September 29, 2020

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Just Do Travel

COVID-19 travelers want the beach, so what’s happening to Tampa hotels?

5 min read

TAMPA ― Jeny Guichardo sweeps through the Hilton Tampa Downtown hotel lobby at least once an hour.

She cradles a tub of Lysol wipes in her arms while clutching disinfectant spray and a rag. Wearing a blue surgical mask and plastic gloves, she wipes elevator buttons, handrails and table tops.

Hilton hotels have launched the “CleanStay” program. It calls for regular surface wipe-downs. Each guest room is sealed with a sticker to show it has been cleaned and left undisturbed. Guests can check in online and use their smartphone as their room key. It is technological convenience meets pandemic demand.

“We are giving our guests a real sense of feeling safe so they continue to stay with Hilton,” said the Tampa hotel’s general manager, Raul Aguilera.

The hotel industry in 2020 is reeling unlike ever before. But Florida’s beachfront hotels, including those in Pinellas County, are showing signs of recovery.

It is going to be a slower climb back to booked-up rooms for most inland destinations.

With large-scale events, conventions and conferences mostly on hold, Tampa’s tourism industry has been upended. In Hillsborough County, hotels have been at about 40 percent capacity during periods they are normally nearly full.

So most hoteliers are doing whatever they can to put visitors’ minds at ease.

Fall usually means a slowdown in tourist activity across Tampa Bay. But tourism-backed businesses hope this season will be the exception, that numbers will continue rising toward pre-pandemic levels.

Jeny Guichardo cleans hand rails at the Hilton Tampa Downtown, on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

“A lot of things are so different now,” said Santiago Corrada, CEO of Visit Tampa Bay. “Who knows when that pent up demand to travel kicks in. It’s hard to predict human behavior.”

Tampa Bay’s visitor numbers usually drop off after Labor Day and don’t pick up again until the new year before peaking around spring break. But this year, spring break came as coronavirus did, devastating local businesses that are still trying to make up lost revenue.

Hillsborough County has long been tasked with crafting a tourism identity separate from beaches by attracting large-scale events — like Wrestlemania, which was canceled in April, or the Super Bowl, which is scheduled to be in Tampa in February. The Tampa Convention Center is usually booked, feeding local hotel stays. Since March, 63 events to be held at the convention center were called off or rescheduled. Business groups have called off hotel conferences and weddings booked in banquet halls are in limbo.

“There is no sugar coating this reality,” said Bob Morrison, the executive director of the Hillsborough County Hotel Motel Association.

But Morrison is noticing subtle shifts: Virtual business meetings are becoming smaller in-person hotel meetings. Banquets halls are hosting some smaller wedding parties. Children’s sporting tournaments, a quiet boon for the local tourism industry, are still being held.

Una Garvey, the convention center’s director, said business and association gatherings have been rescheduled and new ones are still being booked all the way up to 2027. She said event planners are eager for a time they can feel safe in large groups.

“We should be proud we’re in a better positions than other cities,” Garvey said, referring to the number of upcoming events. “We have suffered through this experience but we are going to regain quickly.”

Related: Ahead of what’s expected to be a busy tourism weekend, the county’s visitor bureau says: Spread out. Mask up.

From hotels to small local shops, business owners are eager for that bounce back — whenever it comes. Even though Hillsborough’s modest occupancy rates of 40 to 45 percent are higher than other cities not known for access to nature, it’s unclear how long they can survive on limited business.

Morrison worries about what happens as the money from the federal Paycheck Protection Program loans runs out. Hotels are already operating with limited staffs, having furloughed the bulk of their workers after all-time low occupancy rates in March and April.

Up until COVID-19, the demand for Tampa hotels had been growing. The massive JW Marriott Tampa on Water Street is scheduled to open before the year ends. Ybor’s newest boutique hotel, Hotel Haya, is scheduled to open within a couple weeks. Other high-rise hotels are under construction and slated to open next year.

“On one hand, it’s absolutely what the market needed,” Morrison said, “On the other side of the coin, this season probably the toughest for new inventory to be introduced.”

Corrada’s team at Visit Tampa Bay has been retooling its marketing to reach travelers with outdoorsy interests. Their ads emphasize the River Walk, kayaking, hiking and biking destinations within Hillsborough. They’re trying to attract those from drivable distances looking for a staycation, the same way Pinellas has done with its beaches. It’s just more of a challenge without the beach.

Corrada said those online ads recently pulled in $3 million worth of hotel bookings, which was nearly all leisure travelers. He said Visit Tampa Bay — which had to lay off 40 of its staffers because of the pandemic — will spend another up to $3 million on similar marketing in the coming months.

Florents Kabamba waits for his car after checking out of the Hilton Tampa Downtown. Florents felt safe and comfortable with the hotel staff’s efforts during his stay, on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Tourists not only fill hotels, Corrada said, but they spend big at restaurants and stores. They pay bed taxes for hotel stays and sales taxes while shopping and dining.

“The income tax we don’t have in Florida is because we are so healthy on the tourism side you can make up the revenue with people out of state coming and spending money here,” he said.

Tourists, he said, pay for transportation and education. Florida is built to function largely off the money spent by outsiders.

For hoteliers, it’s survival mode — holding on until, they hope, a vaccine is mass produced and the Super Bowl, at least in some capacity, still comes to town.

At the Hilton Tampa Downtown, there are travelers hunched over laptops in the lobby, spread several feet apart. Each of their rooms comes with a set of Lysol wipes. There are no more loose pens or menus left at their bedside. Room service is delivered sealed in takeout containers.

“Although we are not in the same world as last year,” said Aguilera, the hotel manager, “we have kept our doors open,”

In 2020, that means something.

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