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Lollapalooza Packing Downtown Hotels, But Its Huge Crowds Carry A Risk

The return of conventions and tourism this summer helped put Chicago’s downtown on the road to recovery. Now with summer concerts and music festivals getting restarted after a long year of cancellations, the city’s hotels are seeing another wave of paying customers. No music festival is more anticipated by the hospitality industry than Lollapalooza, which starts in Grant Park tomorrow and is expected to pack hotels with concertgoers.

“Properties are overflowing and will all be sold out throughout the long weekend and, in many cases, before, as they have been all summer, but at even more robust rates,” Oxford Capital Group CEO John Rutledge said.

Lollapalooza 2014 in Chicago's Grant Park

Oxford’s Chicago hotel portfolio includes LondonHouse Chicago, The Godfrey Chicago and The Langham. Other properties catering to the tourist trade will also be bursting with customers this weekend, including Maverick Hotels and Restaurants’ new 223-room Sable at Navy Pier hotel on Chicago’s Navy Pier, which opened on March 18 after a pandemic-related postponement last year.

“We are sold out at Navy Pier, as are many hotels in the city,” Maverick CEO Robert Habeeb said. “This will likely be the busiest week of this summer.”  

“We are 100% sold out this weekend at a pre-Covid rate,” Prime Group CEO Mike Reschke added. He runs the Residence Inn Chicago Downtown/Loop, a 381-key hotel at 11 South LaSalle St.

City tourism officials expect about 100,000 people per day will attend the four-day lakefront festival to see headliners such as Foo Fighters, Miley Cyrus, Journey, Tyler the Creator and others. Many Lollapalooza acts have also agreed to play more shows over the weekend at concert venues across the city.

The dollars concertgoers will bring in over the weekend are badly needed by downtown hotels. Even though tourists are sustaining the industry by descending on the city every weekend, occasionally pushing occupancy at some properties to 90%, most rooms are left empty during the week. Operators say it will stay that way until workers actually return to the office and kick off the return of business travelers.

Sable at Navy Pier

The return of Lollapalooza and other concerts also carries risks. Public health officials say dense lakefront crowds brought in by events like Lollapalooza can further spread the more contagious delta variant, perhaps forcing a return to the restrictions that were fully lifted in Chicago only six weeks ago.

But both Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said this week they are reluctant to reimpose drastic restrictions. They added that outdoor activities over the past year have proven to be relatively safe and that precautions being taken at Lollapalooza will hopefully limit any additional spread.

Although public health restrictions ended in Chicago on June 11, Lollapalooza has its own rules. Organizers say attendees must present either a printed copy of their vaccination record before entering the festival or proof that they tested negative for Covid in the past 72 hours. Furthermore, unvaccinated concertgoers will be required to wear a mask the entire time.

“I would not feel comfortable moving ahead with Lollapalooza without Covid protocols in place,” Arwady said at a Tuesday news conference. “I don’t think I would feel comfortable if this were an indoor event, either. And I frankly don’t think I would feel comfortable if we were sitting in Louisiana right now where cases are looking like they’re looking.”

“I’m certainly hopeful that we won’t see a significant problem,” Arwady added.

Dr. Allison Arwady on July 27

Hotel owners said they’re happy with the way the city has opened up and with all the new revenue finally coming in. But they are also keeping a watchful eye on the city’s online Covid dashboard, which tracks the disease. Average daily cases in the city fell to 34 in late June, the lowest since the pandemic’s onset, though lately the numbers are creeping in the wrong direction.

“Everyone is worried about the rise in Covid cases as a result of the delta variant,” Habeeb said. “I have heard more than one person say ‘Oh no, not again,’ as restrictions become part of our conversation.” 

According to the city, the number of new Covid cases averaged 176 per day in the past week, up 69% from the previous week, mostly driven by the delta variant. Daily hospitalizations, however, remain in the single digits.

Reschke said he is more concerned about people who do not get vaccinated. And the numbers on that front don’t look good either. The city now averages 3,138 new vaccinations per day, down from roughly 30,000 to 40,000 per day in the spring, leaving the city stuck with a vaccination rate of just under 52%.

Rutledge said he’s optimistic the city is on the right path.

“Lollapalooza is an excellent franchise that the city should continue to celebrate and build on,” he said. “It is great for Chicago's visibility as a whole as well as its entire hospitality ecosystem. We need to, of course, keep our eye on the delta variant, which should encourage people who aren't vaccinated to get vaccinated, so as to keep the society-economic reopening velocity fully on track.”