By Ron Sering
The first recorded case of Covid-19 on American soil came in late January in Washington State from a traveler returning from Wuhan, the point of origin. By the end of February, the virus had spread across the country, and evidence of community transmission, by people who had not traveled to China, was widespread. The cruise ship Diamond Princess made international headlines, with hundreds of cases breaking out aboard the vessel.
Clearly, the virus was contagious, and travel was an effective means to spread it. So how has the Covid-19 outbreak impacted the hospitality industry? We are taking a look at various sectors to find out.
Bad News Came Suddenly
On March 25, Idaho governor Brad Little called for a 21-day stay-at-home order that closed all but essential businesses. For Stonebridge Resort, a timeshare facility in Blanchard, ID, this called for quick and decisive action. Reporting to the Timeshare Board Members Association, General Manager Cindy Thomas stated, “March 25 was just three days before Spring Break, Week 13, and about half of our expected occupants were traveling from other states with mandated stay-in-place populations.”
Struggles with Communication
“Although Stonebridge rents condos by the night, “Thomas continued, “It isn’t strictly a hotel, but has hotel-like features.” The 150-unit facility includes a 24,000 square foot indoor recreation center with an indoor pool, racquetball courts, and a workout room. “Prior to the governor’s proclamation, our attorney advised that closure of the recreational facilities would be a good, cautious measure.”
Once the boards decided to close the recreational center, each owner, or guest scheduled for check-in within the 21 day period, was contacted by phone, email, and USPS, all within two days of the COVID shutdown order. Guests booking through an exchange company or third-party booking company were urged to contact that entity. Guests booking directly through Stonebridge were given full refunds. “In the case of exchange companies,” Thomas continued, “their response was quick and compassionate.”
For quests already in residence, “Those in-house could check out on their scheduled check-out day. Meanwhile, they were advised to limit their contact with other occupants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.”
Efforts by the staff at times went beyond the basic notification of the shutdown. “ In some cases, our staff compassionately held hands (over the phone) with people who felt more than a little worried about how this pandemic would affect their own families,” Thomas said.
Elsewhere, in Colorado, mountain ski towns reported a COVID 19 infection rate 20-30 per cent higher than other locations in the state, leading Governor Jared Polis to order all ski areas in the state immediately closed.
Salida, Colorado is home to Ski Monarch, a small but popular ski area in the south-central part of the state. “It came pretty sudden,” said Justin Veltri, board member of the Chaffee County Visitor’s Bureau in Salida, and co-owner of the Silver Ridge Lodge. “I think the health department struggled at first with their messaging, and it was kind of like, one day you’re operating, the next day you’re not.” The closure notice came just days before the industry’s busiest arrival days of the entire season.
“Most of the people saw it coming and either cancelled or checked out early. Some others were already on their way,” Veltri said, “but we managed to get in touch with everyone before they got here. In a pre-cell phone era, things might have been different.” Refunds were issued to everyone.
“We determined that we could stay open for essential businesses, like health care workers and certain sectors of the construction industry,” Veltri said. “So that helped some.”
Adding the Personal Touch
So how did guests react to the sudden end to holiday plans in the works for months? “A few people were upset, but not at us,” Veltri said. “They were disappointed that a trip they were planning for months gets upended as it did. Understandable outrage, I guess you’d call it, but mainly directed at the COVID situation, and not at us.”
At Stonebridge, guests took the closure in stride as well. “One guest was mad, not at us, but at the breaking of his record. He had not missed a week 13 since 1979.”
Rethinking Business Model Pays Off
Allison Fuhrman operates five VRBO units in Canon City, Colorado. The area is a popular destination for sightseeing, whitewater rafting, bicycling, and visits to the Royal Gorge. A few years ago, Fremont County tightened restrictions on rentals by owner, so Fuhrman repurposed her properties for longer-term rentals. “We checked with the city, and their requirements to classify a property as longer-term rentals were two weeks. The county, however, set theirs as thirty days. So that’s what we went with.”
Fuhrman also shifted her clientele. “We rent to a lot of traveling nurses working in the area, as well as Federal employees on a temporary assignment.”
“When the COVID shutdown occurred, our business didn’t change a lot,” Fuhrmann said. “We had one cancellation when the outbreak started but filled it immediately.” The shutdown and accompanying travel restrictions brought an unforeseen difficulty: “Some of my renters, found that they had no place else to go,” she said. “People couldn’t find anything where they were going, or their next location was completely shut down.”
For instance, a guest was set to move to another assignment in Washington State, which had one of the more stringent lockdown policies in the country. “We’d had one of the properties set for some maintenance,” Fuhrman said. “So, we just deferred that so they could stay on.”
“It’s a sticky point,” Fuhrman said. “You can’t just put someone on the street. We have a guest coming to one property, but the current guest literally has no place to go. We might have to pay for a hotel room for the incoming guest.”
Future Hope Post COVID
“Currently, we’re 100 per cent open,” Veltri said. “As far as cleaning, we haven’t made a whole lot of changes to our cleaning protocol. Clean is clean. We’ve instructed our cleaning staff to wear masks and gloves to clean all rooms and to really pay attention to details, such as doorknobs, TV remotes, faucet handles and the like, and we make sanitizer available to the guests”
“You can only pivot so much in this industry,” Veltri said. “I’m expecting it to be pretty slow for the next few months. There’s always talk of a second wave, and we’re keeping a close eye on that.”
Veltri is second-generation in the hospitality industry, having taken over management of the Silver Ridge Lodge from his parents, and so is accustomed to the ups and downs of hospitality. “It’s just another chapter in the book,” he said.
Reacting to a once in a century occurrence has required that the hospitality industry, along with the economy in general, react quickly and sometimes think outside the box. In some cases, revised business models might be necessary to respond to new circumstances. It is not certain when the world might return to normal but sticking to the basics of sound customer service will never go out of style.
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