GRAND FORKS — After 18 months of relatively little activity at local hotels, Grand Forks got a boost last weekend thanks to the Luke Combs concert Friday, Sept. 17, at the Alerus Center.
“It was 100% occupancy for everybody,” said Joe Cozart, the former general manager of the Grand Forks Ramada Inn who now runs the OpXGroup consulting firm. “It’s a silver bullet."
The concert, a stop on Combs' “What You See Is What You Get Tour,” sold about 22,000 tickets, setting an attendance record for the venue and igniting business throughout town. Although the classic rock band Foreigner performed at the Alerus Center earlier this month before a modest crowd, the Luke Combs concert was the first large-draw event at the Alerus Center since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The high turnout for the concert meant more people in Grand Forks. In the hours prior to the concert, hotel parking lots appeared to be full. Same for restaurants.
And Saturday, Sept. 18, the day after the Combs concert, was the Potato Bowl, which saw UND beat Drake 38-0 before a large crowd after a parade downtown earlier in the morning.
Another big weekend is approaching. Country music star Eric Church will play at the Alerus Center on Oct. 1, followed on Oct. 2 by the highly anticipated football game between UND and North Dakota State. Also on Oct. 2, UND opens the hockey season with an exhibition game against Bemidji State at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Cozart said he estimates there will be two or three more 100% occupancy weekends for local hotels before the year is out, but there used to be many more. Big-name concerts help.
“We used to have dozens of them, sometimes scores of them,” Cozart said. “Before 2015, the Ramada was at 90% occupancy year-round. With the oil boom drying up, the Canadian dollar shifting and the competition building up so many hotels, it just took away from everybody’s revenue. We were just overbuilt.”
Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of Grand Forks/East Grand Forks Chamber, said the hospitality industry specifically benefits from large crowds being in town. And, he said, when people come to Grand Forks for an event, they usually frequent local businesses before leaving.
“From a hospitality perspective, it’s huge,” Wilfahrt said. “We did that regional market capture analysis a couple of years ago, and when you have a big concert or big event like that in town, the restaurants and the hotels are two and a half times to three and a half times busier than they are on a normal day. Obviously, that makes a huge impact on our local economy. Also, if you look at downtown with the different bars, restaurants, and shopping venues, especially stores, they all really boom whenever they get these big events in town.”
Wilfahrt said the biggest thing that would help the local business community is something over which it has no control.
“I would say the one piece that we’re really anticipating is for the Canadian border to reopen,” Wilfahrt said. “When that happens, that will also really add to that. That’s the one piece we’re still hopeful for and anticipating."
Julie Rygg, executive director of Visit Greater Grand Forks, said September’s hotel numbers won’t come in until later, but she does already know that consumer-based industries in Grand Forks saw a boost of new customers last weekend.
“We do know that the hotels were quite busy,” Rygg said. “Restaurants were busy, bars were busy, and then of course it was Potato Bowl week, and other events were going on. It was a great weekend economically for our community.”
A hiring shortage has plagued Grand Forks and the rest of the United States since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but Rygg said local businesses are keeping up, even as big-ticket performers come to town and draw an influx of visitors.