Hotel News Now spoke with four hoteliers to find out how different state guidelines have changed around the virus and how they plan to ramp back up as restrictions are lifted.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Tasked with serving as a bridge between state governments managing a health crisis and hoteliers beset by the pandemic, hotel associations from around the country have had to convey post-COVID-19 operational guidelines to their constituents while lobbying officials for allowances that will enable some semblance of a recovery.
Hotel News Now recently spoke with Mark Dorr, president of the New York State Hospitality & Tourism Association; Steve Hewins, president and CEO of HospitalityMaine; Michael Jacobson, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association; and Lynn Mohrfeld, president and CEO of the California Hotel & Lodging Association.
Q: How have things progressed in your state in terms of determining when hotels can start housing leisure guests?
Dorr: “Last week, we got into Phase 1 of (New York’s) reopening. That was a big deal, so I’ve been busier than ever. Hotels from day one were deemed as essential, but if they had restaurants, gyms and pools, those were shut down.”
Hewins: “When they first floated the idea to open Maine travel for state residents for June, opening for out-of-state travelers was set at 1 July, and that’s what sent the entire state off its axis—for most people, that literally meant that there are no summer vacations here. When the hotel guidelines came out last week, there was a major change, in that hotels open up for everyone 1 June, but there’s a 14-day quarantine for out-of-state. Right now, that’s on the books until (Maine Gov. Janet Mills) takes it off.”
Jacobson: “We’re still under a stay-at-home order, but we’re on schedule to enter the next phase of reopening on 29 May. We’ve been working with both state and local officials, whether it’s the health department or other government agencies, to put together what reopening guidelines will look like.”
Mohrfeld: “The state was initially leading on all the reopenings, but they got a lot of pressure from municipalities to take care of health care (workers). Now, the entire process has shifted from top-down, to counties getting pressure from their businesses, so it’s kind of going backwards and it’s a grass-roots process. Trying to plan is just insane.”
Q: From a guest perspective, what do you think the most noticeable changes will be?
Dorr: “The guests have said, once I’m here (in the room), I don’t want (staff) in here, so when someone checks in, they put enough amenities in there for three days to start, and when someone checks out, they don’t send someone in there (to clean) for 72 hours, so there’s a rotating room schedule.”
Jacobson: “Our guidance is a compilation of different guidelines from different brands as well as from the (American Hotel & Lodging Association’s) Safe Stay guidance, but we’ve added more detail. A lot of it deals with signage and social-distancing guidelines in lobbies and meeting rooms. It’s also around cleanliness, like placing hand sanitizers at elevator banks, front desks and other areas; replacing traditional room service with a drop-off at the door; and offering free grab-and-go instead of a buffet.”
Q: What about from a hotel workers perspective?
Dorr: “We put out guidelines about 10 days ago, and they’re pretty much in line with other organizations like AHLA. They’re real focused on employees – handwashing, PPE, adding proper signage so that people know where to stand, reminding employees about the proper way to wear and dispose of a mask. But hotels have been doing this since day one (of the pandemic), and a lot of our members have added plexiglass (partitions) at the check-in area.”
Hewins: “We’ve crafted an initial checklist for reopening. I did a lot of research and sourced a lot of stuff from the (National Restaurant Association). I’ve told the government that we’re going to create a training program—it’s like a microcredential.”
Mohrfeld: “We’ve got 76,000 workers who’ve been either furloughed or laid off. If we don’t know when our travelers are coming back, a substantial number of employees we’ve furloughed will turn into permanent layoffs. Then, we’ll have a heck of a time ramping back up. Once you change that status, it becomes an entire new process to rehire and retrain.”
Q: What kind of variance is in your state in terms reopening status?
Dorr: “Golf courses for a lot of hotel properties that were deemed essential opened up a couple of weeks ago, but you couldn’t use a cart. That changed over last weekend, and that helps our resort properties. But many hotels in New York City have closed. New York City will probably be the last area to open.”
Jacobson: “When it comes to closures, the concentration is higher in downtown Chicago because of the reliance on group travel. Other regions are faring better.”
Mohrfeld: “The large metro areas are further behind in terms of their criteria to reopen. Any discussion of moving forward has been more in the rural areas. Obviously, moving people around and getting hotel visitors in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Anaheim, San Diego—those places will be my big focus, but they’re lagging behind. Some of the rural areas are much further ahead. You’ve got counties and cities, and some of them work better together than others. But it’s going to be dominoes—once (hotels in) one or counties reopen, that’ll lead to five more.”
Q: How are you approaching the issue of getting group allowances for hotels that handle special events?
Dorr: “Groups are part of (New York’s) Phase 4, and that can have a real crippling effect on the resort-type hotels. Another caveat is that when they get back to group gatherings, even at Phase 4, there are still going to be a series of ramp-ups within that. So even at six to eight weeks out, if your banquet room fits 100, you may only be able to do 25. There will be tapering. But the guidance is what the guidance is.”
Hewins: “Groups are gigantic. Maine’s a wedding mecca, and they’re all getting creamed.”
Jacobson: “There’s a task force the IHLA is chairing for specific guidelines for employees and guests, and it’s a little more of a hands-on approach in the city of Chicago. Right now, the government plan states that gatherings in the next phase will be limited to 10 people. We’re working with the government at showing that larger events within hotels could be done in a safe way by incorporating protocols. We have ballrooms that can seat more than 1,000 people. To say that only 10 people can fit? We disagree. We’re more focused on things like percentages of total occupancy, so that we can hold events that can have 25% or 50% of that room’s occupancy.”
Mohrfeld: “(Event-production company) PSAV put out meeting-room guidelines involving video and technology, and it was some pretty good stuff. Rather than look at it as an occupancy perspective, let’s look at it from a spacing perspective. If we can keep 100 people away from each other and have a traffic pattern, we can manage this fine on our own.”