Home / Business Spotlight / ‘A very tough time’: Operators of local hotels and inns strive to keep guests coming despite COVID-19

‘A very tough time’: Operators of local hotels and inns strive to keep guests coming despite COVID-19

Garth Woodside Mansion

At The Garth Woodside Mansion Bed and Breakfast in Hannibal, business dropped off
early in the pandemic but picked up in the fall, Co-owner Julie Rolsen said. (Photo courtesy of the
Garth Woodside Mansion)

Stacey Howlett has spent plenty of time during the past two decades helping new hotels in St. Louis to work out the kinks.

She was at the historic Chase Park Plaza — where celebrities gathered decades earlier — as it gradually reopened in the early aughts in the Central West End. In 2012, she joined the Hotel Ignacio, an eco-friendly establishment at Saint Louis University, shortly after it opened. She helped Hotel Indigo, an Art Deco-style hotel downtown, to open last year.

She checked into her most recent stop — the Angad Arts Hotel, in the city’s Grand Center Arts District — on March 16, three days after Gov. Mike Parson declared a state of emergency in Missouri because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[Until then,] the hotel industry was booming in St. Louis,” said Howlett, now the general manager of the Angad. “We had a lot of hotels filled and hotel refreshes that were going to be done in 2020 and 2021, so it was a good outlook for St. Louis.”

Now, however, she is trying to keep the Angad open amidst lingering concerns about the virus, the resulting significant downturn in the economy and the impact on travel and hotel occupancy.

While those developments have been devastating for the hospitality industry as a whole, the repercussions have been particularly grim for local owners and investors in boutique hotels without national chain affiliations, as well as locally owned inns and small bed-and-breakfast establishments in Missouri and beyond. (One of Howlett’s previous employers, the Ignacio, has closed.)

“This is a very tough time for hotels. It’s a very tough time for employees working in hotels . . . and just like every other business, [the pandemic] has really decimated the hospitality and restaurant industry,” said Howlett, who spent three years as president of the St. Louis Area Hotel Association.

For the first eight months of the year in 2019, hotels in St. Louis were 68 percent full; this year they were 38 percent full, according to STR, a hotel market data-research firm. The average cost of a room is now $87 — a 20 percent decrease from last year.

The dip, of course, is not limited to St. Louis. Missouri lost $2.16 billion in tourism revenue from February through May compared to the same time last year, the Jefferson City News-Tribune reported.

“The good news is that it isn’t as bad it was in April, which was the worst month we have ever recorded in the U.S. hotel industry,” Jan Freitag, senior vice president of STR said in September.

But it’s been particularly tough on boutique hotels, which are often expensive and located in urban markets with higher real estate taxes and insurance costs, said Bjorn Hanson, an adjunct professor at the Tisch Center of Hospitality at New York University.

“Not only did they suffer greater occupancy losses, but their fixed cost structure made them suffer even greater when it comes to loss of profitability,” said Hanson.

Angad hotel room

A view of a room in the Art Deco-style Angad Arts Hotel in St. Louis.

The Angad, housed in the former 1920s-era Missouri Theatre building, was purchased and developed by The Lawrence Group, a St. Louis-based design, architecture and construction firm. It attracted significant attention when it opened in late 2018 — after a $65 million renovation — because of its creative premise, eye-catching design and rooftop bar. When guests book rooms, they can choose color schemes based on their emotions — for example, red for passion or yellow for happiness.

During the pandemic, the hotel was forced to lay off about 60 of its 90 employees and reduce the price of a hotel room by 50 to 60 percent, Howlett said.

That downsizing spurred the remaining staff to “become much more of a team because we do everything,” Howlett said. “The sales team not only does sales, but they do housekeeping, or they work in the restaurants. The executive team does the same thing. Anytime we need something done somewhere, we all pitch in to do it.”

Weekend getaway destinations in Missouri also have felt the pinch.

Murphy’s Bed & Breakfast in Hermann — a town about 80 minutes from St. Louis on the Missouri River — is best-known for its wineries. Pam Myers and her husband, Dale, renovated a home built in 1869 by a winemaker and opened it in 2016. It offers two rooms with private entrances; one features an antique piano, the other formerly housed a wine cellar.

For February, March and April, the inn mostly sat empty, Pam Myers said. The owners started offering the rooms for single-night stays on weekends, which they had not done before the pandemic.

Their income dropped by approximately 80 percent compared to the same period last year. Not until June did occupancy start to return to its previous levels, with guests every weekend, she said.

“The trend since July has been that things are looking like they did prior, so I’m hoping that it continues that way,” she said.

Myers, who is also a nurse, said they already had been cleaning very thoroughly before the pandemic, and their inn’s rooms typically remain empty for at least 24 hours, if not for five days, between guests. She said she believes people are returning to Hermann because they aren’t scared off by the pandemic.

“Some guests choose to wear masks; others do not. When you go to restaurants here in Hermann, some restaurants ask you to wear masks until you’re seated. A lot of our wineries are outside, so masks aren’t mandatory,” Myers said.

Elsewhere in rural Missouri, owners of other bed and breakfast inns said their establishments also went unoccupied during the early months of the pandemic, but they noted that they’ve more than recovered that business in recent weeks.

In author Mark Twain’s boyhood home of Hannibal, bed-and-breakfast inns have been packed, said Julie Rolsen, the owner of Garth Woodside Mansion Bed and Breakfast, which sits on 36 acres and features a main building with eight rooms and three cottages. Would-be guests can book a room at Getoutofthecity.com, and that’s exactly what they’ve been doing, Rolsen said.

Despite the fact that her inn was closed for six weeks at the onset of the pandemic, business now is up 34 percent from last year, said Rolsen, who started the business with her husband John 22 years ago after he retired from the U.S. Air Force.

She attributed their uptick in occupancy to the fact that people “want out of the city, and they can’t travel to Europe. They can’t travel to Hawaii, so they are doing these staycations instead of vacations. They are taking more getaways that are shorter and closer to home.”

Back at the Angad, the remaining staff is waiting for the time when it can rehire former co-workers, restart room service and reopen its signature restaurant, the Grand Tavern, which remained closed in October.

“With the restaurant services cut back and staffing cut back, that’s more of a sustainable busines model, but obviously that wasn’t the original pro forma that we planned for,” Howlett said. “So our plan is, we want to get up and running as fast as possible once we have a cure [for COVID-19] and once this pandemic is ending.”

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