Independent hotels that normally thrive off seasonal business are changing operations because of challenges from COVID-19, including a late start to the summer season and staffing.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Seasonal independent hotels normally would be in full swing starting in May, but are quickly adjusting operations to reflect a late start to summer as a result of COVID-19 challenges.
Jayma Cardoso, owner of The Surf Lodge in Montauk, New York, said summer season for the hotel typically begins two weeks before Memorial Day and ends the first weekend of October. Because of the pandemic, Surf Lodge is now scheduled to reopen in July.
“Typically, we average 90% occupancy with hotel rooms during the summer. … Although people think of us as a weekend getaway, really we’re full all week. Guests stay in two- to three-day intervals,” she said via email.
Jeff Toscano, EVP of Pivot Hotels & Resorts, the lifestyle and luxury operating division of Davidson Hotels & Resorts, said the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan will be experiencing a shorter summer season than usual. The property’s typical season runs May though October, he said via email.
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Cardoso said The Surf Lodge will transition from weekend or nightly stays to monthly or season-long bookings. Once the property reopens, she said most of the guests are going to be regulars.
“The pandemic brought everything to close,” she said. “The boredom of doing nothing gave me inspiration (to reimagine) the design of an 11-year-old hotel room. They’ve now been crafted for guests in pursuit of monthlong stays. I call the rooms ‘beach bungalows,’ and (they) are now designed as a mini house.”
Cardoso said the property’s restaurant will only be open to guests, with a focus on a “Beach Picnic to Go” concept to ensure safe distancing.
“Think summer in a basket for guests of the hotel and to-go orders,” she said.
Additionally, Surf Lodge has halted its on-site wellness classes and concert series, and transitioned those to be accessed digitally.
“We might not be able to accommodate on-site, but we want to share summer the best way we know how even if it’s (through) your phone or computer,” she said.
After considering all local, state and federal government recommendations, Toscano said 21 June was determined to be the reopening date of the Grand Hotel in order to ensure all new safety protocols could be integrated and team members could undergo COVID-19 training.
He said the hotel developed its enhanced cleanliness standards with guidance from local health authorities, other governmental agencies and the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s Safe Stay Guidelines.
Guidelines include implementing sanitizing stations throughout the hotel, especially in high-traffic areas. Seating capacity in dining areas will be reduced by 50%, but outdoor dining is available. A plexiglass partition will be put up at the relocated front desk, and guests are advised to wear masks in public areas and maintain a safe physical distance, Toscano said.
Other operational changes include ceasing in-room amenities, such as coffeemakers and minibars, this season. However, guests will be able to make requests for anything they need, he said.
“Although some things will look different for returning guests, the traditions of Grand Hotel will remain the same,” he said.
All on-property team members at the Grand Hotel are undergoing COVID-19 training and will be screened daily with a temperature check and short questionnaire, and appropriate PPE will be worn, depending on where the employee works, Toscano said.
The property has also reduced service touchpoints to encourage physical distancing and limit the number of team member interactions.
Toscano said staffing size has been necessarily modified “based on a number of factors.” The hotel employs team members from more than 26 countries around the world, he added.
Cardoso said since Surf Lodge is a summer business, some members of staff transition to her other property—The Snow Lodge in Aspen, Colorado—for the winter, but a large majority of staff at Surf Lodge are seasonal-only.
“We typically have a mix of J-1, college students and staff that’s been with us for years now,” she said.
However, due to the pandemic, employees on J-1 visas were prohibited from entering the country. Staffing has been cut down to 20% given the restrictions and what the property could sustain operationally during the pandemic, she said.
Revenue-managing during a pandemic
Cardoso said the pandemic has forced her to seek new channels of revenue.
“Our main effort for the season is Beach Picnic to Go. We are partnering with several brands to make a one-of-a-kind experience via our baskets. Now more than ever is the time to create something unique and special for guests,” she said.
Toscano said Pivot is focused on creating value through cost-saving initiatives for its owners across sales, revenue management, and food and beverage. He said the hotel will also be offering traditional packages and promotions that guests are accustomed to.
Because Halloween falls on a weekend this year, the decision was made before the pandemic to extend the season one week longer than normal to 2 November, Toscano said. The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island will not extend the summer season beyond that despite the delayed start, he said.
Giving back to the community
Although it’s a challenging time, Cardoso said giving back to the community is important.
“In a time of feeling powerless in things you can’t control—(the) pandemic—it’s empowering to help those in need,” she said. “Our staff and guests have been called upon to help the Montauk Food Pantry. We’ve sold both The Surf Lodge and The Snow Lodge-branded merchandise and given 100% of the proceeds to the pantry.”
Through the hotel’s digital concert series, guests have also been given the opportunity to donate to organizations such as No Kid Hungry and World Central Kitchen, she said.
“Hospitality is about building community, shared experiences and valuing people. I can’t think of an industry that can play a more pivotal role in helping our communities heal,” she said. “I’m proud that we are playing a role in helping people in one of the more challenging times we have faced.”