Hotels Innovate as Bookings Plummet

Credit: Bayberry Inn
Francesca Amery's Bayberry Inn in Ashland.

COVID-19 threatens disaster in the hospitality industry, but patrons and community leaders have been stepping up

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Francesca Amery could finally take a breath. 

Her six-bedroom Ashland inn was booked through the summer. It was the beginning of March and the busy season was about to start. 

Soon tourists would come from all over the world to get a taste of Ashland’s culture, cuisine and outdoors, and her business would be in the black. 

She had already filled her fridge and pantry with $800 worth of food when the cancellations began. 

“I heard people’s hearts breaking on the phone,” says Amery. “They said they wished they didn’t have to cancel, but they were afraid.”

One cancellation came from a couple who had been quarantined in Spain and had planned on making Ashland their wedding destination. 

“She’d just had to cancel her wedding and her honeymoon, but she told me she understood it was hard for me too, and offered to pay half of the booking anyway,” says Amery, recalling the emotional conversation with the bride. “I was in tears, I felt so grateful.”

Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, domestic travel decreased 14% in the first week of March, according to travel booking company Hopper. The company’s report shows an even steeper slowdown for tourist destinations, with travel declining closer to 30%.

Short-term rental company Airbnb announced a full refund policy for guests, which allows all customers to cancel existing reservations at no charge. While the policy protects consumers, it leaves renters at a loss.

The short-term rental company sent a memo to legislators in Congress, asking the government to help people who rely on Airbnb for their income. 

But it is not only small lodging businesses that are in trouble. According to an estimate by the American Hotel and Lodging Association, 44% of hotel employees are projected to lose their job next month. 

Neuman Hotel Group,which owns four Oregon hotels, had 350 active employees before the virus hit. After a rash of cancellations, the hotel group furloughed nearly two-thirds of its staff.

The group has been able to retain the rest of its employees by coming up with new ways to make money, including having its restaurants offer curbside delivery, as well as preparing family-style casserole dinners to-go. 

 “Our employees who were furloughed are able to use their paid vacation and sick leave balances,” says chief operating officer Don Anway. “Our plan is to send out communication a couple times each month while our employees are furloughed.”  

Some local governments are shutting down the hospitality sector completely, such as  Seaside and Clatsop counties, which have suspended all hotel operations. 

But in times of hardship, there are those who rise to the occasion.

The Washington County Visitors Associationissued a sustainability grant to assist hotels in the county. The association will commit $560,000 to be dispersed to the 56 hotels in the Tualatin Valley, providing $10,000 to each of the struggling establishments. 

Amery says her local banks have stepped up with loans and lines of credit to keep her head above water. 

“I’m so impressed with Banner Bank and Rogue Credit Union,” she says. “They’re on the front lines like doctors. They’re saving my life right now.”

Her inn is still able to get a few visitors, and she says her smaller operation is able to offer accommodations on very short notice, which has proven beneficial. 

One woman drove down to Ashland to retrieve her daughter from college and was desperate for a place to stay. Amery had unplugged the appliances and turned off all the lights and water, but she reopened to accommodate them. 

Another couple decided they needed a night away from all the stress, and chose to visit Ashland for the husband’s birthday.

“I think this virus is going to test our values. It makes you reevaluate what’s important to you. Right now, I just feel blessed to live in my community,” says Amery, who donated her unused groceries to a food bank, and has arranged a shopping rotation with her neighbors. “I’ll freak out tomorrow.”

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