Opinion: Fix our national infrastructure to help bring back American business

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We need a major boost to come back to where we were before and to where we really should be.

I have been a small business owner for almost 30 years, planning conferences all over the country. It is a niche profession, but I see firsthand when American businesses can come together to do their best work, and when they're struggling to get by. 

Conferences like the ones I plan are also boons to local economies, where small businesses get to welcome new customers who might be seeing their cities for the first time. I have a unique view on how tough the last year has been for American business, and it's made it just as tough for me.

We need a major boost to come back to where we were before and to where we really should be.

Domestic travel accounts for $1.5 trillion of the U.S. economy, and in some tourism-dependent localities, at least one in six jobs are related to the hospitality industry — the conferences I've planned in cities like Baltimore or Cleveland help grow a city's tourism.

I was sure I would do this work until I retired. That all changed during the pandemic. My industry could not continue, and I thought I might have to pick up a new profession at the age of 63. 

My husband is retired, and the last thing I wanted to do was dip into our savings to survive, which we did. Thankfully, I received Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, and the stimulus checks helped us pay essential bills and buy groceries.

I languished and wondered if my industry was gone forever. I felt guilty not working and occupied my time making PPE for my community and helped coordinate vaccine appointments with the local health department. 

I am more hopeful this year because President Joe Biden's COVID relief and infrastructure plan will help the hospitality and my industry, and all American business, stay afloat.

Without ongoing events, hotels have fewer customers, and so do surrounding businesses. When fewer people are visiting a city, hotels don't provide as many jobs. This means a shortage of cleaning and cooking positions and less need for local vendors like florists or audio-visual providers. Cities also lose out on revenue from hotel taxes, which is significant to a municipality's budget.

Midsize conferences year-round bring steady revenue into towns. Many people will go early to a conference and make it a vacation, or take their family back to a city for a trip if they enjoyed it. Tourism is what keeps cities thriving, and my industry is an integral part of that. 

But if a city does not have robust infrastructure, it can lose tourism opportunities. As a conference planner, I will not pick a city that is hard to drive to or that does not have good public transportation or a nearby airport. Part of my job is to make the trip as seamless as possible for attendees.

For example, Dubuque, Iowa, is a lovely place, but it wouldn't be high on my list for a conference because there is not enough transportation. Attendees don't want to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars just to get there. 

By fixing aging bridges, trains, and highways, Biden's economic plan will provide thousands of well-paid jobs and will help stimulate local economies. It will also revitalize tourism, an industry that almost everyone sooner or later makes use of and enjoys, whether it's just a daytrip to an amusement park or a two-week expedition in a national park.

The hospitality industry was one of those hardest hit by the pandemic. But if we invest in our infrastructure, we can start to alleviate some of the issues the coronavirus outbreak caused.

Conferences create jobs and tourism opportunities, and better infrastructure will only increase revenue for cities. And it will make our entire country competitive again.

Terry Wessels is a conference planner and lives in Marquette, Michigan