Hotels reopen, but traffic still down

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Hotels reopen, but  traffic still downCalifornia hotels have been allowed to host leisure traffic just in time for summer travel, now that Gov. Gavin Newsom has released authority and guidance for commercial operations to enter into “Stage 3” of our plan to reopen.

However, some local hoteliers are pointing out that the psychological association of our ongoing restrictions aimed at curbing the COVID-19 pandemic may prolong the drought for the industry.

In January and February, business was booming for local hotels. In addition to robust travel associated with our core customers in defense, filming and leisure, the earthquake recovery rebuild was also bringing hundreds into the valley.

When March began, hotels were postured to shatter all previous occupancy records. Then, on the 19th, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state was going on lockdown in order to flatten outbreaks of COVID-19. Travel ground to a screeching halt. “When I say business dropped, I mean ‘off a cliff,’” said Dan Spurgeon, manager of SpringHill Inn and Suites.

In April, some “essential” travel resumed, but hotels still sat at around 25 percent occupancy — or less. Those numbers have been creeping up in the last few months, but nowhere near the numbers for a typical June.

At this point, there is no way to make it up.

“We sell time and space,” said Bill Farris Jr., sales manager for the Hampton Inn and Suites. “That time is gone now. You can’t go back and recapture it.”

“We would have to triple or quadruple our rates in the fourth quarter to make up for the losses,” said Spurgeon.

It was an unprecedented deficit for the industry. In the past, Indian Wells Valley hospitality has experienced declines relating to a freeze on base travel or a stagnant film industry or a lull in travel.

“Before, we could always pivot,” said Spurgeon. “When one sector is down, you focus on another. But every sector was down. And it was down all over.”

That decline is sure to have impacted other local businesses, he said.

According to industry statistics, when a traveler spends $1 on lodging, he spends another $2 on food, fuel and other expenses.

During the last two months, SpringHill and Hampton each lost $500,000. That means that disposable income in the valley was likely down $2 million.

Many restaurants experienced hardship during the months when service was restricted to take-out and delivery. “But it had to have made a difference that we also had a huge hole in the number of people who have historically patronized our dining industry,” said Farris.

That does not count the associated losses in sales and transient occupancy taxes that fund municipal services.

While the losses may not be recoverable, Spurgeon said that he believes that there is great opportunity for increased travel in the future.

“What we have now is a high level of pent-up demand,” he said. “All those tests and exercises on the base that have been delayed, they are going to happen eventually.”

Restrictions on filming have recently been relaxed, which means that those groups may resume operation in the near future.

Several factors play to IWV’s favor when it comes to summer travel: fuel prices remain low, travel by automobile is safer than infection associated with air travel, and our valley is a hub for a multitude of wilderness adventures.

While some of our state and national parks have not yet reopened fully, many summer travelers use Ridgecrest to spend the nights — or even stage here longer term — on their way to Death Valley, Mount Whitney, Sequoia National Forest and Yosemite.

“Again, this comes down to the comfort level of our travelers,” said Spurgeon.

“We have implemented all the necessary precautions to increase sanitation and reduce contact, but I think some people are still reluctant to travel just yet.”

Spurgeon and Farris also anticipated some of that “pent-up demand” to begin picking up in the fall.

“In this industry, you don’t recover what you lost. But you can survive. And it looks like 2021 may be the year we thought 2020 was going to be,” said Spurgeon.

Photo by Rebecca Neipp

Story First Published: 2020-06-12