fair, has been watching the state and federal guidelines closely over the last year to make the best decisions for the fair.

He said there will be more hand sanitizer and hand-washing stations available to fairgoers, but everyone’s favorite parts of the fair are returning. 

“The pandemic disrupted a traditional part of being an Iowan,” he said. “We love living in Iowa and we celebrate it at the Iowa State Fair.”

Outdoor recreational activities and sports coming back with support from the public

Events aren’t the only reason more travel is happening within the state. Sporting events are inviting fans back. The Iowa Cubs season began in May and will end in September. The Principal Charity Classic is taking over the Wakonda Club this weekend.

Sporting events are leading to an increase in hotel bookings this summer, said Susan Koch, director of sales and marketing at the DoubleTree Hilton in Cedar Rapids.

“Multiple citywide sporting events are contributing to compression in the market,” she said. “… Since April, we’ve seen bookings continuing to ramp up and there is a summer surge starting early for us hotels this year. There’s a lot of pent-up demand for weddings, sporting events, and corporate travel this year.”

Statewide bicycle ride RAGBRAI is making its return in July after postponing the event in 2020. The map remains almost the exact same as the one planned for last year, Marketing Director Anne Lawrie said, but construction did force the route to change slightly. 

About 15,000 riders from all 50 states and a few other countries are registered for the event. Lawrie said host towns will be increasing hand-sanitizing stations and more portable toilets across the route. She hopes the community aspects of the ride will come back while the event continues to encourage social distancing when not riding.

“We’re hoping the sense of community and camaraderie that everyone has felt at the event as well as the spirit of RAGBRAI is maintained even though we’ve been off for a year,” Lawrie said. “It’s the same experience.”

The RAGBRAI team is beginning its route inspection on June 5. 

Cancellations aren’t uncommon

Events celebrating Pride month will also look different across the state this June. Iowa City, Sioux City, and the Quad Cities both delayed their LGBT events alongside other events in the state. Des Moines’s Capital City Pride consists of 30 days of events instead of the traditional weekend-long festival. SUX (pronounced “Sioux”) Pride is one of the festivals pushing ahead with its two-day event. 

80/35, a music festival held in Des Moines, is postponed for the second year in a row, as other music events like Hinterland return to the state. The festival plans to return with a strong lineup in 2022, Emily Steele of the Des Moines Music Coalition said in an email to Iowa Capital Dispatch.

Hiring issues plague events

Some events are struggling to find volunteers and workers to assist in programming this summer as worker shortages are worsening all over the country and within the state

During a difficult year for the entertainment industry, Michael Silva, the executive director of VenuWorks in Cedar Rapids, said it has been a challenge to find staff during a record year for shows at the venues he manages. 

Hiring fairs have helped businesses like his find part time workers for the summer, but he said full time positions are another story thanks to the derecho and COVID.

“The industry was just decimated for a year and a half and now we’re going to come charging out of the barn,” he said. “And we have seasoned professionals on staff ready to go, but we have fewer people doing the work of many. It’s a little bit of a crunch time right now.” 

The Des Moines Arts Festival is also struggling to find workers and volunteers. King said setting up the festival will likely take three to four days instead of the normal two because there are fewer people to assist.

“As festivals start to come back and events like this take place again, it’s going to be very difficult,” he said. “We’re also looking at the supply chain and whether or not we can provide what we need even if vendors have the staffing.”

He said some artists and vendors that normally participate in the festival are no longer in the industry following the pandemic as well. 

The Iowa State Fair hires between 1,300 and 1,400 fair-time staff members, not including concessions, Slater said. The fair is trying to hire earlier in various positions after seeing other similar businesses struggle this spring.

“I’m a little concerned about having enough people,” he said. “We have a job fair in July and I have confidence that we will make sure we will fill our quotas.”

As many events return to Iowa, O’Riley said she hopes people will remember all of the factors that have made the past year difficult and will remain tolerant this summer.

“Pack your patience,” she said. “A lot of attractions may still have protocols in place so check before you travel, make sure you’re aware of any of those protocols … It’s been kind of a rough year for the tourism industry. We’re rebounding, but it’ll take a little while until we’re back to normal.”

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a third-year student at the University of Iowa where she studies journalism and mass communication and global health studies. She worked as a news reporter covering shared governance and higher education and a digital producer for The Daily Iowan since her freshman year. In the fall, she will return to the paper as a news editor. As a second-year, she hosted and co-produced "On The Record", the DI's news podcast that was named Best Podcast by the Iowa Newspaper Association.

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