How Fort Worth’s thriving hotel scene is boosting more than just the hospitality industry
See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Jenny Rudolph here.
The visitors gathered outside downtown Fort Worth’s AC Hotel on Tuesday morning were in town for an international esports tournament.
For other tourists, the attraction to America’s 13th largest city lies in a visit to the Stockyards to watch the cattle drive or exploring downtown nightlife with dinner and a view of the skyline. For many families, it’s a visit to the zoo, botanic garden and water gardens.
When much of the country shut down in early 2020 because of COVID-19, the travel and hospitality industry suffered historic losses. Meanwhile, Fort Worth kept its doors open to travelers while many other metros were closed down.
The city was among the first in Texas to reopen its convention center and Tarrant County became home for big-time sporting events where spectators could gather. The World Series was played at Globe Life Field in the fall, the Rose Bowl moved from California to AT&T Stadium, and the National Finals Rodeo moved from Las Vegas, bringing thousands to downtown and the Stockyards.
Now more than two years later, Fort Worth’s hotel industry has by some measures exceeded pre-pandemic business, outpacing even Dallas in recovering from the depths of the April 2020 crash. At least five major upscale hotel projects in the works in downtown and the Cultural District suggest expectations of strong, growing demand over the next couple of years.
In April of 2020, U.S. hotel occupancy was only 24.5% and Fort Worth did not fare much better, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association. The city saw 28.6% occupancy in April of 2020 and brought in less than one-third of revenue generated during that month in the previous year, according to Visit Fort Worth.
As the pandemic continued and tourism in major cities like New York and Los Angeles ceased to exist, Fort Worth was open for business. The city generated demand for more than 1.7 million occupied rooms in the first half of 2021, according to Visit Fort Worth.
“What it used to be in 2019 and before that has drastically changed,” said Kurt Fournier, chief financial officer of Visit Fort Worth. “We saw leisure customers just take off last year, and really kind of drive this increase.”
Now two years after climbing out of the worst of the COVID-19 shutdowns, Fort Worth’s hotel industry has exceeded expectations and faces what The Worthington Renaissance Fort Worth Hotel General Manager Drew Hayden describes as a “record-breaking year” for the better.
“We’ve added 3,000 rooms to the market in the last two years and there’s more coming,” Hayden said. “So I think the outlook for Fort Worth looks really good. Fort Worth put itself on the map. The pandemic kind of made a statement.”
Fort Worth experienced 70% occupancy and generated more than $207 million in revenue in the first half of 2019. While the city has seen 66.9% occupancy this year, the addition of rooms has generated more than $239 million in 2022 revenue, according to Visit Fort Worth.
In comparison to Dallas, Fort Worth hotels have recovered faster. Dallas anticipated 2022 average daily rates of $116.92, according to CBRE. Meanwhile, Fort Worth has seen average daily rates of $120.36 so far this year, according to Visit Fort Worth.
Experts said this is most likely due to the Dallas hotel industry’s high reliance on business travel, which has not rebounded. In contrast, the Fort Worth industry can attribute much of its success to tourism and leisure travel.
This month, hundreds of visitors from across the world are pouring into Fort Worth for the Rocket League World Championship, a competitive video game tournament at Dickies Arena for the next two weeks. Teams traveling from Australia, Africa, Europe, South America and North America are filling the AC Hotel in downtown Fort Worth. Seventy percent of the AC Hotel’s rooms are booked through Aug. 14, according to the hotel.
“Many hotels are going to have a record year this year because of all the travel,” said Hayden, the Worthington general manager. “People are trying to get out again. People want to get out of their houses and Fort Worth did a great job of staying open, staying safe, and giving people that confidence that they can be safe.”
THE GREATER BENEFIT TO FORT WORTH’S ECONOMY
Analyzing hotel occupancy, average daily rate and revenue data shows the impact customers make when they visit and stay in a hotel. Considering spending on food, beverage and entertainment, the cost of a hotel is less than half of what leisure travelers spend when in Fort Worth, Fournier said.
“The economic impact of what they’re doing in the city is probably more than doubled,” Fournier said.
In 2021, the Fort Worth Zoo saw 1.25 million visitors and only 46% of them were from Tarrant County, according to the Zoo. Knowing that the number of hotel rooms is increasing in Fort Worth is a wonderful thing for the city, said Avery Blander, director of marketing and public relations at the Fort Worth Zoo.
“With increases in the number of hotel rooms, we can only hope that the number of people visiting our city are visiting the Fort Worth Zoo,” Blander said. “In turn, admission dollars help us maintain our mission of animal conservation and education.”
Upcoming hotels like the Crescent Fort Worth, Le Méredien, the Bowie House Hotel and the Sandman Signature Hotel will add more than 740 rooms in the next few years.
The expansion of the Fort Worth Convention Center will add a 1,000-room hotel. The expansion is expected to begin in the second quarter of 2023.
Increased occupancy and growing returns on investment show Fort Worth’s hospitality industry will keep recovering quickly after the pandemic. Now the remaining problem is attracting and retaining employees, Hayden said.
“We just need staff,” Hayden said. “We’re doing more business than we’ve ever done, but we’re doing it with two-thirds the staff than we’ve ever done.”
At the end of 2021, hotels across the U.S. operated with only 77% of their pre-pandemic employment levels. Hotels are nationally projected to employ 93% of their 2019 employment levels — or 2.19 million people in total — by the end of 2022, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association.
Until then, the success in occupancy of one hotel will help the whole industry grow by creating an overflow and driving overall demand, Fournier said.
“You’ve got to help the other people succeed as well as you. You’ve got to help the city succeed and grow, because ultimately it’s about creating that demand in the city,” Fournier said.
Location Mentioned: AC Hotel Fort Worth