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Sonoma County hotel sector reopens with hope as virus lingers

When visitors start arriving at the Vintners Resort on July 1 after a coronavirus pandemic closure of more than three months, they will notice big and little changes once they enter the luxury Santa Rosa hotel surrounded by lush vineyards.

Gone is the valet parking. The lobby restrooms can be accessed only one person at a time with a latch attached to the doors similar to an airplane lavatory. Forget about coffee makers and hairdryers in the rooms. Also, breakfast now will be delivered to rooms with the bellhop leaving it outside the door.

“We've taken the time to prepare and to train and to make the appropriate changes,” said Percy Brandon, general manager of the 78-room resort. “We didn't just turn the key as soon as the health officer gave us the go-ahead. ... We're upgrading. Everything we've done has been very carefully thought out.”

As part of the new public health measures to try to fend off the virus, the resort plans to space an unoccupied room between those being used and wait 24 hours between new guests taking over a room.

The luxury property along with the entire Sonoma County lodging sector is gearing up for a shortened summer tourist season, after getting approval June 19 from local health officials to resume accepting leisure travelers. Still, there’s the realization next spring will be the first opportunity for something resembling a typical number of visitors.

Hotel, motel and resort operators are assessing the economic toll of the shutdown, which resulted in a sharp decline in overnight guests and forced owners to put an emphasis on revamping properties and extra daily cleaning.

The lodging industry and the overall hospitality sector comprises a big slice of the Sonoma County workforce and is a key driver of the local economy. During the pandemic, roughly two dozen hotels were closed. Some remained open with a skeleton crew serving a few guests who were essential workers.

A comeback in the hotel industry would provide generous spillover benefits for the county’s vital tourism sector. Consider that sector employed 22,270 people last year, leading to $2.3 billion in overall spending and $203 million in state and local tax receipts, according to a study by Dean Runyon Associates released in April.

“This is a year of uncertainty and a year where we need to be flexible and nimble and look at everything. We certainly can’t sit back and say, ‘OK, this is how it’s going to be for the year,’” said Claudia Vecchio, CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, the nonprofit that contracts with the county for tourism marketing.

The agency relies on hotel taxes for operations and in the midst of the virus-induced collapse of the hospitality sector, Vecchio had to let go of 10 employees, four likely permanently. The county hotel tax revenue from January through March was $2.6 million, a 37% decrease from the 2019 first quarter.

The large majority of hotel workers joined the swelling unemployment ranks for at least three months. Some of them have been returning to work in recent weeks. At Vintners Resort, only 65 of 200 employees have been recalled though since spa and banquet departments are still shuttered, Brandon said.

Ofelia Cardenas, a housekeeper at Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country in Santa Rosa, said she kept her job through the ongoing pandemic, but only worked two to three days a week. She supplemented her wages by using all of her sick time and taking vacation pay accrued since she was hired in 2004.

The Hyatt Regency only has brought back five of the 25 employees on the housekeeping crew, Cardenas said. Some of the furloughed workers are looking for other jobs. She has found herself busier than ever to clean rooms.

Cardenas, through a Spanish translator said, “the people get all the food from outside and leave their trash inside and they leave all their laundry inside.” She previously was responsible for cleaning eight or nine rooms a day, but now is averaging 12 to 14 rooms with the same 30 minutes of cleaning per room.

Overall, the pandemic struck a fierce blow to local hotel occupancy rates because many rooms were empty. For the first five months of the year, the county’s occupancy level was 32% less than the same period of 2019, according to STR, a Tennessee research firm that tracks the U.S. hotel industry. On a monthly basis compared to a year ago, March occupancy fell by 41%, April plunged 62% and May tumbled 51%.

Even with the bleak numbers and uncertain prospects, there is a sense among local hoteliers there could be a rebound through the rest of the summer. Indeed, STR data shows hotel occupancy levels have been gradually advancing. During the week of June 14 to 20, the rate was 52% in Sonoma County, the first time since the beginning of March more than half of available rooms were occupied with overnight guests.

“We've been hearing about this mythical pent-up demand,” Vecchio said. “I think that we saw some signs of that starting last weekend.”

At the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, managing partner Joe Bartolomei said his luxury resort near the Russian River has seen tourists begin to return. Recently, a couple from North Carolina stopped during a road trip through Northern California after not being able to visit Canada. Still, 75% of the inn’s bookings are visitors from the Bay Area.

“If you are not going to travel internationally, but looking to travel domestically, California is high on peoples list,” Bartolomei said.

The inn has suggested myriad outdoor activities for its guests, including guided hikes around Armstrong Redwoods in Guerneville, outdoor wine tastings and morning yoga on its property. Bartolomei thinks the range of outdoor activities available locally will help differentiate Sonoma County from other destinations, especially as travelers remain health-conscious to avoid the virus.

“This time of the year is a beautiful time to go to the coast. ... That has always been a big draw,” he said.

Nevertheless, Farmhouse is only anticipating a 50% to 55% occupancy level for the rest of the year. In past years, the inn usually would have no vacancy or rooms would be hard to come by during the summer, Bartolomei said. As a result, he plans to only bring back half of his about full-time and part-time staff.

The fashionable inn got a helpful financial assist from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program as revenue dried up over the spring.

“I’m trying to make sure we make it through next winter. ... Every penny counts now,” he said, noting last year his property experienced flooding in February and evacuations from the Kincade fire in October. “Our industry has been hit hard.”

Despite the brutal two-year stretch two new hotels will open this year: the 100-room La Quinta by Wyndham on Santa Rosa Avenue and the five-story AC Hotel by Marriott downtown near Railroad Square. The latter is slated to host its first guests in July.

Hopefulness abounds at the Casa Secoya, the new name given to the Northwood Lodge in Monte Rio, after it was acquired late last year by Imprint Hospitality of Denver. Alexandra Walterspiel, managing partner of Imprint, said she became a fan of the area after buying a home here 15 years ago and getting to know Northwood owner Meena Rayani.

The company updated the 1970s decor over the winter and spring months to a more modern look. The hotel, which has 20 rooms and six cabins on 3 acres, reopened June 22.

“We feel a tremendous amount of pent-up demand for leisure and drive-to travel destinations such as the Russian River from the Bay Area,” Walterspiel said.

Her crew hurried to reopen so Walterspiel even helped do minor tasks. “I think I became extremely good at installing towel racks,” she said.

Another local lodging option likely to see a boost over the next few months will be short-term home rentals, according to local vacation rental property managers.

Liza Graves, owner of Beautiful Places, a luxury vacation home rental company in Sonoma, said she has seen an uptick in inquiries from people looking to avoid urban areas and want to be able to dictate for themselves how much contact they make with local residents during a getaway. Some want to stay for up to 30 days while also working remotely, while others are not engaging in most of the typical tourist activities during their visits, she said.

No matter what lures tourists to Wine Country, the virus threat will not keep them away during the summer, area hotel managers said.

In fact, Vintners Resort is scheduled to start hosting weddings again on its 92-acre property, with the first one in August. It typically hosts more than 80 a year.

“We have a lot of space,” Brandon said. “We have an expansive lawn area. ... Social distancing is not going to be a problem.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.

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