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.