Visit Oak Park, the local tourism bureau for Oak Park and 19 neighboring communities, will bring in less than half the revenue expected from Oak Park’s hotel/motel tax during 2020, due to COVID-19. The tax is predicted to raise only $100,000 this fiscal year, instead of the $222,000 forecast in the original village budget adopted Dec. 2.

Visit Oak Park is jointly funded by the village of Oak Park’s hotel/motel tax and the state of Illinois.

“The village’s hotel/motel tax gives Visit Oak Park access to our state funding,” said Eric C. Wagner, the organization’s CEO. “As part of our funding formula, every $1 from the village’s hotel/motel tax brings in $2 from the state of Illinois for Visit Oak Park.” Specifically, from the state’s hotel/motel tax.

While Oak Park features prominently in its name, Visit Oak Park is the convention and visitor bureau for western Cook County, serving 19 other communities in addition to Oak Park.

“As part of our contract with the village, Visit Oak Park receives the village’s hotel/motel tax and the name of our bureau is ‘Visit Oak Park,'” said Wagner.

In response to the economic crisis related to the virus, village staff recommended the village give Visit Oak Park only the actual amount of revenue generated from the hotel/motel tax, and no additional funding to cover the loss of the $122,000, as directed in the amended budget.

“There’s a recognition on the village’s part that the village is going to have a decrease in the hotel tax because of the pandemic,” Wagner said.

With COVID-19 greatly reducing travel, the hotel/motel tax will generate much lower revenue, translating into smaller funding contributions from the state for this year.

“The state of Illinois is saying they’re probably going to have to cut our funding as well between 40 and 50 percent,” said Wagner.

“It’s having unprecedented consequences for state and local governments, and in particular, the tourism industry,” said Wagner. “It’s a really catastrophic event we’re going through right now.”

The decrease in funding led to the cancelation of many marketing and advertising campaigns that Visit Oak Park had planned to launch this spring.

“We had a whole bunch of digital marketing campaigns we were working on. We also had a new TV commercial campaign we were going to do with Comcast to promote our architecture – a lot of that we’re going to be unable to do,” Wagner said. Visit Oak Park was also prevented from unveiling its new travel itinerary called “Oak Park Craft Beer Trail.”

Back in March when COVID-19 hit Illinois, the state requested tourism bureaus to stop spending on marketing and advertising since people weren’t traveling.

“We were not actually permitted to spend money on marketing and advertising through the pandemic because it just didn’t make sense,” Wagner said.

Shortly after, the state directed tourism bureaus to return funding given by the state to preserve funding for 2021.

“They asked us to return all of our funding except essential expenses – like rent, utilities, things like that,” said Wagner.

Essential expenses also include payroll. Visit Oak Park works primarily with contractors, so the bureau didn’t have to lay off any staff, according to Wagner.

The state has committed to lowering local match requirements for fiscal year 2021, which begins July 1, to give tourism bureaus some financial relief.

“As a result, for fiscal year 2021, every $1 from the village’s hotel/motel tax brings in $3 from the State of Illinois for Visit Oak Park,” said Wagner. “When and how much funding Visit Oak Park receives from the state depends, of course, on what happens with the state’s hotel/motel tax collection.”

Under normal circumstances, Oak Park’s collection of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings draws in a large crowd of international tourists who in turn contribute to the hotel/motel tax.

“The million-dollar question is really when international travel will come back,” said Wagner. “Nobody really seems to know at this point, and we don’t expect it to happen any time soon.”

Currently, Visit Oak Park is working to inspire locals to enjoy available nearby attractions by taking day trips; even though day trips generate little hotel/motel tax revenue.

“Day trips play an important role in helping our attractions make up a lot of their lost revenue and also help our local businesses that benefit when those tours come through Oak Park,” said Wagner. “We want to be sure we’re bringing as much money as we can back to Oak Park.”

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