Putting out the welcome mat

Restaurants, hotels adjust to operating in pandemic

Posted on Sep 29, 2020 :: Insight Insider
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Denise Stillman, co-owner of Foremost Management Services, Inc., remembers watching the news in early March and hearing about COVID-19’s impact on the East Coast and the first cases of the virus arriving in Wisconsin. She looked at the busy indoor pool at Newport Resort in Egg Harbor and realized the business was in for a big change.

“Mid-March can be a busy time of the year for our full-suite resorts as visitors take advantage of the indoor pool and other amenities as they come here for winter break,” says Stillman, whose business manages four properties in Door County.

On March 15, Foremost Resorts, which besides Newport includes Westwood Shores in Sturgeon Bay, Parkwood Lodge in Fish Creek and the Inn at Little Sister Hill in Sister Bay, began implementing some rule changes to keep employees and guests safe. Four days later, Stillman says the business agreed to close for 30 days as part of a county-wide rule.

“We didn’t wind up reopening until late May,” she says.

Foremost Resorts is just one example of how COVID-19 brought the hospitality industry to a halt as hotels and restaurants either closed or were forced to severely limit their occupancy or, in the case of restaurants, develop new ways to get their food to customers.

In 2019, the state’s tourism industry saw its biggest year on record with an estimated $22.2 billion spent by visitors. Between business closures and consumers concerned about traveling and exposing themselves to the coronavirus, it’s impossible to gauge how far those numbers will fall for 2020.

Gov. Tony Evers announced an $8 million stimulus grant program in September for the state’s tourism industry to help resume and restore economic activity affected by the pandemic.

While waiting to reopen, Foremost Resorts made several changes so when employees and guests returned, they would feel safer. Employees were required to wear masks and guests were encouraged to do the same — long before the statewide mask mandate went into effect. The resorts changed their routine by cleaning rooms only when guests checked out or by request. Staff members clean high-touch points frequently, and the resorts added Plexiglass barriers at the front desks.

“We did a lot of education so guests knew what to expect when they arrived,” Stillman says. “We also upgraded the concierge service offered to guests by taking more time explaining to them what they would find when visiting local shops and restaurants. We would also provide advice about when to visit different parks or locations so they could avoid crowds.”

Stillman says it was challenging to make the changes, but she felt better knowing all the hotels and resorts in Door County were following the same rules. “We all worked together to be on the same page. The ‘we’re all in this together’ sounds a little hokey, but it was true,” she says. “I knew that if our guests decided to go elsewhere that they would have the same experience with room cleanings and other new policies we put into place.”

‘Selling time and space’

Ryan Batley thought the Best Western Premier Bridgewood Resort Hotel and Conference Center in Neenah was an ideal business model, drawing a mix of business and leisure travelers and local residents to its hotel, meeting facilities and Ground Round restaurant. But once COVID-19 hit, he saw all aspects of the Bridgewood’s business suffer.

“COVID-19 affected us in so many ways. Events and trips were canceled. The restaurant could only do delivery or takeout” at first, Batley says. “I had to lay off 140 of my 160 employees. I never thought I would have to go through anything like that. Happily, most of our employees have returned and business has slowly picked up.”

Pre-COVID, Bridgewood saw a 75 percent occupancy rate. Today’s numbers are nowhere near that high, with occupancies in the teens or low 20s.

“At our worst, we were in the single digits, but even with 20 percent occupancy now, it’s still a challenge,” Batley says. “We sell time and space, not a product so it’s hard to get back all the weeks of lost business. It’s been a tough and challenging time, but I’m really proud of my team and how they’ve made these changes.”

The resort’s special events and meetings business shut down in the early weeks and months of the pandemic, but now weddings are showing up again on the schedule, although the number of guests is lower than normal as couples opt for smaller gatherings. The resort’s new seating arrangements designed to comply with social distancing also put a limit on the number of attendees.

“I really don’t see our corporate business coming back this year or even the early part of 2021,” says Batley, adding businesses are more hesitant about holding large gatherings due to the coronavirus risk.

As for the Ground Round restaurant, Batley says business is about 80 to 90 percent of where it should be, crediting its large patio, a pavilion space and fire pits for keeping business as good as it is.

“More people are comfortable eating and drinking outside, but this is Wisconsin and we can only eat outside for so long,” says Batley, adding he’s planning to add Plexiglass to booths inside the restaurant to help guests feel isolated from other customers.

Another hospitality sector — casinos — was hit extremely hard by the pandemic. Casinos rely on attracting as many people as possible to gamble on their tightly packed slot machines as well as hosting concerts and other events. COVID-19 and the need to distance from others put both of those activities on hold.

Ho-Chunk Gaming in Wittenberg, for example, closed on March 19 and did not reopen until June 29. Once it finally reopened, amenities and operational hours were limited to assure the health of guests and employees, says Tracy Pecore, director of marketing for Ho-Chunk Gaming Wittenberg.

“Unfortunately, social distancing required a shutdown of machines by an almost 40 percent decrease of available and operating machines,” she says, adding that business is slowly increasing after being closed for three months.

For hospitality businesses with a large outdoor footprint, like Destination Kohler, it was a busy summer. Destination Kohler, which offers golf courses and other outdoor activities, reported an increase in the number of guests looking to enjoy some time outside.

According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of golf rounds in July increased 20 percent compared to last year, and the courses at Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run have been no different.

“From a promotional standpoint, we focused our efforts on local drive-time markets versus more national or international markets, which has proven to be quite effective and resulted in a better year than expected,” according to a Destination Kohler spokesman. “The majority of our patrons this year are traveling within an eight-hour drive and are coming in smaller groups.”

Beyond golf, Destination Kohler saw growing interest in other outdoor activities, including places where guests can canoe, kayak or hike, outdoor yoga on a platform overlooking Blackwolf Run, and daily fitness classes under newly installed canopies at Sports Core.

Keeping guests safe

Making visitors and employees feel safe is a must for restaurants and hotels as they look to win back business. While each property tackles the issue differently, they all face additional costs, whether for personal protective equipment or special cleaning products and processes. And restaurants also contend with having less room for diners as more space is added between tables to accommodate social distancing.

Batley says making Bridgewood guests and employees feel safe is a priority. As an extra protection, the property now uses electrostatic spray, which disinfects surfaces 50 percent faster than traditional methods and kills viruses, bacteria and allergens, to clean all common spaces and hotel rooms.

“We spray it in the rooms before our employees go in and spray it again as they leave to keep everything as germ-free as possible,” he says.

Ho-Chunk Gaming Wittenberg has implemented multiple safety measures, including the addition of social distancing markers, Plexi-shields and hand sanitizing stations. Face coverings are mandatory and guests have their temperatures checked upon arrival, Pecore says.

“We have revised our operational hours to allow time for deep cleaning and services to apply … a surface sanitizer to high surface touchpoints with lasting effects up to 30 days,” she says, adding the casino looks for every opportunity to go “contactless.”

At Destination Kohler, which includes restaurants, lodging, golf and outdoor activities, shopping and spa services, all employees and guests are required to wear masks, practice social distancing and encouraged to wash or sanitize their hands frequently.

In its restaurants, employees use enhanced deep cleaning and sanitization practices at frequent intervals in all areas, including high-touch guest surfaces — tables, chairs, serving trays and check presenters. In addition, the eateries use either single-use disposable paper menus or have guests view the menu online via a QR code using their own electronic devices.

Another business in Kohler — The Blind Horse Winery & Restaurant — began adding enhanced safety measures in May before visitors returned, which made guests feel safe and encouraged their return, says Thomas Nye, general manager and master winemaker.

The Blind Horse worked with Green Up Solutions to provide the Shock & Shield Process, which incorporates ultraviolet light treatment and antimicrobial protection. The process has been proven to kill 99.999 percent
of microorganisms in viruses similar to the coronavirus.

The business also rearranged all seating to provide adequate distance between guests, and servers wear copper woven masks, providing another layer of antimicrobial protection for customers and employees.

“Of utmost importance is that we provide a safe environment so our guests and associates have the opportunity to reinvigorate and relax without the distraction of safety during times of uncertainty due to COVID-19,” Nye says.