‘Batten down the hatches’: How hotels are weathering the COVID-19 storm

Rob Evans doesn’t want this to be a sob story.

There’s been enough doom and gloom in the news lately, and he doesn’t want to add to the list. Rob Evans

But if you want to know the state of hotels and hospitality in Fort Wayne—and across the country—during COVID-19, then Evans can tell you this.

As President of Focus Hotels and General Manager of the Holiday Inn Purdue - Fort Wayne, he manages five properties across Indiana and Michigan, and it was a story from the Holiday Inn’s Splash Universe Hotel in Dundee, Michigan, that got him.

Spring Break is the busiest 14 days of the year at Splash Universe, and his team there was gearing up for the annual rush.

They hired 106 employees who had just finished their training on Tuesday, March 10. But before the doors could open to Spring Breakers on Friday, the COVID-19 pandemic checked in, closing down public spaces across Michigan, and by Thursday, 104 of Evans's 106 employees had to be let go.

“It was a punch in the gut is what it was,” he says.

That’s the hardest part about managing a team of 400 regional employees: Sometimes you have to let people go, even when it’s out of your control.

“You always hear that question: What keeps you up at night?” Evans says. “Well, what keeps me up at night right now is knowing that families can’t provide. At least 75 percent of our workforce is struggling to put milk and orange juice in their refrigerators.”

At the Fort Wayne Holiday Inn at 4111 Paul Shaffer Dr., circumstances are no different. Before COVID-19, Evans had 65 employees there. Now he has seven, and he’s not even one of them himself.

“I chose to do that,” Evans says. “I don’t think it’s fair that I, as the manager, should not feel the same pain as everyone else. If you walk by the hotel right now and see me sitting in my office, it’s my choice.”

And as Evans sits in his office today, he isn’t thinking about the doom and gloom that got him there; he’s thinking about how to change it.

“We’ve got to be thinking: How can we get families back to doing something, to making some money and making them feel like they’re contributing again?” Evans says. “That’s where my mindset is today.”

A room at the Holiday Inn Purdue - Fort Wayne.

The Holiday Inn is offering a few solutions, like $299 a week housing for first responders who don’t want to threaten their families with exposure to COVID-19, but that’s still not enough, Evans says. What else can a hotel do during a pandemic shutdown and travel ban?

He’s brainstorming ways to put housekeepers, cooks, and maintenance employees back to work. And as he thinks, his beer vendor Five Star Distributing shows up in the lobby.

“Obviously, we don’t need beer, but they’re actually going through to see how they can give us some credit back and save us money,” Evans says.

It’s businesses like Five Star that have been making the biggest difference in his life since the pandemic started, Evans points out—generous, local people who are going above and beyond to help other local businesses survive.

While people don't often think about hotels like the Holiday Inn as local businesses, most of Fort Wayne’s hotels are, in fact, local franchises, owned by local people in the community, Evans points out. They’re small businesses, and they’re hurting, too—especially because of their massive overhead.

While the local, state, and national governments are offering some stimulus packages to help small businesses get back on their feet after COVID-19, everything Evans has seen so far is not nearly enough to make up for the losses at his hotels.

Even a grant for tens of thousands of dollars is a drop in the bucket compared to the mortgage on a 100-room hotel, which is about $50,000 a month, he says.

But one thing he’s seeing that does make a difference is local businesses helping each other out, and local hotels working together to share best practices.

In addition to Five Star, Land Art lawn care and Gordon Food Service have reached out to Evans to help him shave some money off his bills.

“Local people are literally coming in, and saying, ‘We’re going to make your bill smaller,’” he explains. “I think that’s huge.”

Another helpful thing is the way that Fort Wayne’s hotel managers are banning together to navigate the complexities of COVID-19 as a team.

“That’s what makes Fort Wayne so awesome,” Evans says. “We’re all feeling the pain, but we can pick up the phone, and we can call other businesses. A lot of times, people think hotels are competitors, but we’re more like partners.”

And as other hotels around town are hurting, the Holiday Inn is helping, too.

One of the first businesses citywide to announce that it was ceasing operations for good after the COVID-19 pandemic was the Don Hall’s Guesthouse, an independent hotel and conference center just down the street from the Holiday Inn.

The Don Hall's Guesthouse was located at 1313 W Washington Center Rd.

Tim Hall, General Manager there, says the decision to close the Guesthouse after nearly 40 years of service was a difficult one, but a smart move for the Halls family in the long run. Since the family owns multiple restaurants and venues that are hurting under COVID-19, closing the hotel allows them to focus their energies and resources on their primary line of work in the foodservice industry and keep those businesses afloat.

“The hotel was kind of the oddball in the company,” Hall says. “Since we’re not attached to a hotel chain or anything, it just made sense to streamline the company for the future.”

Even so, laying off longtime employees and having to work with guests to reschedule events like weddings has been no easy task.

“It’s an upsetting thing to call a bride, and tell her we’re closed,” Hall says. “It’s not fun for anybody, and we understand that, so we want our guests to have as many options as possible.”

The Don Hall's Guesthouse has been in the Hall's family for nearly 40 years.

As such, the Guesthouse is partnering with other venues, like the Holiday Inn, to give patrons a range of options, in addition to the venues that the Halls family owns.

Evans says that anyone who had a room booked at the Guesthouse is welcome to reserve the same type of room for the same rate at his hotel, for no additional cost. He’s offering to let the Halls family cater events at his hotel, too, if guests prefer.

“It’s about local entrepreneurs working with other local entrepreneurs because, at the end of the day, it’s all about the families in our community,” Evans says. “Visit Fort Wayne is doing great things for us right now, too, so whenever this ends, there will be business here again.”

A room at the Don Hall's Guesthouse

Dan O’Connell, President and CEO of Visit Fort Wayne, says his team at the city’s visitor’s bureau has been doing everything in their power to roll with the punches of the pandemic.

Just earlier this year, they were gearing up for another record-breaking year for Fort Wayne hotels and conventions. As the city grows and develops, 2019 was a banner year for tourism, seeing a 6.5 percent growth rate from 2018, and the trajectory for 2020 was looking no different.

“In January of 2020, we had 10 hotel developments either under construction or proposed. We were adding a 20 percent increase in our hotel inventory, and we were adding a signature hotel in the downtown marketplace,” O’Connell says. “This pandemic really knocked the stool out from under us.”

Since 85 percent of Visit Fort Wayne’s revenue comes from a user tax on hotel rooms, too, they have a stake in the matter themselves.

O’Connell says his team is currently cutting budgets and devoting their efforts to recovery plans. But it’s still a matter of dealing with a lot of uncertainties surrounding COVID-19—not to mention a very unclear timeline for the duration of the virus and its lingering effects.

COVID-19 is expected to peak in Fort Wayne between mid-April to mid-May, and for now, Evans says preparing hotels for the pandemic is like preparing a ship for a storm.

“We’re pulling down our sails and tying everything down, so once this storm moves past us and the waters start to calm down a bit, hopefully there’s as little damage as possible,” he says. “Batten down the hatches.”

Have an idea for how to help hotel employees?

Rob Evans is seeking community suggestions on how to get housekeepers, cooks, and maintenance employees back to work. Email ideas to [email protected].

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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