So You Want to Open a Hotel? Now?


Before the pandemic began, the second location of The June Motel, a 24-room boutique hotel in Sauble Beach, Ontario, was set to open late last spring. To be fully ramped up for Lake Huron’s 2020 beach season was the goal.

Construction stopped in mid-April, however, leaving the property’s restaurant with half-installed floor tiles and guest rooms that hadn’t yet been coated in cheery blush-colored paint. April Brown and Sarah Sklash, the June’s co-owners, weighed three scenarios: not open at all; open as a rooms-for-rent Airbnb model without amenities; or push the opening until Labor Day.

“A lot of it came down to: Can we financially wait three months to open?” Ms. Brown said of their decision to delay. “The reason we were able to do that is that we got a lot of subsidies. We got grants; we kept several employees on payroll. There was a lot of support from the Canadian government for the tourism and hospitality sector.”

Over the past decade, tourism destinations around the world saw record hotel development. In 2019 alone, a global construction binge increased the number of hotel rooms by 8 percent compared to the year before. But in 2020 — and, now, 2021 — the lodging industry has faced almost unbelievable challenges: increasingly complicated restrictions on domestic and international travel, virus safety protocols that require resources and training, and strict testing mandates and quarantine requirements for travelers.

Delaying the opening gave Ms. Brown and Ms. Sklash time to create new policies and determine their new priorities. They implemented a shift-coverage system, should a staffer awaken with a fever, and tinkered with personal touches — in-room canned wine, for example, served as a good stand-in for a glass that would have otherwise been poured for a guest at check-in.

At first, the housekeeping team serviced rooms upon request only and left newly vacated rooms empty for at least a day before cleaning them. That strategy worked fine until peak season hit in June, driving occupancy above 50 percent.

“No problem; we’ll buy commercial electrostatic sprayers and sanitize the room,” said Glenn E. Tuckman, the chief operating officer and managing director of the Cavalier Resort Complex, the $350 million, mixed-use complex that includes the new Marriott. “Problem was: No one had them. The airlines bought them all before the hotel industry realized their value. We found ours on eBay, but we paid for it.”

As hotel owners and operators have confronted the challenges of the pandemic, Dr. Walsh said, safety has emerged as the biggest priority.

“Safety is paramount — it’s the essential part of bringing the guests back,” she said. “And the challenge for hotels is showing that they are safe and secure.”

“There was no playbook for opening a hotel during a pandemic,” said Susan Santiago, the head of lifestyle and Miraval operations at Hyatt, which owns the hotel. “We essentially had to write it and think about how to put it into action at the same time.”

Since the hotel opened, most weeks have sold out at the occupancy limit of 50 percent, Ms. Santiago said.

“Most hotels were doing the opposite: not having any food or beverage,” he said. “Since we were a brand-new hotel, we didn’t want to open without having certain services available to people who would be experiencing this hotel the first time.”


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