“Opening hotels is never easy,” said Phil Hospod, founder of hospitality developer Dovetail and Co., during a Boutique Lifestyle Leaders Association webinar in early August. “There are a hundred different things that need to come together for a smooth opening — it’s long nights and weekends, and stress levels are high.”
On top of the normal challenges inherent in any hotel ramp up, however, Dovetail and Co. was thrown a major curveball as the Covid-19 crisis unfolded ahead of the opening of its latest project, the Wayfinder, in Newport, R.I., this May.
“Through March, April and May, pushing to an opening in the middle of everything was pretty wild,” said Hospod. “We were able to soft open at the end of May, which is kind of remarkable. But it required a fair amount of creativity to create as good an experience as possible.”
For example, the 197-room Wayfinder had to quickly pivot in order to replace its sit-down restaurant, which was no longer allowed to operate, with in-room dining options. Supply chains were also impacted, with lighting shipments delayed and only around half of the property’s artwork on the walls when it opened. In order to allow guests to properly isolate, the property decided not to offer daily housekeeping.
“There were a lot of things that you’d expect from a full-service hotel that we weren’t doing, but guests were appreciative,” added Hospod. “Everyone was a little more forgiving. We were more forgiving of ourselves and with our team, because perfection was unattainable.”
Like the Wayfinder, Room Mate Hotels’ new Room Mate Macarena, Gran Via found itself caught in the pandemic’s crossfire when it debuted in March. The brand’s sixth property in Madrid, the Macarena had only been open for a few weeks when Covid-19 began to sweep through the city and Spain imposed stay-at-home orders.
Rather than go into hibernation mode, the Macarena instead became one of 13 Room Mate properties globally to donate rooms to healthcare workers and the elderly.
“At the beginning, we offered all our hotels up to the local city authorities, and they initially said, ‘Thank you, we’ll take one of them,’” said Kike Sarasola, founder and president of Room Mate Hotels. “But little by little, that one became six. I don’t think anyone really knew then that this was going to be so big and hit so hard.”
The 130-room Room Mate Macarena is now opening its doors to leisure travelers for a second time, announcing a public debut redo in late July. Rather than having to scramble to incorporate the latest in cleaning and safety protocols, however, the property’s experience housing healthcare workers has helped prepare it for the current climate.
“We’ve actually had a huge advantage,” said Sarasola. “Because we were hosting medical workers who were working near the virus, we had to, very early on, implement all the sanitization measures that are now compulsory. We already had things like the [plexiglass] shields at the front desk and rules around having no more than two people in the elevator and social distancing already in place.”
Though Spain has reported a resurgence in the virus in the latter half of the summer, the Room Mate Macarena is seeing some promising domestic booking activity, with many of the property’s guests opting to make last-minute reservations.
“We have some locals who have been fed up with being kept home for so long and just want to leave their apartment or house for a night, and so that’s certainly one trend we’re seeing,” Sarasola said.
In the U.S., few markets were as hard-hit by the pandemic early on as the greater New York City area, making this summer’s opening of the Canopy by Hilton Jersey City all the more challenging. (Jersey City is across the Hudson River from downtown Manhattan, easily accessible by ferry and train.) The property quietly had a soft opening on Aug. 5, pushing a more formal debut to a later date.
According to Sietse Nabben, Canopy by Hilton Jersey City’s chief enthusiast and general manager, opening during a pandemic hasn’t been easy.
“Some Jersey City hotels were forced to close, and even with less inventory available in the market, it’s been hard to lift occupancy levels and operate with financial responsibility,” Nabben said.
It’s been hard to lift occupancy levels.
Still, Nabben reports some early signs of recovery fueled by staycations as well as wedding parties looking to reschedule events they had been forced to postpone. The hotel has also seen a modest but encouraging uptick in corporate travel demand. He added that the Canopy by Hilton Jersey City’s status as a newly opened hotel has helped give the property a boost in a difficult market.
“Naturally, there are some great advantages, particularly being brand-new construction, with modern technology that travelers are looking for, such as a touchless experience in-room,” said Nabben, who added that another benefit was being able to train staff for “optimal service and the latest safety protocols without having to simultaneously operate the hotel.”
Being a new development has similarly proven to be a boon for the Thesis Hotel Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., which officially opened its doors in early August.
“The simple fact is that consumers often equate new with better, especially in a time of uncertainty,” said Brent Reynolds, CEO and managing partner of Thesis Hotel Miami developer Nolan Reynolds International. “We were also able to quickly adapt and evolve our plans in the development phase to add state-of-the-art touchless solutions and technology, implement ionization systems in our elevators, enhance the air circulation systems and increase utilization of outdoor stairways.”
Consumers often equate new with better.
Even prior to the pandemic, the 245-room Thesis Hotel Miami had planned to focus on drawing a more local clientele, and it continues to lean in to that emphasis in the wake of Covid’s impact on the travel sector. The property has launched special Hero Frontline rates for community members helping to fight the pandemic, a Work From Hotel Day package, another deal for Florida residents that targets the regional drive-in market and an offering for long-term stays.
Meanwhile, another Florida hotel, the White Elephant Palm Beach, has opted to delay its opening to Nov. 4 after initially targeting a September start date. Khaled Hashem, managing director of hospitality for White Elephant Palm Beach owner New England Development, attributed the postponement primarily to a recent surge in Covid-19 cases in Florida.
“We have a responsibility to prioritize the safety and health of our community, staff and guests and will continue to remain nimble according to local and national guidelines,” Hashem said. Additionally, he added, the White Elephant Palm Beach’s opening plans now call for quite a bit of additional investment in new technology and supplies needed to comply with elevated safety protocols.
Despite the delayed debut, Hashem reported that the 32-room property is already fielding inquiries for the fall and winter, with particularly strong demand emerging for the hotel’s two rooftop suites with outdoor decks.
The 189-room Lotte Hotel Seattle has also pushed back its opening date from an original target of June to Sept. 24. South Korea-based Lotte Hotels and Resorts currently has only two other existing U.S. outposts: the Lotte New York Palace in Manhattan and the Lotte Hotel Guam.
“Nowadays, we’re not just dealing with the challenges of opening a brand-new hotel but also opening a brand that is not really known in this market or in this part of the world,” said Victor Caguindagan, general manager of the Lotte Hotel Seattle.
“But not being open yet has actually been a blessing in disguise. We put a very high emphasis on training, and so now we have much more time to tweak things during our pre-opening and dry run. Once we open, we’ll be fully ready.”
Likewise, being able to hire at a time when so many in the industry have lost their jobs has also been a bright spot, Caguindagan added.
“We feel very blessed to be a hotel that’s opening right now, and we’re trying to create more jobs for people who may have recently lost them,” he said.
Hiring in the middle of a pandemic, however, hasn’t been without its share of complications. As Covid-19 surged in Seattle earlier in the year, the Lotte Hotel Seattle was forced to conduct many interviews via Skype or Zoom. For some applicants, the process proved challenging, especially if they were unfamiliar with the technology or lacked a reliable internet connection.
“We’re not just recruiting the managers but also our line workers and hourly workers, and some of them may not have interviewed in that capacity in the past,” said Caguindagan. “So we’ve had to be patient in teaching them how to do it and allotting extra time for each interview. And then if there’s an issue with background noise or the video freezing, we make sure to let the applicant know that we’re not holding that against them.”
Meanwhile, whether right on schedule or slightly delayed, the consensus among most new properties is that opening, even in an intensely challenging environment, is better than postponing indefinitely.
“Hotels are typically heavily affected by national and, in this case, global events, whether it be economic, health or other force majeure happenings,” said the Thesis Hotel Miami’s Reynolds. “However, they’re also one of the asset classes in real estate that recover the fastest when viewed from an operating lens. We’ve made it a priority to open as soon as possible.”
For Dovetail and Co.’s Hospod, time has also been of the essence for the Wayfinder, with the property ultimately scrapping considerations to delay its opening until next year.
“We thought it was in our better interest to open,” said Hospod. “It takes time to get the name out and build awareness, and we also felt it was important to just start building the Wayfinder story, so that even if this year wasn’t a great year financially, at least we’d be able to build momentum for the future. We’re booking weddings for next season. We wouldn’t be able to do that if we were closed.”