The hotel industry has been among the harder-hit sectors of the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Capital Region destinations have been no exception, with revenue and occupancy down substantially from 2020.
They are not, however, suffering as badly as might be expected in what has become a Staycation Summer for many Americans.
As Labor Day and the traditional end of the summer tourism season draws near, some hotel operators say they are filling rooms — not as many as in the usual summer boom, but some. And they’re finding that many guests are coming from within a few hours’ drive. People are stretching “Staycation” to mean stay in the region rather than just stay at home.
“We see a lot of 518 area codes staying at the hotels,” said Darryl Leggieri, president of Discover Saratoga. “The rates are down considerably, so the accessibility to Saratoga is like we’ve never seen before.
“That’s the good news. But what I worry about is the fall and the winter — have our small businesses made enough money to sustain the low-demand periods of the wintertime?”
Saratoga Springs, he said, is a year-round destination and the other pieces of the year-round demand — meetings and conventions — are still missing, with no timetable for return.
Lake George-area businesses, by contrast, usually must earn the lion’s share of their annual revenue in the warm months of midyear.
“Our goal was to keep us sustainable, and not down more than 50 percent,” said Gina Mintzer, executive director of the Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The summer business is down about 35 percent from a normal year, and in the current environment, that’s a victory.
Notably, many of those coming to Lake George are coming for the first time, some of them New York City-area residents.
The business community is now considering how to bring them back as repeat vacationers, Mintzer said.
Within the broad stroke of “tough times/steep decline,” some hoteliers are doing better than others.
Lyle Woods, general manager of Homewood Suites by Hilton in Saratoga Springs, said his 113 units are heavily weighted toward extended-stay guests, rather than one- or two-night occupants.
And extended-stay is one of the few segments of the hotel industry that has fared relatively well.
Woods said he’s still seeing a lot of business and government guests.
“So we have stayed reasonably OK through the summer,” he explained, but the impact is still noticeable.
“It’s been a very different summer, especially without the racing here in Saratoga,” he said. “We can’t charge as much as we normally would during the summer. “The transient market is just nowhere near the levels it was last year — you don’t get the high-demand weekends.”
Factor in the increased requirements for cleaning, germ control and distancing, and even an extended-stay property feels the squeeze. Winter, always slower than summer in Saratoga, will be worse this year, Woods predicted.
“I don’t foresee being normal, whatever normal may be, until spring next year.”
The Desmond Hotel in Colonie is known as a meeting location and event venue … and that’s a tough space to be in now.
“A struggle,” said general manager Tyler Desmond. “It’s just one struggle after another, many regulations that we have to deal with, many regulations that restrict our business.”
No more than 50 people can gather at once, weddings can be held but guests can’t dance, residents of more than half the states in the nation must quarantine upon arrival in New York.
There’s a need to contain the deadly pandemic, certainly, but some of the rules for doing so don’t make a lot of sense to Desmond. He said it’s OK for a restaurant to host live music, for example, but only if the performance is not advertised or publicized.
The hotel normally gets a bump up in the summer from leisure travel to the Saratoga Race Course, and that didn’t happen this year.
But what hurts most is the regulatory limits on meetings and public aversion to them.
“We do a lot of group business, it’s our primary business,” Desmond said. “They don’t want to book anything because they don’t know what’s coming down.”
He’s tried some alternate business models — the hotel is hosting some college students moving off campus to reduce dorm density, for example — but revenue and occupancy continue to fall well short of normal levels.
“The biggest problem is just the level of fear everybody has,” Desmond said.
Kate Fahey, general manager of DoubleTree by Hilton in Schenectady, said her hotel has felt the shutdown keenly.
“It’s been a lot slower, meetings and things like that are pretty much non-existent.”
This summer hasn’t been all bad, though: There have been leisure travel guests (coming from a shorter distance than in typical summers) and the hotel soon will be hosting some of the cast and crew while Season Two of the Amazon Prime Video series “Modern Love” shoots in Schenectady.
Fahey started working at the property in 2010, when it was the old Holiday Inn. She said there has been a transition in recent years — before, many of the summer guests were there for the Saratoga racing season. Since Rivers Casino opened on the waterfront, some of her guests are in town to see it.
Neither the Race Course nor Rivers is open this summer, of course, but Fahey feels the loss of business travelers more than racing and casino fans.
“The meeting business is what really has killed us,” she said.
Leggieri at Discover Saratoga said losing the track and SPAC seasons has hurt, but not terribly. Hotels have lowered their rates, and there are still things to do in and around Saratoga Springs, with restaurants offering outdoor dining. Reservations and parking are easier to come by this year.
“The energy in town is great,” he observed.
What’s going to hurt more is the loss of conventions and meetings, which have an estimated $60 million in annual economic impact.
Convention season typically starts in March, eases back during the height of summer then picks up again in September and continues through autumn, Leggieri said. The pandemic landed in March and is still a threat on the eve of September, so 2020 is likely a lost year for conventions, he said.
“The economic impact is staggering.”
Mintzer at the Lake George Chamber said she and her members have been working since May to rebound from the pandemic. That continues as summer draws to a close.
“Our call today, we’re looking at how we are promoting the fall, everything we’re doing to be safe and responsible,” she said Monday.
The summer has proved a relative success not only for the economics of Lake George businesses but for the public safety of those who live, work and visit the region, she added.
“We’ve been at zero cases for weeks and weeks and weeks while inviting thousands of folks here,” Mintzer said.