GOT RESERVATIONS? Nervous hotels and restaurants catering to a nervous public

The Gaylord of the Rockies hotel and convention center in Aurora. After weeks of closure, the mammoth hotel, largest in the state, is set to reopen to the public June 23.

Social butterflies rejoice. Kind of.

Gov. Jared Polis granted Coloradans a tantalizing length of leash this week when he announced that a gaggle of social hubs could begin to once again welcome the weary masses, offering a glimpse of so-called normalcy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Polis granted watering holes, summer camps and certain outdoor events the green light to re-open at limited capacity, curtailing the months-long dark period that has left an economic carcass in its wake.

The numbers have been bleak. Hotel occupancy rates this spring were down about 50% statewide, and as many as 400 restaurants had permanently closed across the state as of the beginning of June, according to industry analysts.

And despite Polis’ decision to move the state into a more relaxed phase of restrictions, hotel and restaurant owners fear the damage caused by the economic decimation is irreversible.

In this May 2020 photo provided by InterContinental Hotels Group, a masked front desk agent gestures to a hotel guest at a Holiday Inn Express in Austin, Texas. Big hotel companies are used to competing on price or perks. Now, they’re competing on cleanliness. Hotels are making visible changes in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, from masked clerks to prepackaged breakfasts at their buffets. (InterContinental Hotels Groups via AP)

In a statewide survey of 71 hotel owners conducted earlier this spring, 47% said they won’t recover from the recent losses for at least a year and a half, according to Amie Mayhew, president and CEO of the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association. In another survey conducted last month, nearly half of Colorado restaurateurs said they were in jeopardy of permanently closing in the next three months if current capacity caps remain in place, according to Sonia Riggs, CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association.

“We’ll likely continue to see restaurants close through the summer and beyond,” Riggs wrote in an email.

Those caps currently remain in place, but the state has suggested that areas that show comparatively few new cases of the virus could see those limits eased.

“Over time, the 50% threshold may be increased up to even 60% or 75% if a region holds their transmission levels steady and continues to demonstrate they are capable of meeting the performance metrics of treatment, testing, case investigation, contract tracing and outbreak response,” officials wrote in materials
released this week.

Like much of the state, Aurora’s largest jurisdiction, Arapahoe County, has been reporting a declining number of hospitalizations related to COVID-19, though the area still boasts some of the highest case numbers in Colorado. The county reported 4,818 confirmed cases as of June 15, according to state health department data, placing it behind only Denver in terms of total number of cases.

Last week, the board of county commissioners submitted a variance request to the state for gyms, restaurants, religious centers and indoor malls, though county officials have yet to hear back from the state, according to a spokesman. Officials expect a response by the end of the week.

Still, Polis and hospitality industry leaders remain optimistic that Coloradans will trickle out of their homes as the mercury rises, ideally buoying a shaky industry.

Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

“There is a fair amount of hope, and I think it’s a well-reasoned hope, that people will want to travel with their families to get out of the house that they’ve been in for the past several months,” Mayhew said.

In an interview Tuesday with The Sentinel, Polis said residents’ travel decisions ultimately hang on individual appetites for risk.

“If people are doing activities, we want it to be in as safe a way as is reasonably possible,” he said. “Is it perfectly safe? No. Is it a reasonable risk that some people want to take and others don’t? Yes.”

In Aurora, the industry gaze has been set on the hulking Gaylord Rockies Hotel and Convention Center, the 1,501-room megalopolis rising out of the northeast Aurora prairie. The convention complex was constructed after years of infighting over state tax incentives, It’s been closed since late March. It’s slated to open again on June 25.

Mayhew said the Gaylord is in a unique position in Aurora, and her group has been vocally lobbying the state to allow the convention center to hold limited commercial gatherings in its nearly 500,000 square feet of meeting space. The life blood of the complex, many such conferences and gatherings have been cancelled through the end of the year.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis makes a point during a news conference on the state’s efforts against the spread of the new coronavirus, Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

“What we are experiencing is a devastation to our tourism industry,” Polis said.

Unlike restaurants, hotels in the metro area were never forced to close during the pandemic, though many institutions have been shuttered for months due to a lack of business, Mayhew said.

“Many of them voluntarily closed because they just didn’t have any business,” she said. “And a lot of them remain voluntarily closed.”

Some entities received a sliver of hope this week thanks to Polis’ new plans to allow limited indoor attendance at larger venues. The largest facilities, which would include Gaylord, would be permitted to host up to 100 people at time in a single room, regardless of how big it is.

That’s still too low, according to Mayhew.

“The capacity limitations on the above guidance seem very low to us and we are submitting comments to the state later today in hopes of getting these raised,” she said on June 16.

In the meantime, local officials are looking at other ways to inject some helium into a slumping sector.

Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Many local, state and regional tourism and hospitality leaders are promoting so-called “stay-cations” this summer in an attempt to grant a reprieve to withering businesses.

“I think travel will start very locally, with people coming up from Colorado Springs to Denver, or Denver to Breckenridge, or whatever that might be,” Mayhew said.

Instead of hopping on a plane, reserving an expensive hotel and boasting about exotic, overpriced cuisine on the internet, Randi Morritt, the marketing director at Visit Aurora, is hoping locals will consider booking a weekend getaway at the Gaylord, or try one of Aurora’s diverse eateries along the Havana Business Improvement District.

“This is a great new position for Aurora,” Morritt said. “People didn’t think of Aurora as a leisure destination, but people are starting to explore their own neighborhood and find things where they thought they had to go farther away to experience.”

Bruce Dalton, president of Visit Aurora, told city council members last month the Gaylord, which opened in late 2019 and announced a plan earlier this year to add 300 more hotel rooms, would suffer a $10 million drop in revenue because of the virus. While not confirmed by hotel management, some staff said layoffs were in the hundreds when the pandemic brought travel to a screeching halt.

Dalton told lawmakers that Aurora hotels were at a 12% occupancy rate in April, compared to 70% the same time last year.

To worsen matters, Denver International Airport saw a 95% decline in travelers in April from the previous year. That meant hardly anybody was stopping for a meal on their way from Aurora’s outskirts to Colorado’s high country, something that was common before the pandemic.

Business at the airport has picked up some and people are slowly returning to restaurants that are offering limited dine-in options. But even the cautious re-opening measures don’t promise that many businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector, will survive.

Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

A survey from Visit Aurora in April found that 92% of businesses they represent could not remain open for longer than four months under strict social distancing guidelines. Now, restaurants in particular are looking to add space to accommodate more in-person guests.

Trevor Vaughn, manager of the city’s tax and licensing division, said 32 Aurora eateries have already applied for permits to temporarily add more patio space. It’s a big jump from maybe the handful of restaurants that are typically applying for that. For now, the city has waived its fees on the licenses.Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman has said the city is looking to be as accommodating as possible to allow restaurants to create dining space on sidewalks and parking lots.

In this April 2020 photo provided by Marriott, a Marriott associate using an electrostatic sprayer to clean public areas at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott in New York. Marriott, Hilton and other big hotel companies are used to competing on price or perks. Now they are competing on cleanliness. From masked clerks at the front desk to shuttered buffets, hotels are making visible changes in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. (Marriott via AP)

Hotel changes

Marriott, Hilton and other big hotel companies are used to competing on price or perks. Now they are competing on cleanliness.

From masked clerks at the front desk to shuttered buffets, hotels are making visible changes in the wake of the pandemic. Signage will tout new cleaning regimens: Red Roof Inns promise “RediClean,” while Hilton boasts of “CleanStay with Lysol.”

Hotels are still mostly empty; in the U.S., occupancy stood at 37% the week ending May 30, down 43% from the same period a year ago, according to STR, a data and consulting firm. But leisure travel is starting to pick up, and hotels see cleaning standards as a way to soothe jittery guests — and possibly win back business from rivals like home-sharing companies like Airbnb.

“I think, more than ever, customers are going to be looking for that seal of approval,” said Phil Cordell, Hilton’s head of global new brand development, who is leading the group developing the company’s new cleaning standards.

Some hotel brands are more stringent than others, says Larry Yu, a professor of hospitality management at George Washington University. He notes that Accor Hotels, a French company, has developed accreditation standards that its hotels must meet in order to reopen.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signals to handlers that he needs a couple of minutes while waiting for a response on his mobile device before entering a news conference on summer tourism and the state’s efforts against the spread of the new coronavirus, Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

But Yu said enhanced cleaning is happening everywhere.

“Everybody is doing it, because it is now expected by consumers,” he said.

Guests are already seeing differences. David Whitesock, the chief innovation officer for Face It Together, an addiction counseling company, moved from Denver to upstate New York over Memorial Day weekend. He stayed at Marriott hotels in Iowa and Ohio along the way.

There were some oddities. Police tape separated him from the front desk in Iowa, and the hotel gave him a key card even though he would have preferred to unlock his room door using Marriott’s app. Whitesock brought his own food, but noticed prepackaged breakfasts laid out where buffets used to be.

But he said his rooms looked, felt and smelled cleaner than they used to. All the guests wore masks and respectfully kept their distance, he said.

“I felt like it was a safe place to be, that they had done the best that they possibly could given the circumstances,” Whitesock said. “A lot of it comes down to, do you trust the hotels and the people who you are going to come into contact with there?”

Despite hotels’ precautions, however, visiting them is still risky, said Dr. Albert Ko, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Yale School of Public Health. Hotels can bring together travelers from states or countries where transmission rates are higher, for example, and many carriers may not be showing symptoms.

“That’s the kind of thing we’re worried about in terms of public health,” he said. “Those settings can be the cause of outbreaks.”

Hilton and other companies have called in experts to develop new standards. Marriott and IHG — the parent company of Holiday Inn — are working with EcoLab, which makes industrial cleaning products. IHG is also getting advice from the Cleveland Clinic. Hilton has partnered with the Mayo Clinic. Hyatt is working with ISSA, a global cleaning industry association.

Hotels walked through the guest experience and made changes at every touch point. Hilton’s hotel shuttles will be disinfected hourly and passengers will have access to wipes. MGM Resorts, which is reopening four Las Vegas hotels on June 4, will ask restaurant guests to view digital menus on their own phones.

Changes vary by hotel. Guests may find lobby furniture moved further apart or hand sanitizer stations next to elevator keys. Shared coffee stations are gone. DoubleTree still offers warm chocolate chip cookies, but only upon request.

Inside the rooms, surfaces like TV remotes and light switches will get an extra cleaning. Best Western is getting rid of decorative pillows, pens and other unnecessary items. Red Roof is telling staff to bag up dirty sheets inside its rooms, to limit spread of disease. Once a room is cleaned and disinfected, Hilton will put a sticker on the door so guests know no one has been inside.

Ko said in addition to disinfecting surfaces, hotels might want to consider moving dining outside, where the risk of transmission is lower, or limiting capacity in tight spaces like elevators. Marriott’s plan includes limiting capacity in restaurants and gyms and ensuring people are distanced in elevator lines.

Cordell said Hilton plans to keep pools and fitness centers open and clean them regularly.

“Fitness and wellness is so fundamental to the guests getting back in their routine,” he said.

Hotels are experimenting with new technology. Marriott and others are using electrostatic sprayers to spritz lobbies with disinfectant. Many hotel brands are also encouraging guests to access their rooms using their mobile phones. Hilton says 4,800 of its 6,100 hotels have that capability so far. Marriott offers keyless check-in in 3,200 hotels.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky thinks guests will prefer separate homes to hotels filled with people. Airbnb — which is also working with EcoLab and former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy — will continue to upgrade its cleaning protocols, he said.

“Health and cleanliness are going to be one of our biggest focuses,” he said.

But Yu said hotel chains can ensure franchisees are complying through their normal auditing process. That will be a challenge for Airbnb, he said, which has developed its own cleaning standards but may have more trouble ensuring that hosts comply.

— The Associated Press

In this Aug. 4, 2016 file photo, hikers descend a ridge inside Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park, Colo. Gov. Polis is endorsing trips to Colorado outdoors for those who weigh the risks and practice pandemic protocols. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, file)

Colorado out there

Colorado’s “vast outdoors” — as Polis has taken to referring to it — will likely be even more of an attraction this summer. There’s plenty of room to social distance and much of it is so close to home.

But the attraction of Colorado’s combination of local, state and federal land, bountiful camping spaces and inviting trails has some worried COVID-19 will spike again in communities that see a lot of visitors, like it did when the virus ravaged the high country during ski season.

States near Colorado — Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Oklahoma and Wyoming — are seeing upticks in COVID-19 cases, likely because of their swift re-openings, experts assume.

Polis said during a recent news conference that visitors to Colorado may indeed unknowingly bring the virus with them, but “it’s already here.” To that, he reminded Colorado’s tourism sector to be vigilant about hand-washing, wearing face coverings and social distancing.

“As Colorado continues to take positive steps toward reactivating our economy, the health and safety of both visitors and residents remain our highest priority,” said Colorado Tourism spokesperson Abby Leeper. “As people travel throughout Colorado, we encourage them to embrace our new interpretation of responsible tourism — showing care not only for our destinations but for the people who call Colorado home.”

Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

The governor has repeatedly warned residents that the specter of the virus will remain a looming threat for several more months, if not years.

“We hope and I am optimistic that there will be a vaccine later this year or early next year, but we have to prepare for a way of life that could last years,” Polis said.

Those warnings have grown more frequent as bordering states have seen cases increase to nearly 100 cases per 100,000 residents in recent weeks. Colorado’s rates have dropped to a quarter of those totals over the same time frame. Still, the rates are not nearly controlled, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy.

“We are not anywhere close to achieving herd immunity thresholds that would be needed to lead to decreases in transmission,” Herlihy said.

*This story originally misidentified the opening date of Gaylord Rockies as June 23. It is actually June 25. We regret the error.