ANDERSON — The hotel industry has been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, but local lodging places appear to have weathered the worst of the storm so far.

Nearly six months after the virus first prompted widespread closures and forced millions of hotel employees out of work nationwide, a report from the American Hotel and Lodging Association found that nearly 4 in 10 furloughed workers have not returned to their jobs in the sector. A slight uptick in hotel stays during the summer, when some pandemic-related restrictions began to ease, has done little to improve the industry’s outlook, at least in the short term.

Perhaps more unsettling, nearly two-thirds of hotels surveyed remain at or below 50% occupancy – a figure widely accepted as the threshold at which most hotels can break even.

“Occupancy rates are nowhere near where they were a year ago,” said Chip Rogers, CEO of the AHLA. “Thousands of hotels can’t afford to pay their mortgages and are facing the possibility of foreclosure and closing their doors permanently.”

The situation isn’t nearly that dire in Madison County, where officials say several factors have helped insulate local hotels from the worst of the pandemic’s financial fallout.

According to Maureen Lambert, marketing and tourism director at the Anderson-Madison County Visitors Bureau, vacancy rates at local hotels were down approximately 9% in July compared to the same time period last year.

“The summer months have still been pretty good to us,” Lambert said. “People are now out and about, they’re trying to get out. We know that we are having some visitors that are coming through and want to see what we have here.”

Still, the pandemic has derailed expectations for what many in the industry forecast as a banner year. Consumer travel, according to the AHLA’s report, remains at historic lows, with just 33% of Americans saying they have traveled overnight for leisure since March, and only 38% saying they’re planning an overnight trip before the end of the year.

“In January, February and March we were trending ahead of last year,” said Deep Patel, general manager at Best Western Plus on 59th Street near Interstate 69. “We were hoping this year would turn out to be a great year in terms of revenue, occupancy, things like that. Then all of a sudden everything started to go downhill in March. We had a couple months like April, May, where we barely had like 10 people in here.”

With a staff of 20 employees, Patel chose not to lay off any workers. Instead, their hours were cut by approximately 60%, he said. Occupancy at the 67-room hotel has since climbed to nearly 50%, providing some optimism heading into the fall.

“Occupancy is still down, nowhere close to what it was last year,” Patel said, “but it’s enough (to) where I can have my team in here and make sure they are all getting paid so they can take care of their families. That’s very important.”

Another variable that has officials hoping for better days ahead is that several rescheduled events — including this weekend’s Pay Less Little 500 and Anderson on Tap — seem likely to draw plenty of out-of-town visitors, albeit in lower numbers than a normal year would see due to health and safety protocols and social distancing guidelines.

“There’s definitely a lot of people that want to just get out because they’ve been stuck inside so long,” said Amber Haynes, general manager at Fairfield Inn. “I’m hoping for good things this winter.”

However, with uncertainty looming over when and how a COVID-19 vaccine might be developed and distributed, and with colder weather almost certain to bring with it a surge in normal influenza cases, officials are wary as they prepare to navigate into 2021.

“We’re hoping that September will also be a good month for us,” Lambert said. “It’s more of the winter months that we’re trying to figure out and focus on, because that’s going to be the time when flu season hits along with COVID, so we are concerned about that and trying to come up with some other ideas and crisis management and things like that that we need to be proactive on.”

Follow Andy Knight on Twitter

@Andrew_J_Knight, or call 765-640-4809.

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