Atlanta hotels find business from unconventional guests amid pandemic

Health care staff, students, teleworkers courted as vacancies top 90%

Local hotels are finding lodgers from unconventional sources as they struggle to fill vacant rooms amid  a coronavirus-triggered plunge in travel.

Instead of road warriors and vacationers, at least a few metro Atlanta rooms are being booked by health care workers and college students seeking temporary shelter. Some other rooms are occupied by locals who want a quiet place to work, away from their crowded homes.

Hilton and American Express are donating up to 1 million rooms across the country to frontline medical professionals who need a place to stay, or need to limit contact with family members, or just want some quiet time to decompress. Among the local hotels participating are the downtown Embassy Suites and Hilton Atlanta, the latter dedicating one floor to the initiative.

Other hotel buildings have been marshaled to house cruise ship passengers or homeless people amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The downtown Embassy Suites also has a couple dozen other regular guests — Morehouse College students who needed a place to stay after their dorms closed. College officials have dubbed the hotel "Morehouse Downtown."

Inside the hotel, “we see a couple guests coming here and there, but for the most part it’s really just us,” said Morehouse student Daquan Spratley, a senior from Pittsburgh majoring in film.

At the midtown Artmore Hotel,“We have some people who just want to get away from the kids for a night, or are going stir crazy,” said Wauquin Vela, the general manager.

That isn’t nearly enough to hang up a “no vacancy” sign — only about 10 to 12 of the Artmore’s 103 rooms are occupied on a typical night these days, according to Vela.

Despite discounted rates, by late March and early April, local hotels averaged just 8% occupancy, according to the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. A year ago, hotels were 81% full.

"We're still in dire straits," said Jim Sprouse, executive director of the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association. "I'm talking to hoteliers where they've laid off 90% of their employees."

The association has started a weekly "pop-up pantry" with the Atlanta Community Food Bank to provide groceries to laid off hotel workers, and hopes that federal stimulus funding will help.

A number of local hotels have suspended operations, including luxury establishments like the Waldorf Astoria and Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta, downtown stalwarts like the Hyatt Regency Atlanta and others including Loews Atlanta, Sheraton Atlanta, Embassy Suites in Buckhead, Hyatt Place at Centennial Olympic Park and the Omni hotels at CNN Center and The Battery, according to the visitors bureau.

It’s part of a global wave of hotel closures. Marriott International has closed roughly 25% of its hotels. Hilton Worldwide has suspended operations across many of its hotels as people around the world are told to stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Some Airbnb and VRBO vacation rentals meanwhile have been put on hold by Gov. Brian Kemp's executive order suspending short-term vacation rentals of 30 days or less across Georgia. Some Airbnb hosts are looking for long-term renters as an alternative.

“It’s causing financial hardship to us, no question,” said Airbnb host Carin Melet, who worked with her mortgage company to be granted a forbearance on her East Cobb house.

Melet has a family in her house who was displaced by a house fire and booked her home before Kemp’s order took effect. With parents, two kids and two dogs, “they can’t go to a hotel,” she said.

At "Morehouse Downtown," 24 students who didn't have elsewhere to go after dorms closed were placed at the hotel by college officials with the help of donations from alumni and others. Morehouse College Dean Maurice Washington said he drew on his experience when he was working at New York University during 9/11 and students needed to be relocated.

The Embassy Suites has two-room suites that can each house two students with a common area. The college was able to secure a discounted rate of $89 a night per suite from mid-March until May 15, the end of the semester.

The students can continue with their coursework online and maintain a sense of community. Four are resident advisors helping to look after the others.

Of $260,000 in donations from alumni and friends of the college during a March fundraising campaign, about $80,000 will pay for the hotel rooms. Other funds go toward expenses for other students such as flights or bus rides home, gift cards for gas or money for meals. Microsoft donated Surface devices for students who don't have computers or other tablets for online classes.

Other hotel chains are trying to think outside the box — like Red Roof, whose properties include Red Roof Inns, Red Roof Plus, HomeTowne Studios and Red Collection hotels.

In addition to discounts for first responders, Red Roof is offering discounted rates for students and day rates for people looking for somewhere to work remotely. The chain realized it needed to look at “what are the needs of travelers now, as opposed to looking back at only traditional needs,” said Red Roof President Andrew Alexander.

Alexander said his son, a junior at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, heard some international students decided it wasn’t a good idea to return home. With many international flights halted, they were concerned about getting back to campus for a summer session, for example.

With weekly discounts and an additional 30% discount, the cost for a room at a Red Roof property can be around $1,000 a month, according to Alexander.

The chain's occupancy rates are in the 35-40% range, higher than many others, according to Alexander. He said economy hotels have regular clients like long-haul truck drivers, bus drivers and utility inspectors who are still working and need places to stay.

At the Red Roof Plus in Smyrna, owner Prem Patel said some of his guests have been business people who “are staying at home, and they need to kind of get out.”

Patel said he had gotten a few dozen such day-rate bookings starting at $29, and a handful of rooms booked by students at a 30% discount.

“We offer them a special discount where they can come in the morning and take a Zoom call or conference call,” and stay for a few hours or for the day, he said.

Hilton hotels in Atlanta donating rooms for frontline medical professionals

Hilton Atlanta

Canopy by Hilton Atlanta Midtown

Embassy Suites by Hilton Atlanta Centennial Olympic Park

Dozens of Hampton Inn, DoubleTree and Hilton Garden Inn properties

Source: Hilton