Metro Atlanta hotels see first signs of slow recovery

Atlanta's battered hotel industry is entering the first stages of a gradual recovery, as some hotels reopen and others see a slow return of guests.

But occupancy is still well below 50% on average, thousands of workers have been laid off or furloughed, and properties' new policies for social distancing and sanitizing are expected to change the experience of staying at a hotel for the foreseeable future.

Hoteliers say there has been a gradual pickup in vacationers staying in beach areas and destinations near home, but few are flying in to visit Atlanta, particularly as some attractions remain closed and business travel is mostly shut down.

Where travelers are returning to is “very dependent on what type of hotel and where,” said Jim Sprouse, executive director of the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association.

Robert Woolridge, general manager of the W Atlanta Buckhead, said his occupancy rates were down to 2%-5% in April and most of May. Other W hotels in Midtown and downtown suspended operations.

"Recently here, we've seen a spike," with occupancy rates up to 50% Memorial Day weekend, he said. The hotel now averages 10%-15% full, he said. Only half of the hotel's 12 floors are open.

"It's definitely staycationers here within the state, and then we're seeing a lot of drive-market traffic" from Florida and the Carolinas, Woolridge said. "Nobody's really flying."

He said weekends are bringing more bookings, and many reservations come on short notice, within 10 days. Some customers may be driving in to shop in Buckhead or visit friends or family in Atlanta.

Woolridge is hopeful the Fourth of July will bring another jump in business.

The biggest challenges

In downtown, the reopening of the Georgia Aquarium Monday, June 15 is expected to help draw more hotel stays. "We need those attractions to reopen, particularly if we're addressing the leisure traveler — they've got to have something to do." Sprouse said.

Large downtown convention hotels and luxury hotels have been the hardest, Sprouse said.

Nearly 240 conventions scheduled for this year or early 2021 have been canceled, according to the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. There's hope Gov. Brian Kemp's executive order last week allowing conventions to restart with restrictions in July will help, but a full recovery could take a year or more.

The rapid emptying of hotels after the coronavirus halted almost all travel has had a devastating impact on the thousands of people who work in the hospitality industry.

Thousands of Atlanta hotel workers were laid off or furloughed starting in March, with some properties furloughing as much as 95% of workers.

Among the hotels that reported mass layoffs or closures to the state are Marriott hotels in Buckhead, Midtown and in the Atlanta airport area, the Ritz-Carlton, Sheraton Atlanta downtown, Hyatt, Hilton Atlanta Airport, The Hotel at Avalon, Crowne Plaza Atlanta Airport, Renaissance Atlanta Midtown, and InterContinental Buckhead. The American Hotel & Lodging Association estimated early in the pandemic that 24,200 hotel jobs would be lost in Georgia, along with more than 100,000 job losses in sectors supported by the hotel industry in the state. Updated figures were not found.

New protocols

Even as hotels reopen and welcome more guests, the customer experience has changed and some amenities are still shuttered.

The W Buckhead’s wet deck, or swimming pool, remains closed “because it’s not a large area. It would be difficult to exercise social distancing,” Woolridge said.

The W has installed Plexiglas dividers at the front desk and concierge, social distancing markers on the floor, and is limiting the elevator to three people unless it’s a family. Employees wear masks, and the company is checking employees’ temperatures before they enter. A period of 24 hours is allowed between booking individual rooms to allow staff to clean them under new protocols.

“What’s clear is, how we do business moving forward has changed forever,” Woolridge said, similar to how 9/11 permanently changed airline travel and airport security. “I liken this to that. It’s really changing the way we travel and the way we spend time in hotels now.”

The Marriott chain is rolling out electrostatic sprayers to sanitize surfaces and is testing UV light technology to sanitize guest keys.

Hilton has partnered with the maker of Lysol and Mayo Clinic for a new cleaning program, and is putting a room seal on doors to indicate that the room has not been accessed since being thoroughly cleaned. It also has contactless check-in at some hotels and is expanding its use of digital key technology.

Some in the industry have pushed for state or federal legislation to grant liability protections for businesses reopening and taking precautions during the pandemic. Past lawsuits such as litigation over the Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the Sheraton Atlanta hotel last year demonstrate the risks that raise concerns.

Reopening hotels

COVID-19 drove a number of major Atlanta hotels to suspend operations, including the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Waldorf Astoria, Loews Atlanta, Candler Hotel, Omni Hotel at CNN Center and others, according to the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The ACVB, which plans a staycations campaign this summer, says some have reopened, including the Sheraton Atlanta, Four Seasons, Omni Hotel at the Battery and Hyatt Place Atlanta - Centennial Park. The Great Wolf Lodge in LaGrange was reopening Tuesday.

The Four Seasons Atlanta is among those offering staycation packages including overnight parking, an in-room movie and late checkout.

The Barnsley Resort, about an hour drive from Atlanta, reopened Friday, June 12, with new sanitation procedures, social distancing measures and reduced capacity. There are capacity limits for the pool and restaurants, but the gardens and golf course are open, along with other outdoor activities.

Airbnb said nearly half of respondents to a survey it commissioned prefer to stay within a day’s drive for their first trip once lockdown restrictions lift, and more than half of its bookings in May were for bookings within 200 miles of customer homes.

The company is adding features to its website for local trip ideas and nearby getaways, and plans a summer campaign called “Go Near.” It rolled out an enhanced cleaning protocol that hosts can sign on to for a “special call-out” on their listing, or they can opt into a “Booking Buffer” that blocks out reservations for 72 hours between stays.

Among the top U.S. destinations for Airbnb reservations are Panama City Beach, Destin and Miramar Beach in Florida, Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, the Smoky Mountains and Branson.

Jay Roberts, CEO of apartment hotel company Domio, said he has also seen beach properties recovering quickly, with his properties in Miami selling out on a recent weekend.

“Florida is the best-performing market in the United States right now, and New York is the worst performing,” Roberts said. “You’re seeing a lot of travelers that want to get out of their homes. People have been cooped up…. They want to go to the beach.”

But people are staying away from urban markets, Roberts said, "because they're still closed for the most part" and protests have caused intermittent closures of some streets and businesses and damaged some properties including the temporarily-shuttered Omni at CNN Center.

There's also concern about the potential for a resurgence of the coronavirus that could prompt a retreat of the fledgling recovery.

That’s particularly worrisome for hotel workers in the Atlanta area waiting to return to their jobs.

The callbacks have been slow, with many hotels still operating with a fraction of their staff as business slowly picks up, Sprouse said. Some workers may not be called back until the fall, he added.

“To me, the shocking thing is how far it’s stretching out,” Sprouse said. “It all depends on consumer confidence.”