West Coast hotels help fire evacuees as smoke chokes business

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San Francisco was bathed in the orange glow of smoke from forest fires that have gripped the West Coast.
San Francisco was bathed in the orange glow of smoke from forest fires that have gripped the West Coast. Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Benny Marty

As deadly wildfires run rampant across Oregon, California and Washington, hotels near hard-hit areas across the West Coast are stepping up to help accommodate evacuees.

"We're seeing possibly the largest wildfires in Oregon's history, both in terms of economic damage and the landscape," Greg Astley, director of government affairs for the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association (ORLA), said on Sept. 15. "And by looking at the percentage of the fires that are contained right now, which is very small, it's very likely that this crisis will extend well beyond our normal wildfire season."

On Sept. 11, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management reported that around 500,000 Oregonians -- roughly 10% of the state's total population -- have been put under evacuation notice, with more than 40,000 residents evacuated thus far. 

Given the concurrent threat of the Covid-19 pandemic, hotels are playing a vital role in relief efforts. ORLA is currently working with Gov. Kate Brown's office and the Oregon Office of Emergency Management to connect officials with properties that can accommodate evacuees and emergency responders.

"People still need to have that [social] distancing at a time like this," explained Astley.

Meanwhile, hotels in Oregon markets like Portland, Eugene and Salem, among others, have responded to the crisis by offering deeply discounted rates, with some -- like the Hoxton Portland -- even advertising free accommodations to those in need. 

Likewise, some hotels that have been closed since the start of the pandemic, such as the Graduate Eugene, have reopened expressly to house evacuees.

"We're seeing hotels with rooms that typically go for $200 to $300 a night provide rooms to evacuees for less than $100," said Astley. "And we've been putting out our own messaging to our members to remind them now is the time to help, and it's definitely not the time to be raising rates."

Provenance Hotels, which is headquartered in Portland, has implemented a Stay Safe rate for evacuees at its Portland-based Hotel Lucia and Sentinel properties. Under the relief initiative, rates are available starting at $79 a night at the Hotel Lucia and $109 a night at the Sentinel through Sept. 20.

According to Ralph Aruzza, chief marketing officer for Provenance Hotels, Portland's unusually low occupancy levels, caused by Covid-19, have meant that there's been plenty of supply available to meet evacuee demand.

"[Due to] the impact of Covid, occupancy levels around the region have been at an all-time low across the board," said Aruzza. "So, hotels in Portland, like Hotel Lucia and Sentinel, fortunately have had the capacity to support those seeking shelter for as long as they need." 

In California, emergency evacuation-related demand has caused occupancies at some Central Coast and Bay Area hotels to abruptly jump from the 10% to 20% range to as high as 70% to 90%, according to California Hotel & Lodging Association spokesperson Pete Hillan.

The sudden influx of demand left some properties scrambling to ramp up operations.

"When the evacuations hit, all of a sudden these hotels were going to high occupancies, but their staff couldn't just turn on a dime," said Hillan. "They've certainly been prepared from a Covid standpoint, but I think it was challenging at the beginning to staff up at a time when occupancy has been so minimal."

According to Hillan, who was himself forced to temporarily evacuate from his Santa Cruz, Calif.-area home for a week in late August, special hotel rates for Central Coast California evacuees have largely hovered in the $79 to $99 a night range.

In addition to the blazes themselves, air quality has emerged as a major concern across the West Coast, with smoke from the wildfires drifting as far as Kansas, Wyoming and even, at high altitudes, to the East Coast.

"While we haven't experienced any physical damage to [our] hotels in Portland, Tacoma [Wash.] or Seattle, the air quality has been challenging," said Provenance's Aruzza. "The region has been experiencing levels classified as hazardous over the last several days."

For many hotels and restaurants in the region, hazardous air quality has translated into yet another stumbling block for a sector still struggling to rebound from the pandemic.

"In Seattle, the air quality is so bad that some people are just staying indoors," said Seattle Hotel Association spokeswoman Jacque Coe. "And some restaurants are shutting down their outdoor seating, which is a real drag because, due the pandemic, outdoor seating is really their entire livelihood right now." 

Update: This report was updated Sept. 17 to clarify a quote from Seattle Hotel Association spokeswoman Jacque Coe.

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