After a long spell of bad news for travelers, suddenly there's a glut of good news. As of June 15, California has fully reopened and has no restrictions on travel from within the United States. Hotels and lodgings in the Golden State are welcoming guests with no capacity limits or six-feet-apart protocols.
And despite a long and bumpy ride for the hospitality industry during the pandemic, California hotel occupancy is bouncing back faster than predicted.
"Hotels are resilient,” according to Pete Hillan, a spokesperson for the California Hotel and Lodging Association. “They're really good at understanding their marketing and what their guests' needs are. Hotels will come back stronger from the pandemic experience, both in how we approach guests and how we support our employees."
Despite the positive momentum, there have been a few hiccups. While travelers are venturing out in droves this summer, hotels are facing a historic labor shortage—the same staffing crisis that's affecting restaurants, retail, and other industries.
"Our hotel industry lost a significant amount of workers during the pandemic—unfortunately, some permanently," Hillan says. "Hiring new workers isn’t like flipping a light switch. They need to be trained in their craft, learn health and safety practices, and, in some cases, be brought back based on union seniority. All of that takes time."
According to hotel industry statistics, when the pandemic hit in spring 2020, American hotels laid off approximately 6.2 million employees. At the start of 2021, they had hired back only about 50 percent of their pre-pandemic staff.
For travelers, that means at some hotels, services may be limited. Lobby bars or restaurants may not be open. Shuttle service to airports or shopping areas may not be running or may have reduced hours. Check-in lines may be slightly longer.
"We’re doing our best to set expectations with the traveling public about the level of service they can expect," Hillan says. "We don't want to have missteps now that discourage travelers in the future."
Hotels are easing problems caused by staff shortages with creative workarounds, such as encouraging guests to reuse their sheets and towels, or asking guests if they'd like to forgo housekeeping services during their stay. Some have discontinued room service and replaced it with food-delivery apps like Door Dash. Still others are relying on self-service check-in and checkout. (One way you can prepare before you arrive: If the hotel has an app, download it. The app can smooth your check-in and help access some amenities, like restaurant or even pool reservations.)
Every California hotel is responding differently, just like every hotel faced its own set of challenges during the pandemic. At San Francisco's Handlery Union Square Hotel, only two of 377 rooms were occupied after California's shutdown in March 2020. President Jon Handlery decided the only sensible business strategy was to close the hotel's doors.
"It was really eerie. Some hotels around Union Square just boarded everything up. I didn't like that, so I kept someone at the front desk, and I kept the housekeeping staff going through the rooms," he says.
Handlery Hotels is California's oldest family-owned hotel company. Jon Handlery's grandfather, Harry, bought the San Francisco hotel in 1928.
"I closed the hotel for the first time since it was built, which was 1908," Handlery says. "We stayed open through the Depression and World War II, but not the pandemic. It was horrific. It's something I don't ever want to go through again."
Letting go of longtime staff was particularly heartbreaking, he says. "I had to furlough people I had the pleasure of working with for decades," he says.
After being closed for most of 15 months, the Handlery Union Square Hotel is now open again. "We got the hotel ready and opened on June 1," he says. "Right now the midweek is slow because we don't have conferences or conventions or the corporate market. We don't have the international visitors back yet, either. But the weekends are starting to pick up."
Handlery says he's had no trouble bringing his housekeepers back to work, but they're an extremely loyal group. "I'm very, very lucky because I have a lot of long-term people. Our average length of service in the entire hotel is 13 years, and in housekeeping it's closer to 20 years."
Cleaning has become a top priority, Handlery says. His housekeeping staff is following the California Hotel and Lodging Association's Clean + Safe Guidance guidelines, which include recommendations for cleaning "high-touch points" like elevator buttons, hand rails, and door handles.
CHLA spokesperson Hillan says the entire hotel industry is taking cleaning protocols very seriously even though some of the more visible signs of the pandemic are disappearing from hotels. "The flow charts, the social-distancing signs, the plastic barriers will start to go away, but the cleaning regimens will continue to meet or exceed the standards the health departments set. "
"We want to assure that the accommodations that guests find will be clean and safe," he says. "That doesn't go by the wayside just because California hit a major reopening benchmark on June 15."
Javier Cano, vice-president and market general manager at The Ritz-Carlton Los Angeles, agrees that enhanced cleaning protocols are the new norm.
"I think that as people have gone through this pandemic, their expectations have changed. There is much more of an emphasis on cleanliness," he says.
Cano says that in prior years, staff at The Ritz-Carlton would clean lobbies and public areas "behind the scenes or overnight so as to not intrude upon our guests' experience. Now we're doing much more of our cleaning where people can see us. It's more acceptable to visitors. We can do cleaning throughout the entire day because people don't mind seeing it," he says.
Cano says the staffing shortage is real, but as long as occupancy rates remain fairly low, it shouldn't impact guests' stays. "Unfortunately we're seeing staffing shortages across the industry, and our hotels are no different. As we continue to get more and more people coming to our hotels, we're just going to need more staff to serve them," he says. "We're doing everything we need to do to get more people on board."
Despite the growing pains of reopening, Cano says he's optimistic about travel this summer and the future of California's hotel industry. "The confidence with the state's reopening is translating into more people traveling. I believe we're going in the right direction, and I think people are ready and willing to go out and travel," he says. "We're looking to create a great environment for people to come back to."