News Source: www.dailyleaderextra.com
Hotel industry 'devastated' by 2020 COVID-19 pandemic
News Source/Courtesy: www.dailyleaderextra.com

"'Hope'," poet Emily Dickinson wrote, "is a thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops -- at all."

Hope, that thing that never stops, carried local hotels through 2020, the first rough year of the COVID-19 pandemic -- hope and a little government assistance.

"Thank God for stimuluses," Maulik Chaudhari, manager of the AmericInn in Madison, said with great frankness. "Help the government has been giving has been a blessing."

When the pandemic reached South Dakota in March 2020, the number of those infected and dying in the U.S. was increasing daily, the White House was advising those in New York City and the metro area to self-quarantine, Spain had requested NATO assistance in tackling the pandemic, and New Zealand was heading for a lockdown.

Even South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who went on to gain national celebrity status for promoting personal freedom rather than basic precautions like masking, had closed schools across the state as a precaution. The hotel industry was immediately impacted.

"In the beginning, it was so bad, we contemplated: Do we need to shut down?" Chaudhari recalled.

The hotel industry in the Madison area relies heavily on family events, such as reunions and weddings; sports events, which bring both teams and fans to town; and those traveling for business. With family and sports events canceled and business conducted remotely via Zoom or other conferencing software, that industry was among the first to appreciate the economic impact of the pandemic.

"We would have one customer at times, or no customers," Chaudhari reported.

AmericInn is one of three hotels in Madison. Like the AmericInn, the Super 8 was also hit hard by the pandemic. Manager Rupal Patel said that she is now the only employee.

"I can do it myself," she said, adding that her son is available to help if she needs assistance.

Prior to the pandemic, she had two housekeepers and one assistant at the desk to help with the 34-room hotel. With the slow business, she does not believe it's fair to hire anyone.

John Cozad is manager of the Best Western Plus Lakeview Hotel, which opened in October 2019 with 70 rooms, a sleek contemporary appearance and the special amenities which enable it to carry the "Plus" designation. He said that with the pandemic, the new hotel did not begin to meet first-year projections.

"It devastated the whole industry," he said, referencing statistics from the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

An AHLA report released in January began with an Executive Summary stating, "The hotel industry experienced the most devastating year on record in 2020, resulting in historically low occupancy, massive job loss, and hotel closures across the country."

While leisure travel is expected to pick up in 2021, according to the report, business travel is expected to be down 85% compared to 2019.

The report focuses on employment and projections, but it did address hotel occupancy. In 2019, average hotel occupancy was 66%. The report went on to say, "The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought hotel occupancy to a historic low of 24.5% in April 2020. Annual occupancy in the United States fell to roughly 44% for the full year."

"We had hoped to be over 50% occupancy," Cozad said about Lakeview. "We've been well below that."

He said that because they were still hiring when the pandemic hit, he didn't have to lay off any employees. Instead, he managed to find work for them to do. The Paycheck Protection Program played a role in making that possible.

"We used it for what it was made for," Cozad said.

 

With spring, an increasing number of people vaccinated and reservations coming in, he is hopeful that 2021 will be better for Lakeview.

"We're booking groups," he reported. "We're seeing everything from family reunions and weddings to sports groups."

In addition, the hotel has purchased an outdoor events tent which will enable them to host events at Lakeview from May through October. The hotel is also in the process of getting an on-sale liquor license for these events.

The events tent, which will hold up to 300 people, is intended to attract groups to the hotel. Long-term plans include constructing an events center.

In speaking about the impact of the pandemic, Cozad focuses on the positive. He said that with fewer customers, staff could spend more time visiting with guests and establishing relationships.

Staff also took safety precautions such as cleaning public areas more often and offering pre-packaged breakfasts. These were among the factors that enabled Lakeview to be ranked in the top 15 out of more than 300 Best Western Hotels and Resorts in the district, Cozad indicated.

"We see light at the end of the tunnel," Cozad said. "The tunnel has been so long we want to get through it."

The AmericInn is starting to see more business, too, according to Chaudhari. When interviewed, he was seeing the busiest week they had had in over a year.

For him, the hardest part of the past year was letting employees go.

"I'm not the type of person who likes to do that," he said. "Some had been here longer that I have."

He began managing the AmericInn a little over three years ago after the current owners purchased the hotel. While a couple of employees chose to retire due to their age and their concerns about the pandemic, others were let go because the level of business did not support keeping them on staff.

Chaudhari does not expect business to return to pre-pandemic levels this summer, but he does expect it to pick up and has been in touch with previous employees to see if they are interested in returning.

"I think it's easier to work with people you have worked with," he said. Two have indicated an interest in returning, but others found work elsewhere over the past year.

Like Lakeview, the AmericInn has placed an emphasis on safety, being extra careful with touch points people might not even consider, such as the television remote. Chaudhari admits that he walks down hallways to make sure all the door handles have been cleaned. If he sees smudges or fingerprints, they're wiped again.

Initially, they stopped serving breakfasts at the AmericInn but later offered grab-and-go bags. The hotel has started offering a hot breakfast again but is sensitive to the concerns of guests. Some still prefer the grab-and-go bags.

"We try to accommodate each guest," Chaudhari said. This includes masking. While recommended, no one is forced to wear a mask.

While masking wasn't universally embraced, those who called to book rooms often asked, "What do you do?" He was able to assure them that not only were precautions taken during cleaning, but hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes were left in all of the rooms, and the number of people in public spaces was limited.

"They had to be convinced that you were doing what you say," Chaudhari said.

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