Weathering the StormMar 15, 2021 ● By Stephen Hunt
Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated economies around
the globe and unfortunately, no industry has been immune. One sector of the economy which has especially taken the brunt of this pandemic-induced shutdown is the tourism and hospitality industry. With people hesitant to venture from their residences for fear of contracting the coronavirus, fewer folks are traveling for leisure and staying in hotels. This decrease in business directly impacts hotels and their employees as some properties closed for several months, others furloughed staff due to reduced business while hotels everywhere have adjusted their operations in areas like food service and housekeeping.
Frisco has a robust hotel scene, whether it’s the community fixtures of The Westin Stonebriar and Embassy Suites Dallas-Frisco or newer properties like Omni Frisco, the community has considerable options for accommodations to both out-of-towners and locals wanting to get away for a day or two. However, Marla Roe, executive director for Visit Frisco states that even as the pandemic has reached the one-year mark in the States, local tourism remains down about 40 percent from where it was one year ago, and Frisco hotels are still feeling the effects. Jeff Smith is the general manager for Omni Frisco and he mentioned that the property is currently operating at about one-third the business it would normally have. “The biggest challenge a lot of them are seeing right now is they’re still getting some business, but it comes in these short bursts,” Ms. Roe said. “If you think about a hotel that’s running on fewer employees due to occupancy levels and things like that and suddenly, you’re sold out for three days and you have to ramp back up, it’s a challenge for them to keep that staffing. They want the business because they need that to thrive and survive, but it presents challenges.” Since tourism has such a broad impact on communities like Frisco, that decrease in visitors also delivers a ripple effect to local restaurants and retailers.
A New Level of
Cleanliness and Safety
One new norm across the industry is that all hotels have adopted new protocols for more stringent cleaning of rooms and other areas. As a Hilton brand, Embassy Suites operates under Hilton’s CleanStay program, under which common areas and guest rooms are more frequently cleaned and other aspects of the guest experience like foodservice, including room service, have been tweaked. “We allocate quite a few more minutes for every room to make sure it’s disinfected, so there are more cleaning protocols,” said Rich Lundt, general manager for Embassy Suites Dallas-Frisco. “Every room has Lysol wipes for customers. They have that available to them when they check-in.”
As for food service, Embassy Suites continues offering a fresh, hot breakfast to guests. But instead of food available in a self-serve buffet style, guests are now served and the omelet station has been discontinued. Guests can also get prepackaged items like yogurt and bagels. Mr. Lundt added that the Frisco hotel bar is now open on weekends and prepackaged snacks are available, but Embassy Suites is currently not offering room service.
Hyatt Regency Frisco still offers room service, but the process has been adjusted to ensure the utmost safety for hotel guests and staff. Like many restaurants, the hotel is posting QR codes where guests can download menus and then order food. However, food is no longer delivered to rooms as guests are asked to retrieve their order downstairs once it is ready. “That [QR codes] is kind of a big deal for us because we can change that [information] in an instant where before when you had all the printed material in the guest room, that wasn’t always easy to do,” said Lance Stumpf, general manager for Hyatt Regency Frisco. “Right now, you can use the QR code to call down and order the item. We will give you a time limit as to how long it takes to prepare it, and then you come down to the market and pick it up. It is pretty streamlined.”
When the pandemic hit the U.S., some hotel chains opted to shut down while others remained open. In Frisco, the Embassy Suites stayed open while the Hyatt, Omni and Westin Stonebriar closed for several months. The Hyatt reopened June 1, 2020, and no one was happier than Mr. Stumpf. “Just hitting that date was a big accomplishment for us. We were excited about it.” He continued, “Since then, the transient side of it has been up and down. We were doing some pretty good transient business in the summertime when the pool and deck were open and available. Even as we got into the fall, we started hosting some of the youth sports groups. But as far as our corporate market or our group corporate market, that has not come back. We’re looking for that hopefully when we get to the third level of vaccination.”
Omni Frisco closed for several months before reopening right before Memorial Day 2020. “We had a better summer and fall last year than we had anticipated, which was positive. I wouldn’t submit that as signs we’re improving because travel, in general, is what we all see concerning COVID-19 and what’s happening in the world at that time,” Mr. Smith, general manager of Omni Hotel Frisco stated. The Westin Stonebriar’s closing last spring happened to coincide with a vast remodeling at that property, but the hotel reopened in early October ready to welcome visitors. “Honestly, the business has been kind of steady,” said Rose Panjwani, area director of marketing for Westin, a Marriott brand. “We’ve had a couple of groups come in. Of course, the leisure business hasn’t yet completely picked up, but we’ve had a couple of sports teams stay with us. We’re a sponsored partner of FC Dallas. We had a bowl game, the New Mexico Bowl, and we hosted Hawaii who played in that game. We also had a couple of corporate events come in. We’re just looking forward to when things get back to normal, like everybody else in the travel industry.”
If there have been two buzzwords describing how every industry has weathered the pandemic-related storm, they are adaptability and flexibility. The hotel industry has continually delivered on both fronts and in Frisco that adaptability has seen local properties market themselves more effectively to area residents to enjoy their amenities on a staycation or in some cases when not even staying at the hotel. “Having that staycation has been a respite for people, and I think it’s been very beneficial for not only our residents but our hotels,” said Traci Mayer, executive director for the Hotel Association of North Texas. “If you’re a Frisco resident, you could go stay at a Frisco hotel and have a totally fun vacation, get out of your normal routine. You could travel to one of the subsequent cities that are next to you and have a different experience.”
Marketing themselves more for local business is a strategy that has been paying off for Frisco hotels like the Embassy Suites. “Really in the last three months we’ve seen a big uptick in business,” Mr. Lundt said. “It’s local people who just want to get away. It’s Friday and Saturday that we do all of our occupancies for the week.”
After reopening last May, Omni Frisco offered a staycation rate to locals to thank them for their continued support. “If you live or work in Frisco, we offered the lowest rate we’ve ever done just to give back and say thank you for the good times. When times were good, we benefited tremendously from the local community and we wanted to give back in a way that helped the community, even in difficult times,” Mr. Smith said.
However, the Westin Stonebriar took attracting more local business to a new level after reopening by offering packages including local attractions that don’t include a hotel stay. “After the renovations, one of our focuses was we want to be more of a leisure destination, specifically to the drive-in market, whether that’s staycations, family vacations or whatever that may be,” Ms. Panjwani said. “Instead of looking at it in terms of just a weekend approach, it’s how do we get out of our houses? Whether it’s a place to go work to change the environment or just a place to get a breather.” One specific amenity Westin Stonebriar started offering is a package at Top Golf in The Colony where guests get a private suite with a wide array of games plus a full bar and food service. The hotel has also resumed live music on Friday and Saturday nights at its bar and the property has an ample amount of outdoor seating, including fire pits, where locals can safely gather.
It’s a strategy that has struck a favorable chord within the Frisco community. “A big focus of ours right now is what can we do for the local market? What can we do for the people in our neighborhood? By that, we don’t mean come stay here for a night out,” Ms. Panjwani said, “but it’s how can we help rejuvenate the environment or the neighborhood as a whole? It’s about letting the public know that we’re here, not just as a hotel, but we’re here for them as a safe place to gather.”
One thing those in the hospitality industry can agree on is that no one knows when hotels will return to their pre-COVID-19 levels of occupancy. Some feel that the pendulum could start swinging back in their favor by the second quarter of 2021 while others don’t expect any notable movement until 2022 at the earliest. Until that happens, Frisco residents can do their part by planning a staycation and booking a night or two at one of these hotels or maybe giving one of their various guest packages as a gift or buying one for themselves. Not only will you help a local business but also its employees and those in the industry.
“I’m just so proud of the resilience of our associates. We had to adjust our business and that, in turn, required associates on the team to work differently, work with more challenges and step up and be flexible,” Mr. Smith said. “They’ve risen to the occasion in tremendous ways and ultimately our guests’ experiences have benefited from that. Our guests’ experiences are better than ever. Our service metrics show us that. They’re amazing and they’ve stepped up, and I couldn’t be prouder.”
Stephen Hunt is a longtime Frisco resident and freelance writer who feels that ordering room service is one of life’s true simple pleasures.