Colleges offer hotels a lifeline, albeit a temporary one

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The new Hotel Eleo is located near the medical school on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.
The new Hotel Eleo is located near the medical school on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.
Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

For hotels in Florida college towns, August has provided a small bright spot amid the general gloom of the pandemic.

Tens of thousands of kids and their parents are returning to school, as the educational world tries to make campus life work while keeping students safe from the virus.

That means that occupancies have jumped from the low teens to over 50% at lodgings like the Thesis Hotel, a new property that sits just across the street from the University of Miami campus in Coral Gables.

"It has surely been a great, great week for us," said Ana Tolci, general manager of the Thesis, which opened its doors in early August. "We saw a tremendous pick up in reservations," for the weekend before freshman move-in Aug. 9 to 11, Tolci said.

Ana Tolci
Ana Tolci

"Ninety-nine percent of our check-ins have been parents with their kids, whether they're freshmen or returning sophomores or seniors," Tolci added.  "That has certainly been our main demographic."

To make them feel at home, the hotel set up a coffee station in the lobby for use prior to morning campus tours and a bar cart in the evening to welcome them back. "That has been truly a hit," Tolci said.

With its rooftop pool and bar and stylish new looks, the 245-room Thesis is a step up from the aging Holiday Inn it replaced.  Students and faculty can also take advantage of the adjacent Thesis Residences. Tolci said they are an option for guests who are more than transient but don't want to commit to a 12-month lease.

Back to school is also boosting business in Tallahassee, home to the 41,000 students at Florida State University and 11,000 students at Florida A&M University.  At the Hotel Indigo, occupancies for the weekends associated with school openings are running 70% or above, said hotel sales director Lucy Mann.

"We are seeing a very large pick-up in our occupancy" for the move-in weekends of Aug. 14 and 21, Mann said. "It has been a bright spot with everything that has been going on in the hospitality industry."

The 143-room hotel, which has been in the works since 2018, opened on Aug. 3. Indigo, which an InterContinental Hotels Group brand, also has outposts near the University of Florida, University of Georgia, Georgia Tech University and the University of Southern Mississippi.

To reach students and their parents, Hotel Indigo has worked with nearby student apartments to put up flyers advertising its rooms as well as networking through Visit Tallahassee and in social media channels.

The state's biggest school, the University of Florida, is also bringing lodging business to Gainesville. Bookings spiked close to move-in dates at the 173-room Hotel ELEO near the UF medical school complex, spokeswoman Jane Watkins said.

"We have seen an increase in bookings over the last two days at a rapid pace, and we still have rooms available to welcome new families to campus," Watkins said in an Aug. 13 statement. UF goes back to classes on Aug. 31.

One question for all of these hotels is whether the good times can continue into the college football season. Several big athletic conferences have postponed football until next spring, but so far the Atlantic Coast Conference (home to Florida State and the University of Miami) and the Southeast Conference (Florida is a member) have not.

Hotel managers were warily optimistic that there will be some lift from football, although social distancing means there will be fewer fans to go around.

"We are seeing some bookings, but there is going to be limited capacity in the stadium," Mann said. Doke Campbell Stadium at Florida State normally has seating for 79,560 fans.

The home season kicks off Sept. 12 with a game against Georgia Tech, and the Seminoles are scheduled to go to Miami to play Miami on Sept. 26.

Mann said Hotel Indigo is offering some additional flexibility in reservations because of the uncertainties surrounding coronavirus. "It varies by opponent and how strong we expect the game to be," she said. "It's an ever-changing world."

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