Return of leisure travel boosting Ohio's hospitality industry; business travel still sorely missed

Hotel Rates
Posted at 9:49 PM, Jul 17, 2021

CLEVELAND — With COVID-19 vaccines now widely available, travel is increasing and hotels are welcoming more guests back and getting a boost to their bottom lines.

But experts in the hospitality industry say there’s still a long way to go before things can get back to where they were pre-pandemic.

“We actually closed our doors for about seven weeks last year, mid-April through the end of May, and never been through anything like it before,” said Bill Reed, the general manager of the Aloft Cleveland Downtown.

Now, business at the Aloft Cleveland Downtown is in a much better place.

“The weekends, which is all social travel, is as busy as it's ever been before, even including pre-pandemic for Friday and Saturday nights right now,” said Reed.

Reed said it's a different type of business than they’re used to.

Traditionally, many hotels’ bread and butter are the business travelers who come into town during the week, but those kinds of bookings haven’t quite come back yet and they might not for a while.

“Best projections or the most common projection, I guess, if you will, is next summer 2022,” said Reed. “Things start to get back midweek, business travel, occupancy.”

Losing that kind of business has had a huge effect on the industry.

“The figures for June will be coming here in just a few more days. But for the month of May, what it showed compared to 2019 is that occupancy was still down 18%,” said Joe Savarise, the president and CEO of the Ohio Hotel and Lodging Association. “The revenue number is 30% lower than it was for the same period in 2019.”

Savarise said the loss of business travel is just one problem, the other is staffing.

During the height of the pandemic, 30,000 Ohio hospitality workers lost their jobs.

“By the end of the year last year, that number had shrunk to 15,000 positions that were short, but we're still at about 12,500 positions within the state that are missing,” said Savarise. “That means that you can't clean enough rooms. If you can't clean a room, you can't sell a room. If you can't staff your restaurant, you can't fill as many tables.”

Now, with leisure travel coming back, hotels like the Aloft Cleveland Downtown are dealing with unique staffing challenges.

“It's having enough bodies, but only for two or three days per week. And then gearing back during the other four or five days of the week is the real challenge,” said Reed.

Reed said that means staff members are pulling double duty. He’s even picked up some front desk shifts in addition to his managerial duties.

He said applications are coming in, but with business the way it is, it's hard to employ a full staff, and only time will tell if things will ever get back to how they used to be.

“We just don't know how exactly it is going to come back with the introduction of all these technology meetings. You know, Zoom calls, things like this. Is business travel ever going to come back like it is?” said Reed.

Savarise said the OHLA has some strategies in the works to attract corporate partners to hotels to resume business travel.

“What we are doing is reinforcing the stepped up protocols, the enhanced practices that the hotel and lodging industry has instituted in response to the pandemic,” said Savarise. “We're putting more effort into that even after the lifting of the orders, not less effort, because now it's incumbent on the industry to create that consumer confidence, to say it is safe to travel, it's safe to get your group together. And we have protocols to help ensure that it will be safe.”

Jade Jarvis is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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