May 11, 2021

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Just Do Travel

Volusia hotel experience is different a year after COVID’s arrival

5 min read

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A year after Volusia County’s tourism industry took its most devastating hit from the coronavirus pandemic, visitors are flocking again to the World’s Most Famous Beach.

Motivated by the availability of vaccines and stimulus money, as well as raging cases of cabin fever, they have converged in recent weeks on hotel lobbies and beaches, a welcome scene reminiscent of bygone “normal” times.

Yet the pandemic still lingers — with case numbers rising in recent weeks and new unpredictable variants in the mix. And its impact is expected to have long-lasting effects on the hotel industry here and nationwide, resulting in new ways to do business that could last even after COVID’s threat has passed.

Plastic shields at reservation desks, copious hand sanitizer stations and the end of daily housekeeping visits already have become routine practice at many area hotels.

Such changes reflect new expectations of travelers, an outlook that isn’t likely to change soon, said Rob Burnetti, general manager of the 212-room Shores Resort & Spa in Daytona Beach Shores.

“What will differentiate a hotel is the ability to maintain and keep the cleanliness standards that people expect,” Burnetti said. “It will become the new normal. I hate that term, but it’s the reality.

“I think it’s just going to mirror society and that’s the direction everybody is going,” he said. “Everybody will have a heightened sense of this potential for infection, so whatever you can do to minimize that risk you’re going to benefit from.”  

That broader view is echoed by Bob Davis, president and CEO of the Lodging & Hospitality Association of Volusia County. Hotels will need to respond to it, he said.

“The country is going to change, it’s not just our industry,” Davis said. A generation of children learned new habits during the pandemic year that will be carried into adulthood as consumers, he said.

“They will take that with them and it will change what we do as a country,” he said. “Whether we have the virus or not those habits are embedded now. It’s not a passing thing anymore.”

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Among the visitors strolling the Daytona Beach Boardwalk on a recent afternoon, Ronny and Diane Guin, of Booneville, Mississippi, said that they had delayed their annual trip to the World’s Most Famous Beach twice during the pandemic, but had decided the time was right to return after both had received vaccines.

“We didn’t come for our anniversary in October and we didn’t come for my birthday in February,” said Diane, 71, a retired art teacher. “Now that we’ve both had the vaccination, we thought the time was right.”

The Guins have noticed some changes in procedures and policies related to the pandemic, but nothing that has affected their routine, they said. There’s no daily housekeeping at the condo unit they are renting for the week at the Club Wyndham Ocean Walk, but they wouldn’t miss it even in a hotel, they said.

“We don’t need it,” said Ronny, also 71. “It’s just the two of us and we’re out here (on the beach) more than we’re in the room.”

‘The most important part’

For guests arriving at the front desk at The Shores, the greeting includes a letter from Burnetti explaining precautions and added measures that hotel staff is taking related to the virus.

Atop the list is the hotel’s new policy that no employees enter rooms to do housekeeping during a guest’s stay. Towels, bathroom items or other amenities will be delivered if requested.

The letter includes 11 bulleted items that range from cleaning procedures for high-touch surfaces and hotel laundry to rules for the hotel fitness center that is opened only for one party at a time by appointment and then cleaned between each visit.

On a recent morning, the hotel’s director of housekeeping, Kim Felton, oversees the daily operation from her utilitarian office in a concrete corridor off the hotel lobby. A sign on the wall offers a reminder of high-touch areas that must be disinfected after a guest checks out: telephones, TV remote controls, door handles, toilet handles, all flat surfaces, light switches and AC controls.

By the pool, Rene Andreatta, the hotel’s director of engineering, sprays deck chairs with an electrostatic disinfectant from a tank loaded on a carrier labeled the “Corona We Care Cart.”

In guest rooms, there have been a few subtle changes tied to the pandemic: No more drinking glasses in kitchens or bathrooms. No writing pads or pens in nightstand drawers.

Much of the new routine is merely an emphasis on procedures that the staff at The Shores, as well as at other hotels, has been following for years. It also offers an assurance that has become more important to guests, she said.

“People want a place where they can feel safe and comfortable,” Felton said. “That’s the most important part. You can’t relax if you don’t feel safe.”

North along State Road A1A at the 744-room Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort, the area’s largest hotel, there have been similar changes in housekeeping and other daily operations tied to the pandemic, said Jim Berkley, the hotel’s general manager.

It’s likely that at least some of those changes will become permanent as the hotel industry and the world around it enter into whatever becomes the “new normal,” he said.

“It’s a little early to declare, ‘This is how it’s going to be,’ but I have no doubt there are certain components in place now under COVID protocols that might become part of the permanent hotel environment moving forward,” Berkley said.

A move toward an elimination or more limited practice of daily housekeeping visits to guest rooms is among the possibilities, he said.

“Looking at how housekeeping is operating in every hotel in this country right now, I would not be surprised if we see a hybrid for housekeeping services,” he said. “Not a reduction, as much as blending of what guests truly want and what we’ve done for the past year.

“Not every guest wants housekeeping in their room every day; that’s a fact,” Berkley said. “Everybody (in the industry) is stepping back at this point, after a year of compliance with very strict protocols, to consider the future.”

Pent-up demand fuels optimism

Looking ahead at the key summer travel season, Berkley is among those optimistic about a rebound that has happened faster than he ever would have imagined at this time a year ago.

At that time, as the pandemic emerged, average hotel occupancy and Volusia County tourism bed tax collections both plummeted by a staggering 80% in April, by far the biggest decline on record.

Area downturn: Volusia hotel occupancy, bed taxes plummet 80%

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“April was the ultimate doomsday month,” Berkley said. “Most hoteliers were at 5% occupancy.”

By comparison, the Hilton has rebounded in the first quarter of the year to match its performance for the same period in 2019, a year before the pandemic hit, Berkley said.

“From the first day of Bike Week, Daytona Beach has been at 100% occupancy every night or close to it in most of the beachside hotels,” he said. “The destination is in high demand and that’s really good, all things considered, knowing how bloody things were last year.”

A year after the pandemic pole-axed the travel industry worldwide, the nation is poised for a potentially record summer, said Scott Smith, a hospitality professor and director of graduate studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

“The pent-up demand is just crazy,” said Smith, who worked as director of convention services in the early 1990s at the Daytona Marriott, the hotel that is now the Hilton Oceanfront Resort. “We have swung like a pendulum from no one wanting to travel to everyone wanting to travel and there’s a direct relationship to turning the corner on COVID with all the vaccinations.

“People have put off travel, they have saved money with the thinking that as soon as they can travel they are going to do it. We’re seeing record numbers in regards to demand.”

In Daytona Beach Shores, the 91-room Sun Viking Lodge also had a banner month in March, said longtime owner Gary Brown.

“It was a very good month for us, one of highest revenue months we’ve ever experienced,” Brown said. “All the people who didn’t come last year who are regulars decided to come this year. Plus, we had new customers just dying to get out. We’ve had a very busy spring break.”

At the Sun Viking Lodge, the problem is finding enough workers to maintain the busy pace of reservations, Brown said. It’s a problem that is being widely reported in hotels, restaurants and other service industries both here and nationally.

It’s a challenge tied to a combination of factors that include extended unemployment benefits and federal stimulus payments tied to the pandemic’s impact as well as wages that face increasing competition from new employers in the market.

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In March, it caused Brown to do something he has never done in 50 years as a hotel owner: He turned on the “No vacancy” sign with available rooms to rent because he didn’t have staff to clean them before other guests were due to arrive.

“I knew if I rented them wouldn’t have them ready for the reservations coming the next day,” Brown said. “So I had to sacrifice the revenue for the lack of labor.”

‘Our product is your safety’

The labor shortage of frontline workers is the hospitality industry’s biggest challenge coming out of the pandemic, said Burnetti, of The Shores Resort & Spa.

“Our people are working seven days a week, ungodly hours, to keep things going,” Burnetti said. “I’m concerned with number of hours our people need to work to keep us going right now. That is a very difficult thing to resolve, something that I believe eventually will lead to wage pressure on our end.”

The labor shortage also could play into decisions related to limiting traditional services, said Smith, the hospitality professor.

“Plus, there’s the idea that we have run the operation this way for a year now and people are kind of used to it,” he said. “A percentage of people, and I fall into that category, don’t need maid service. Just give me fresh towels and I’m good.”

Yet there’s also a downside to reducing services as traditional hotels battle competition from Airbnb and other peer-to-peer rentals, Smith said. The standards embraced by a hotel’s housekeeping staff separate traditional hotels from less consistent alternatives, he said.

“In the hotel industry, somebody needs to grab that mantle, that our product is your safety,” Smith said. “You can feel 100% secure going into this room. Hotels need to do a fantastic job of making people feel it’s clean, it’s disinfected and it’s safe.”