High school sports tournaments have helped the hospitality industry in Billings the last couple weeks, but it is still expected to take more time to fully recover from COVID shutdowns.
"It's a breath of fresh air," said Steve Wahrlich, who owns the downtown Best Western Plus Clocktower Inn and Stella's Kitchen and Bakery.
"We were starting to get to normalcy. I think we're still many months away from normalcy but at least we're starting to. The tournaments, based on last week's Divisional A that was here, you know, I can tell you specifically for my restaurant Stella's, it was a boom. It was nice to be that busy, again," Wahrlich said.
Wahrlich says things are looking better, but the hotel business needs more than the tournaments and the other events.
"People are starting to travel," he said. "We'll see a pent-up demand. You're gonna hear summer will be good. But it's the business travel, it's the groups, it's the meeting business that augments that leisure traveler in the six, seven months out of the year. That is not back to normal yet," he said.
Warhlich serves on several boards, including the Billings tourism business improvement district.
He has a sense of the economy and says hotels and restaurants have been among the most affected by COVID closures.
"Hospitality, in general, has been the area that has been impacted, I think, significantly," Wahrlich said. "The other businesses, you know, people are still building so architects, plumbers, contractors, you look at the building that's gone on, over the last year, that's been good."
He said it will still take some time for businesses and the economy to recover.
"That one-year delay in 2020 will take us probably three, possibly four years to get back to normal," Wahrlich said. "It'll be 2022, 2023 before we're back to pre-COVID levels in the hotel or the lodging from that standpoint."
Warhlich also said restaurant recovery has been slower with so many working from home.