WILLMAR, Minn. — Statewide, the tourism and hospitality industry reports increased revenue this summer versus 2020 with 71% of businesses reported higher summer revenue, according to a Minnesota Tourism and Hospitality survey.

The survey, conducted by Explore Minnesota, Hospitality Minnesota and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, targeted food and drink, attraction, entertainment and lodging businesses that examined revenue and customer traffic in relation to supply compared to the summers of 2020 and 2019.

While a majority of businesses saw an increase in revenue compared to 2020, only 45% reported higher revenues compared to summer 2019.

In the food and drink sector, 63% reported higher 2021 summer revenue compared to 2020, and 42% reported higher summer revenue compared to 2019.

Half of the respondents reported less customer demand compared to their businesses' capacity compared to summer 2020. Southern Minnesota and the Twin Cities reported the lowest customer traffic.

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Industry recovery since the start of pandemic has varied by season, business type and geography across the state.

Overnight lodging businesses all saw an increase of revenue with northwest Minnesota hitting a 90% increase, with 90% in central Minnesota, 89% in the Twin Cities metro area and 64% in southern Minnesota.

However, tourism officials say hotels and restaurants are not back to the their 2019 levels of revenue and the area would like to see a bigger increase in customer traffic.

"They had a great summer, which is wonderful," said Beth Fischer, executive director of the Willmar Lakes Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. "But we need convention business, conferences and group meetings to come back."

According to a news release from Explore Minnesota, a few months of steady recovery has been hampered due to consumer travel perceptions starting to shift because of the COVID-19 delta variant.

"Our businesses can't afford to go back to where we were," Fischer said, adding that she's optimistic about the fall, even with the threat of the delta variant, because businesses have been so diligent about cleaning and doing their best to ensure a safe environment. The fact that many of the area's attractions, like camping, hiking and fishing, are outdoors will also help the area economically.

According to Chris Miller, director of the Minnesota Mississippi River Parkway Commission, travel destinations along the Great River Road in Minnesota had mixed success over the summer as well. Segments of the scenic byway, which traces the path of the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Louisiana, were reclassified as "All-American Roads" this year by the Federal Highway Administration.

"Some of the outdoor activities were probably more popular than some of the indoor ones but ... I think that's a benefit of the Great River Road," Miller said in an interview. "You can find outdoor things to do or indoor things to do, and you have choices so people can adjust."

The Minnesota parkway group and others involved with the Great River Road are promoting September as a road-trip month. Miller said communities that rely on tourism will continue to apply best practices learned over the course of the pandemic, and advises travelers to check what local health measures are in place ahead of time.

A majority of respondents reported trouble hiring workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. leisure and hospitality industry is the hardest hit sector, still down 1.7 million jobs since February 2020.

Sixty percent of the businesses surveyed expect higher revenue and customer demand this fall versus fall 2020. According to the news release, businesses that reported a good summer 2021 are anticipating a similar season in the fall but remain concerned about the potential impact of the delta variant.

“The current onset of the COVID-19 delta variant continues to highlight how volatile sustained tourism recovery is and how differently the pandemic impacts segments of this industry. Consumer confidence and traveler preferences vary widely, and those who are traveling also seem to be spending more,” Leann Kispert, interim state tourism director for Explore Minnesota, said in the release.

Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce President Ken Warner wrote that he thinks most people understand that the pandemic will be around for a while and the need to adapt to the challenges it presents.

"I’ve heard people say that we should manage the virus and not let the virus manage us," Warner said via email. "Business people are risk-takers and very resilient in the things they do. I am so proud of our business community and how they have powered their way through this."

It's important for the community to continue to support local businesses during this time, otherwise, they might end up closing shop, according to Warner.

"(Business owners) are your neighbors, your friends and in some cases your employer. Please continue to support them so they can, in turn, continue to support our community in the many ways they do," Warner wrote.