Since March of 2020, we’ve all been through a wild ride to say the least. While most of us chilled out at home, watched Netflix and held Zoom meetings, those who work in the travel industry rarely had that option.
I recently had a chance to sit down with a friend of mine who is a front desk manager for a major hotel in downtown Denver. We talked about what really happened during the pandemic, and what’s going on in the hotel business now. Because he’s not authorized to speak on behalf of his company, I’ve agreed to publish his remarks anonymously.
Jason Steele (JS): First, tell me a little about your background in the hotel industry.
Insider: I’ve been working in the hotel industry almost 10 years. During this time, I’ve worked for hotels that have been part of the Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton and Ritz-Carlton brands. Before that, I earned a degree in hospitality and event management.
JS: What was your first indication that something was going on in early 2020?
Insider: At first, we started hearing about stuff going on with COVID outside of the country. Then, there was a major volleyball tournament in Denver, and the first weekend was smooth (February 27-28, 2020). The first group checked out on Tuesday, March 3. Then, the incoming volleyball group had hundreds of guests who cancelled at 7:00 a.m. on the morning of Thursday, March 5. It was hundreds of rooms being cancelled, and we started getting even more phone calls with more cancellations every day.
By then we were just waiting on our sales department to inform us that every group was being cancelled for the rest of the year. It was shocking knowing that on an average night that spring, we had less than 100 guests in-house, and most of them were contractors working on our hotel’s room renovation project. From mid-March until mid-May, the only guests that we had were just renovation contractors, and a few airline flight crews.
JS: How did the hotel operate with so few guests?
Insider: Before COVID, we had about 25 people on our front office team. But during COVID, we were down to a team of just nine employees to handle 24/7 operations. That means that we often had just two people per shift, and occasionally just one. This is in a hotel with over 1,000 rooms. But between our renovations and the low occupancy, we really only utilized about half the rooms at that time. In fact, we took advantage of the extremely low occupancy to speed up the schedule for our renovations.
JS: What are some crazy COVID stories that you can share?
Insider: We have a hotel with over 1,000 rooms, but we were having just about 15 guests check in and another 15 check out each day. It was like running a bed and breakfast out of a high rise! All food and beverage venues were closed, and all we could offer guests were snacks and soda. All local restaurants were takeout only.
By the summer of 2020, local residents were reserving rooms in the hotel, just to use the pool, and they needed a reservation just to do that due to capacity restrictions. For a while, it seemed like every phone call we received was about the pool. In June of 2020, there were major protests in Denver, and some of them were violent. Three-fourths of our ground floor windows were shattered, and we had to shut down the hotel for three days and relocate the guests to other hotels. Thankfully, the guests appreciated us looking out for their safety.
In the fall of 2020, COVID spiked again, the hotel slowed down and more major restrictions were put back into place. Our restaurant was open, but all food had to be taken to the guests’ rooms. People were trying to drink coffee in the lobby, and guests were very upset when we told them they couldn’t, because it required them to remove their masks. It went on like through Christmas and into mid-January.
JS: Did you or any of your coworkers get sick?
Insider: During Christmas, we had several coworkers stay home due to symptoms or contact with someone who had COVID, but only one employee that I know of got sick. When many people were absent, the others, like me, had to work as many as 12 straight days without a day off. The hotel had furloughed people at the onset of the crisis, but with some staff unavailable, we quickly became shorthanded.
JS: How are operations different today than pre-COVID?
Insider: In early May of 2021, when the CDC guidelines said that those who were fully vaccinated can stop wearing masks, we saw occupancy increase dramatically on the weekends. We went from about 25% occupancy during the week, to 100% on Fridays and Saturday nights. But, on those Fridays and Saturday nights, we didn’t have enough clean rooms to accommodate guests, due to a lack of housekeepers. The lounge is still closed, but restaurants are open. Business travel definitely hasn’t recovered, although pilots are telling me it’s starting to.
Housekeeping especially is very short-staffed, and it’s actually hard to purchase housekeeping items like sheets in mass quantities. Daily housekeeping is gone, and many guests are upset about that. However, you may be able to get daily housekeeping upon request.
JS: Are there any lessons travelers can take away from this?
Insider: Just like the airlines, hotel employees ask that travelers try to be respectful. Travelers should know that hotels are short-staffed, but we are trying to provide the best service we can, knowing that we don’t have enough staff at this time. Most furloughed hotel employees ended up getting other jobs and careers, and they declined to return. Our general manager complains that most of these former hotel employees are either working for Amazon, or are just enjoying unemployment benefits, but who knows. I know that some former employees are worried that the hotel industry is now too unstable, and that they could lose their jobs again if there’s another round of restrictions.
JS: How much of the changes now are really COVID-related and how much are just cost cutting?
Insider: There’s a little of each, but labor shortages are the driving factor in most of our current changes from pre-COVID policies.
JS: What can hotel guests do to receive the best treatment these days?
Insider: First, it always helps to treat hotel staff well. Even when we are short-staffed, we’re working as hard as we can. It also helps if you have elite status with the hotel’s loyalty program, which makes it easier for staff to offer upgrades and other perks.
Note from JS: It’s really easy to get hotel status, even if you don’t travel frequently. For example, the IHG® Rewards Premier Credit Card offers Platinum Elite Status which includes perks like early check-ins, late checkouts and room upgrades. The Marriott Bonvoy Bold® Credit Card offers 15 night stay credits, which gives you Silver Elite status, while the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card offers instant Silver Elite status and Gold Status when you spend $35,000 on purchases each account year. Silver status offers you perks like late checkouts and free wifi.