The Tale of Two Hotels in COVID Times

By Chuck Kelley

Aug 16, 2021

Many of us are starting to get back on the road and experience travel again while trying to figure out the new game and what has changed.

First of all, air travel is a mess from arrival at the airport, TSA, sitting mask to mask with strangers for hours and collecting your luggage before making your escape to your destination.

But, let’s focus on hotel travel. This is where it gets interesting as no two experiences are the same.

What Makes the Difference in your Hotel Stay?

Seemingly, hotels all have different approaches to managing the business during COVID times. The fact that communication between owners, brands and operators can be lacking is an understatement.

In July 2021, I had experiences with 2 different hotels.  I stayed at each hotel twice, so my experience was not a one off. In most respects, the hotels were very similar:  same chain, same brand, both were quality tier full-service hotels, and both were downtown hotels in mid-size cities.

The only difference was the ownership.

Hotel 1: The Opportunity

Upon arrival there was trash piled up and overflowing the trash bins at the entrance and in the elevator lobbies. Certainly not a good first impression, especially in COVID times when sanitation is an even more of a top priority. Housekeeping service was severely limited and not even available on an opt in basis. Guests were simply dumping the room trash in the public trash bins and housekeeping couldn’t keep up.

Next, we were checked into a room with no air conditioning. Engineering knew there was a problem based on the brief conversation we had with the Engineer who was tasked to fix the problem. Housekeeping probably knew as the cleaned the room for arrival with no AC on. However, there was no communication to the Front Office, and they actually argued with us about the need for a room change. Two hours later we were moving rooms at 10:00 pm after a long travel day.

Towels were threadbare and actually unraveling in places and the sheets were paper thin – well past their use by date. A call for fresh towels went unanswered.

Unfortunately, after a pleasant stay with grandchildren in the mountains we had plans to stay at the same hotel prior to departure. Guess what? We were checked into another room without air conditioning. This time we were promptly moved to another room. The staff were mostly trying their best and gave you that look that said, “I’m just following orders from above”. Some seemed genuinely embarrassed.

The furniture was old and tired in some places and clearly there was a piecemeal approach to CAPEX. The food was fine and mostly self-service. The restaurant was only open for breakfast, and you could get dinner in the bar which was fair in these times.

The final straw was when management took away the free coffee. First, they said they ran out of paper cups, so I went back to my room, got my traveling coffee cup, and filled it up at the urn. The next day they took away the urns and you could only get coffee if you came in and paid for breakfast.

Hotel 2: The Strength

Again, same chain, same brand, just different ownership groups.

The hotel was well kept, there was an obvious attention to maintenance and cleanliness, housekeeping was visible in the public spaces and management had a public presence. Housekeeping was on an opt in basis and a call for more towels was answered withing 15 minutes.

There was no valet service or bellman available. However, the Front Office explained all the procedures in detail, and it was a minor inconvenience. The Executive Lounge was closed which is not surprising with no business travel to speak off, however due to my loyalty program status we were offered free breakfast in the restaurant. The restaurant hours were cut back as expected, but the food and service were excellent. All the important services were in place and well done.

Clearly, the staff had management and owner support. The staff looked you in the eye, were proud to be of service and they were proud of their hotel. We actually recognized staff in the restaurant from two years ago and they recognized us – certainly not the norm in these times.

Two very different approaches to managing the business in COVID times.

Balancing Cash Flows

Hotel 1: The Opportunity – Managing in the moment with cash flow as the clear number one priority. Even ignoring the cleanliness and sanitation COVID times priority. Seemingly no regard for brand standards, apparently not concerned about repeat customer business and loyalty and extremely doubtful that staff moral and retention was high on the list.

Hotel 2: The Strength – Appears to have found the balance between short and long term. Concerned about cash flow, but also concerned about customer experience, maintaining customer loyalty, staff moral and retention and delivering on the brand promise.

I will admit I gave Hotel 2: The Strength the benefit of the doubt in places I may have been a little more judgmental with the Hotel 1: The Opportunity, but that is because at Hotel 2 there was a genuine effort being made by all concerned, they cut back where it was necessary and the services they did offer were done well.

Which Hotel will Ramp Faster?

Hotel 2: The Strength will ramp back up much faster for a few reasons:

  • Hotel 2 will have retained their loyal customers
  • The staff will stay on and spread the word to others – “good place to work, management cares”
  • They will represent the brand and remain in the Chain’s good graces
  • Overtime, they will create more value for owners.

Moving Forward

Hotel 1 is off may list forever and I go there often to visit our grandchildren.  Hotel 2 is my first choice hotel when we go to visit family which we do frequently.

It will be interesting to watch what occurs over the next 2 to 3 years as the recovery unfolds.

Who will survive, who will struggle but hold on, who will fail and who will flourish? How will the brands react and hold the outliers responsible for standards? Will there be a move de-flag problem hotels? How will the lenders move forward? How much leeway will the lenders give on past due loan payments?

My money is still on Hotel 2: The Strength with the understanding of balancing short and long term priorities. Yes, there are reasons such as debt service requirements to adopt a short term cash flow approach, but you can’t maintain that approach for the long term and still be successful.

Chuck KelleyChuck is a Partner with Cayuga Hospitality Consultants,  a network of independent consultants specializing in hospitality/lodging. He spent 32 years with Marriott International, beginning as an Assistant Restaurant Manager and worked his way up to Executive Vice President responsible for Marriott’s Caribbean/Latin America Region. Along the way he held positions as Director of Restaurants, Director of Marketing, Regional Director of Sales and Marketing, General Manager and Country Manager Australia. A graduate of the University of Hawaii, with a BS in Travel and Tourism Management. He is a prior member of the Baptist Health South International Advisory Board and previously served as Chairman of the Caribbean Hotel and Airline Forum for the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. He served with distinction in the US Army in Vietnam having earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for valor in combat.

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