WORCESTER – The hotel industry may still be recovering from the impact of COVID-19 on the hospitality industry, but Worcester hotel staff said they are seeing positive signs as they head into a busy August.
James Karam, president and CEO of First Bristol Corp., which owns Homewood Suites by Hilton, an extended-stay hotel in Worcester, said his hotels in August are still seeing the benefits of renewed summer travel, more small-business meetings and the return of college students. Homewood Studios is also completely booked for College of the Holy Cross’ parents weekend from Oct. 22 to Oct 24.
“It’s the end of the summer, so people who haven’t taken their vacation yet start to really travel. Colleges start getting ready for the returning students and therefore, very often they have consultants or people affiliated with the university or college from different parts of New England who come to town to get ready for the opening,” Karam said. “And then the students, the parents show up and many times the parents are in town for two or three days to get the students set and acclimated.”
Karam said that business is up dramatically throughout the hotels First Bristol Corp. owns. Karam said that the increase in business is true for Homewood Suites.
“It’s been a steady increase since March. When the vaccinations started to kick in and the infection rate and hospitalization decreased dramatically, it was like somebody turned on a switch and business started to pick up and people started to travel,” Karam said. “When warm weather hit in May, I think people were just anxious to break out of the house and travel and visit locations, relatives, friends.”
While Karam said that business is not yet up to the blockbuster numbers of 2019, a record year for the hotel industry, he said business is currently not far behind.
“Leisure and business travel is picking up, the thing that is still slow is events and large groups at the DCU Center,” Karam said. “Things at the DCU are still a little slow, but I’m sure they’re going to pick up like all the other places that are starting to pick up.”
Worcester has seven hotels listed as members of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. While Worcester hotels benefitted from heavy biomedical activity during the pandemic, hotels still felt the downturn that hit the industry nationwide.
Recent releases from the American Hotel and Lodging Association show an industry that expects it to take more time to fully recover from one of its lowest periods. On July 20, the AHLA reported that nearly 500,000 hotel operations will likely not have returned by the end of 2021, that hotel occupancy is projected to drop by 10% from 2019 levels and that hotel room revenue will be down $44 billion compared to 2019.
The AHLA has launched an advertising campaign to get the message out that hotels are hiring. The association is claiming that hotels are offering employees more competitive pay, flexible scheduling and additional benefits.
In Massachusetts, the AHLA projects that the state will be down 12,851 hotel operations in 2021 compared to 2019. The state had 42,570 hotel jobs in 2019 and is expected to have 29,718 for 2021, a 30% drop.
Mary Simone, general manager of the AC Hotel by Marriott Worcester, said her hotel has also not gone back to 2019 levels yet, but the return of leisure travel and a trend of leisure travelers starting earlier in the week than before are among the factors that have improved business for the AC Hotel.
Simone said her hotel’s end of third quarter and start of fourth quarter are going well with her hotel having high bookings throughout August.
“It’s starting to feel a little bit like some of the things we used to see. It’s not all the same, but it’s starting to feel a little bit better,” Simone said.
The AC Hotel remained open throughout the pandemic thanks in part to hospital and DCU field hospital staff. Business from film sets have also helped the AC Hotel, Simone said. She added that the city’s adherence to COVID-19 protocols have also been beneficial for the hotels,
“Worcester has always been a safe city in regards to when COVID started, all the protocols and all that. Everyone knew that and we were filled with a lot of medical people, and it’s all paid off. We’re safe, we’re open, we’re ready for business,” Simone said.
Simone said that the hotel has seen improvement on a month-by-month basis throughout 2021.
Denis Dowdle, the key principal for Madison Properties, is looking to develop a hotel as part of the commercial real estate agency’s plans for developing the south area of Madison Street by Polar Park. Dowdle said the pandemic and changes to the market led to a change in plans for hotel development for the area.
The company’s master plan initially included two hotel sites adjacent to each other and have a dual-branded hotel on those two sites, Dowdle said. The current plan is to build one hotel that runs along Madison Street from the traffic light at Gold Street to right before Green Island Boulevard.
Dowdle said that there is more optimism in the hospitality industry than there was a few months ago and that he is cautiously hopeful that his team can move forward with constructing the hotel on an expedited basis. He said that Worcester’s hotels have improved in recent years.
“The Worcester hotel market has regained a lot of its vibrancy and I think over the last five to 10 years, there’s been some new developments and refurbishments of Worcester hotels, some of the older hotels have been taken out of service. So there’s been an updating of the product offerings from a hospitality standpoint,” he said.
While Madison Properties is still working through ideas for the hotel, Dowdle said that they believe the hotel will have around 115 rooms.
“We’re just trying to figure out what the best fit in the district is and what’s the best way to fit in the overall market given the competition that’s there today,” Dowdle said.
Discover Central Massachusetts Executive Director Monique Messier said that Central Massachusetts has been recovering at a faster rate than the state as a whole. According to the June Smith Travel Research report of hotels in Massachusetts, occupancy in Central Mass increased by 62% from the start of the year compared to Massachusetts, which increased by 17%.
Hotel occupancy in Central Mass. is a little over 68% as of June while the state as a whole had an occupancy of a little less than 67%.
“Leisure travel has just been unbelievable for us, we’ve been doing a lot of advertising to get the word out there that Worcester is open, Worcester is safe,” Messier said.
Messier said that hotels are telling her that they are very busy for all the weekends in August. Messier cited the return of leisure and business travel, Polar Park’s first season being in full effect and college move-ins for heavy activity in August.
“August will be a booming month for us here,” Messier said.
College move-ins in August this year will be night and day from 2020, Messier said.
“There’s no comparison to what we’ll see this August compared to last August with everything that had closed down and the student population just not coming back, that was a hard factor that hit the hospitality community during the pandemic,” Messier said. “This year, we’re hoping to see those number come back”
Sayed Saleh, asset and general manager of the Beechwood Hotel, said occupancy is picking up at a good pace at his hotel, with August and the fall looking strong.
“Over the past quarter, we are seeing positive and promising signs of increased market demand for our rooms, and much more demand for functions, small weddings, and business meetings,” Saleh said.
The Beechwood staff used the pandemic as an opportunity to renovate several floors and guest bathrooms. Saleh said guests have already expressed appreciation for the renovations. He said the hotel’s close proximity to Polar Park and other cultural sites in Worcester is an attraction for guests.
“Our location is close to the park, and guests love it because we are in a safe area with a very large parking lot making it easy, especially when traveling with children,” Saleh said. “We were delighted to see that the Worcester Red Sox and Polar Park have indeed brought new guests to the Beechwood. We are seeing new families finding us for the first time as a result of the park.”
Occupancy at Karam’s hotels has improved and his business is close to fully staffed, but he said getting staff to the right employment levels is difficult in any hotel market. Karam said his company offers bonuses to any staff member who successfully refers someone for a job and awards perfect attendance bonuses.
Simone said that occupancy has been doing well recently, but she said staffing remains a challenge at the AC Hotel as some employees have moved on from the industry and management has had to get creative with her current staff to remain operational.
Karam said that Homewood Suites also did better in the midst of the pandemic than expected.
“We did much better than we expected throughout COVID because there were a lot of consultants that came into the area relating to health care, relating to the universities. And also there were temporary workers who came into the area typically relating to health care,” Karam said. “All of that really boded well for us as an extended-stay hotel.”
Karam said fall projections are strong for his hotels and he said he feels that his hotels will be able to return to 2019 levels by 2022, while some other industry projections place that full return as happening in 2023. Simone said she could not predict when the AC Hotel may see a return to fall numbers. Saleh said that he expects Beechwood occupancy to be close to 2019 levels soon.