What the pandemic taught me

Hotel general managers faced a crisis like no other. How will the lessons they learned apply to the future?

TW illustration by Jenn Martins

TW illustration by Jenn Martins

TW illustration by Jenn Martins

None in the hospitality industry wear as many hats as a hotel general manager. A GM’s list of day-to-day duties can run the gamut, from overseeing staff and fielding guest requests to spearheading marketing efforts and food and beverage operations. With the onset of the pandemic, that scope of responsibility has grown to include the deployment of enhanced cleaning and safety protocols and, often, the financial perils brought on by occupancy in free fall and plunging RevPAR. GMs across a variety of markets — from Atlantic City to London to Kenya’s Masai Mara — shared how the pandemic has impacted them, how they’ve stepped up to the challenges and what they predict for the coming recovery.

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Jacqueline Grace
Jacqueline Grace, senior vice president and general manager of the Tropicana Atlantic City in New Jersey

Q: You took on your current role at the Tropicana Atlantic City just last fall. How challenging was it to take the helm in the midst of a pandemic?

A: When I started in September 2020, the property had already been reopened for a few months, and [staff] had really gotten in a groove, thanks to everything they had learned over the summer. They were in a really good place, operationally. But then, as the fall progressed and we continued to monitor the public health situation, the first hurdle that came my way was the surge [in Covid-19 cases] we started to see, and new restrictions were added. In November, our governor added a curfew, which prohibited us from being able to serve drinks over the bar, and restaurants had to close all food and beverage after 10 p.m., so we had to adjust our operations accordingly. I would say that was the low point, really. We saw such a drop-off in volume once the curfew was enacted. But now here we are on the other side of it; the curfew has been lifted, and we’re seeing increased consumer confidence and greater demand. And that’s been exciting.

Q: How do you think summer will play out in the Atlantic City market?

A: The fact that we have the beach, Las Vegas-style resorts with great food and beverage amenities, entertainment, shopping and more, and given all of the pent-up demand for travel and our drive time to major metropolitan areas, we anticipate that we’ll see quite a resurgence of visitation here. We really provide a destination experience without having to get on a plane. So, I really am optimistic about what summer is going to bring.

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Nur Ercan-Magden
Nur Ercan-Magden, general manager of the Marmara Park Avenue in New York

Q: New York was an early Covid-19 epicenter in the U.S. What went through your mind as the pandemic first began to take hold in early 2020?

A: We all felt we were like deer caught in the headlights. In the middle of March, seeing all those booking cancellations, it was a nightmare. The number of bookings we lost was unbelievable, especially because 2019 had been such a great year. And 2020 was actually the fourth year that the Marmara Park Avenue had been operating. So we had stabilized, we had reached our target market. And then, all of a sudden, there were no more guests. It was quiet. 

Q: New York’s hospitality sector remains quite challenged. 

A: We’re doing OK these days because we’re a bit of a hybrid property. When I say hybrid, I mean that we also have extended-stay accommodations with full kitchens, sitting rooms and bedrooms, and half of our rooms also have balconies. So that helped a lot in capturing the local business. People want to get out and have a staycation, and we’ve done quite well with that. 

Q: What’s one of the more surprising things you’ve learned coming out of the pandemic?

A: I’ve learned that you should never cut your marketing expenses, ever. I’m not saying we spent more on marketing. We did spend less, but we got more of a return on it. That return didn’t happen in the first month or even the next three months, but now we are starting to be in good shape because of last year’s marketing efforts. You have to tell people that you’re there and that you’re open and give them hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. And thanks to that marketing, we’re at close to 50% in terms of occupancy. And when I talk to colleagues at properties that have cut marketing, they’re at around 10%. So, it really makes a huge difference.

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Mike Waddell
Mike Waddell, general manager at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells in California

Q: California’s tourism and hospitality recovery was hampered by strict lockdown measures over the past winter. Now that lockdowns have lifted, what level of demand are you seeing?

A: When California lifted stay-at-home orders in February, there was some pent-up demand, and we saw people start to book travel further out and for spring break. Of course, that’s something that’s normal during a typical year, but it wasn’t normal during Covid, when bookings have been so last-minute. As an example, in October, we had been booking 60% or 70% of our business for the weekends less than three days out. We would see 100 rooms booked on Wednesday or Thursday for that coming Friday and Saturday. 

Q: Is it difficult to operate under such tight booking windows?

A: It is difficult. From a planning perspective, you create a schedule on Thursday for the following week. But then, when you suddenly see 100 or 150 more rooms on the books than you were expecting, you have to figure that out. There are all sorts of challenges to getting the staffing needed to handle that influx of business. We’re now doing a better job of forecasting that short-term demand. But the weather plays such a huge part in it, at least in our destination. If the weather drops from 82 to 72 degrees, you don’t see that last-minute pick-up. But when the weather hits the low- to mid-80s, the pick-up happens. You almost have to become a part-time weatherperson in this job.

Q: What’s your outlook on how the summer travel season might look this year?

A: I think that a lot of people will still be cautious about traveling, especially when it comes to jumping on an airplane. So, the fact that we are around a two-hour drive from some of the largest markets in the country, including Los Angeles, as well as Orange County and San Diego, is hugely beneficial for us. Additionally, our particular resort has standalone villas with their own little backyards, and some have splash pools, so that’s been helping. And then, last August, we completed an $8 million renovation, building two 30-foot waterslides and a 450-foot lazy river. So that’s something that, in the summer, we hope will attract those drive-market guests.

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Azei Lago
Azei Lago, general manager of Angama Mara in Kenya’s Masai Mara

Q: What has been the biggest impact you’ve seen from the pandemic so far?

A: In our industry, we’ve always had challenges, but they’ve typically been localized. This has been a global challenge, and it has deeply affected us. The biggest impact has been the reduced revenues that we at Angama, together with the rest of the hospitality industry, have been experiencing. With lower occupancies, one of my other big challenges has been the huge number of staff that were suddenly idled. However, despite everything, we really rallied from the beginning, under the stewardship of our board of directors, CEO and CFO. We began by instituting pay cuts across the board, all the way to the top, without letting anybody go. Our attitude was, “We’re all in this together.” And once the country opened up in the summer for domestic travel, we immediately opened. And that was a big turning point for us, because then local travelers, people in the country, had a destination that they could actually go to.

Q: Are you seeing any encouraging trends now that the borders are open?

A: Once people heard that we were actually open and receiving guests, a flood [of bookings] started, right from the beginning. We haven’t had as many guests as we did before the pandemic, but I would say we’ve had good enough numbers to keep our staff busy. It has kept us running, and our heads are above water.

Q: What’s something surprising that you’ve seen come out of the pandemic?

A: Smaller operators seem to have come out of this whole thing a lot stronger. And I think it’s because it’s been much easier for us to get ramped up for reopening and our decision-making happens much faster. And it’s actually the smaller tour operators and travel agents that are sending us more guests, rather than the big traditional operators. It hasn’t really been about the size of the dog but the size of the fight in that dog.

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Sally Beck
Sally Beck, general manager at the Royal Lancaster London, a Preferred Hotels & Resorts member property

Q: The pandemic has forced many hotels to pivot. How has the Royal Lancaster London adapted to today’s “new normal”?

A: We closed on April 1, 2020, and reopened towards the end of August, and then we haven’t shut since. I’ve found ways to make it work, and I think one of the things I’ve learned through this whole thing is resilience. If you can be creative, you can find new revenue streams. For example, an audiovisual company that’s worked with us for the last 20 years said to me, “Sally, we’ve got this extended-reality studio. If we put it in one of your big event spaces, maybe we could do some hybrid and virtual reality events.” And I said, “OK, let’s do it.” We signed the deal with them, and they invested $207 million into building out this kit. We had that built by May of last year, and from then on, we’ve been able to run small and large virtual events. [The oil company] BP actually came in and took over the space for 10 days, and they brought in their executive team and communicated with 14,000 shareholders and stakeholders around the world. And that was great. [The studio] has probably generated about [$700 million] of revenue during a very, very down period. Not only that, it’s kept us in the forefront of people’s minds as a creative venue.

Q: How optimistic are you about recovery as we head toward the summer?

A: The good news is that our government has actually given us a road map. One of the frustrations through the last year has been that we, as an industry, have had to react very short-term to closures or changes in [government] policy. But now we have a clear road map. Of course, there are caveats, and certain triggers need to be hit, but on May 17, hotels will be allowed to open, as will restaurants and bars. And then on June 21, as long as vaccinations continue and Covid rates remain low, there will be no further restrictions on events, conferences or meetings. Once the government announced that, we saw a huge increase in proactive bookings. Over the last two weeks, each week I’ve had 44 or 45 new inquiries for events business alone. To put that into context, prior to announcing the road map, we were at probably 15 to 20 inquiries maybe every couple of weeks. So that gives me great confidence, and I think the recovery will be better than originally forecast.

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