Months after closing their doors due to travel restrictions fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, hotel executives are now working creatively to re-open properties.

“We’re seeing a gradual re-opening of hotels,” said Don Cleary, president of Marriott Hotels of Canada, speaking as part of a Leadership Roundtable discussion, hosted by Hotelier last month. “I think at our peak, we had 77 hotels closed, we’re now down to 51. And the vast majority of those are scheduled to open in June and early July. By mid-July, we should have most, if not all, of our hotels re-open. That’s a good sign. I think folks are hoping to capture what we all hope will be, and expect to be, a good summer with leisure demand that will drive increased occupancies. We’re seeing the early hotels that opened were the ones in resort markets in Canada and we’re seeing the occupancy come back in those hotels.”

That sentiment is echoed by Heather McCrory, CEO, North/Central America, Accor, who pointed out that Fairmont’s Western Canadian properties were among the first to re-open. “We actually saw some fairly good pent-up demand. We’re continuing to see those occupancies build. And, right now, we have about 50 per cent of our hotels opening. By August 1, I’m very hopeful that all of the hotels in Canada will be open. Hopefully we’ll see some of that backyard drive market, but you can’t have any business if you’re not open so we’re trying to get them back open as fast as possible.”

At IHG, where 20 per cent of the company’s portfolio was closed due to COVID-19, executive vice-president Jonathan Lund, believes changes fuelled by the pandemic may spark a return to the “road trip” of yesteryear, harkening back to what, in fact, fuelled Holiday Inn’s ascent in the 1950s. “When you think about how Holiday Inn was born, it was built out of Kemmons Wilson getting into his car and driving his family across the U.S. to find a hotel that was safe, secure and consistent. So, you know, I think we have that opportunity in Canada to re-introduce our country to Canadians,” says Lund.

For smaller hotel companies, such as Accent Inns, closures weren’t as much of an issue. “We were lucky in that we did stay open completely. We have two different brands, Accent Inns and Zed Hotels. We pivoted and provided office space for people who were tired of working at home, with their kids running around or their dog whining at the door. We are now back to running hotels as hotels, rather than an office, which is great because we’re hoteliers, but we were able to survive without shutting down any of our properties.”

Part of the challenge moving forward, agree the hoteliers, is government-enacted travel restrictions throughout the country. “I’ve been vocal around border closures, whether it’s the provinces or the U.S. border,” said Vito Curalli, executive director, International Sales & Industry Relations, Hilton Canada. “In order for us to have some kind of summer, in terms of leisure transient, we’re going to have to really roll up our sleeves and get some work done around that. That will really help our hotels as they re-open.”

“We need to get these borders back open,” agreed Reetu Gupta, president of Easton’s Hotels, who kept 60 to 70 per cent of her portfolio open during the peak of the crisis. “I know Suzy [Grynol] at the Hotel Association [of Canada] is working really hard with the feds to make sure that we can increase the border openings and brings more business back into Canada.”

Until that happens, hotel companies are focusing on ensuring protocols are in place and guests feel comfortable. “In the short term, before we get to a vaccine, you’re going to see lots of things going on in hotels to help build confidence and [get] people to come into our hotels, knowing that everything is being done to make that a clean and comfortable stay,” says Cleary. “Obviously, we’re going to be putting in place social-distancing procedures — front-desk partitions for example — and, certainly, all of our associates will be wearing masks in our hotels for the foreseeable future. We’re obviously re-arranging furniture and doing spacing of the public spaces; eliminating lots of unnecessary touch items out of hotels, such as throw pillows, pens and pads and things that we can go without for the foreseeable future. And, obviously, then you’re going to see lots of evidence of cleaning — whether that’s sanitizing stations or visible signs of much more and deeper cleaning.”

Companies like Hilton, which has partnered with Lysol for its 10-point Clean Stay program, have been spending time and money to intensify their cleaning protocols.

For Irwin Prince, the transition process to reduced collateral in the rooms might be a bit less challenging. “Everyone now is learning the Motel 6 model: just give the guests what they need, not what they don’t need. You don’t need all this stuff in the room, the extra pillow, the extra blanket that nobody ever uses, the stuff stuffed into a drawer — all that extra collateral is in the room that nobody ever looks at, it just looks tired. Welcome to our world,” he quipped, pointing out that, moving forward, this process might push hotel companies to re-examine what is and isn’t necessary.

“I think what we get, at this time, is an opportunity — across the industry — to see that what may become some pretty fundamental shifts in both hotel operations and amenities that are provided to guests. Is housekeeping really required on an everyday basis as costs come up to clean that room? There are opportunities to go back and re-visit this and the guest, right now, is really quite understanding. At Motel 6, nothing’s changed. We don’t offer food and beverage, so it’s really, come in and get your key, have a great stay.”

For Farmer, the fact her inns have no common area has suddenly become a positive factor. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I’m glad we have exterior quarters,” she quipped. The company has also invested in technology so guests can check in on their phones and use them to unlock the door. “The great thing is that, because we are smaller, we are so nimble.” But she’s quick to point out, “We’re just trying to make sure that we still have a sense of fun on our hotels.”

The complete Leadership Roundtable video is available here.


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