Topeka business

Downtown Topeka storefronts.

(The Center Square) – Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is highlighting the state's tourism and hospitality industry, the ninth-largest industry in the state.

The industry brought in more than $86 million per year for the state in pre-pandemic days.

Dan Murray, Kansas state director of National Federation of Independent Business, told The Center Square there is no doubt the pandemic dramatically impacted the tourism industry and tourism-related retailers.

"From gift shops in Lindsborg to bars and restaurants in Manhattan on a football Saturday, small businesses saw a steep drop in foot traffic," Murray said. "Many retailers and venues tried to overcome the limitations imposed by the government by offering virtual experiences and increased online presence."

Jim Zaleski, president of Travel Industry Association of Kansas, told The Center Square that while many hotels saw occupancy rates fall to precarious levels, some were able to “keep their head above water” with business and construction travel that was deemed essential.

"I can speak more to how the pandemic has impacted our city of Olathe, but I guarantee this mirrors what every other city is going through," Kelly Peetoom, vice president of Olathe Convention and Visitors Bureau, told The Center Square. "As the nation and state are suffering through a recession, our industry is currently in a depression."

When asked about forward-looking plans and returning customers, Zaleski said a re-energized and most likely “anxious” traveler will help with the immediate resurgence, but we can’t depend on this to bouy back the entire industry.

"Individual CVBs and tourism bureaus will need to work alongside our state tourism department to collectively hang out the 'we are open' sign for Kansas Tourism," Zaleski said.

Many small business owners in the tourism industry are anxious to get customers and visitors back in their shops.

"Much of their focus is on reminding people that these unique experiences still exist, are open for business and that they are safe," Murray said. "Partnering with local visitors bureaus and the state Department of Commerce to promote tourism opportunities has never been more important for our small businesses."

Peetoom said increased business travel is a significant sign of recovery.

"Our cities will fully recover once the corporate traveler and meetings market fully come back," he said. "Experts have made comments on these markets coming back as soon as the fall of 2021 and as late as 2023."

The state needs to be prepared for whatever happens, Zaleski surmised.

"Really it is a 'get back on the horse' type of scenario, as quickly as we can we need to be back in front of potential transient travelers, group travel and potential meetings that we can attract," Zaleski said.