CLEVELAND, Ohio — Destination Cleveland, the agency that promotes the region to visitors, is laying off nearly half its staff, as the tourism industry continues to struggle amid the ongoing health pandemic.

The agency said Wednesday that most previously announced furloughs, effective in April, would be made permanent. Full-time staff will drop from 65 to 36.

At the same time, the agency is refocusing its goals for the next 12 to 15 months in an effort to revive the region’s ailing tourism economy.

“We’re doing the best we can to try to figure out where the industry is going to be for the next year,” said David Gilbert, president and CEO for Destination Cleveland. Among the priorities: a short-term focus on leisure travel, with a longer-term eye on the resumption of group and business travel in the years ahead.

The broad goals of the agency won’t change – that is, to draw visitors to the region.

“We are well positioned because we are a regional drive leisure destination first,” said Gilbert. “That plays in our favor.”

The tourism agency is funded primarily by revenue from the Cuyahoga County bed tax, which is collected on hotel stays throughout the region. Since the beginning of the pandemic in March, hotel occupancy in Cleveland – and throughout the world – has plummeted.

Hotel occupancy in Cuyahoga County was a dismal 40.7% for the week ending September 19, according to travel data firm STR. That’s down from 80.3% a year ago.

Bed tax revenue, meanwhile, is down nearly 60% through July, according to Destination Cleveland. Gilbert said that the agency’s budget, which was $19.5 million in 2019, would likely be reduced by about 40% in 2021.

Even so, Gilbert believes the agency can do good work, building on previous successes.

The agency this summer launched a three-phase Rediscover CLE campaign, aimed at first getting businesses to commit to safely reopening, then attracting residents back to local attractions and, finally, inviting outsiders to visit again.

The agency had set a goal of attracting a record 20 million visitors in 2020 – a goal it won’t come close to reaching. Cuyahoga County attracted 19.2 million visitors in 2018, the most recent figures available.

Gilbert wouldn’t even guess how many visitors the city might draw in 2020. Whatever the number, Gilbert predicted the city would come out of the crisis stronger.

“I feel like we have hit bottom and we are now back to growth,” he said. “Even though there’s still uncertainty, I feel confident about that.”

He added, “As hard as the last six months have been, it’s been inspiring to see the resilience of our staff, our partners. It makes me feel good that we’re going to come out of this, and we’re going to come out of it stronger than our competitors.”

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