With their cherry hardwood floors and stately, ornamental furniture, suites at the boutique Hotel 340 in downtown St. Paul normally cater to refined business travelers or romantic couples.
The hotel on the upper floors of the St. Paul Athletic Club Building recently closed due to low occupancy, but it is planned to reopen soon as an extended stay “residential hotel” to target guests, especially seniors, who may want to isolate themselves but still take advantage of on-site concierge services.
As several Twin Cities hotels have temporarily shut their doors due to the COVID-19 outbreak, many that remain open have started to repurpose to better serve a growing list of community needs from short-term housing for first responders to beds for vulnerable populations such as the homeless.
“I think we are, in a sense, modifying for the times we are in,” said John Rupp, who along with his wife, Stephanie, owns the Hotel 340.
In the past few weeks, the seriousness of the spread of the coronavirus has halted travel plans across the world, plunging flight and hotel demand to unprecedented low numbers. During the last full week of March, United States hotel occupancy fell to 22.6%, more than a 67% drop compared to a year ago, according to hotel analytics firm STR. In the Twin Cities, where about 1,400 new rooms were delivered in 2019 as part of a surge of new construction, the occupancy rate fell to 16.9%.
Downtown Minneapolis has already seen several closures including the Loews Minneapolis Hotel, the Elliot Park Hotel and the Hewing Hotel in the North Loop.
According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), the state has lost close to 60,000 jobs that support the hotel industry.
The hotels that are staying open have started to get creative to accommodate evolving guest needs and work with government entities on temporary agreements.
California-based ZMC Hotels, which has six hotels in Minnesota mainly in the Duluth area, has dramatically changed its business model as their rooms have become in demand by government agencies.
Several Duluth area hotels, including one that was closed and is now being reopened, are working with the city of Duluth to offer places for people to safely self-isolate.
Weeks ago, ZMC Hotels began to offer “recovery center” rooms for known COVID-19 positive guests who do not require intensive care units but need isolation.
The rooms are booked for long-term guests, and three meals are delivered a day with date and time records along with body temperature verification of all those involved in the food prep and delivery process. The rooms offer humidifiers with anti-viral compounds, and oxygen enrichment devices are also available to rent. All rooms are heat treated up to 135 degrees between guests to disinfect.
ZMC Hotels also have two hotels, one in Rogers and the other in Duluth, they have selected as self-isolation facilities for first responders and essential service workers.
“It’s extremely impressive to see how quickly our company, as well as the local government has been able to pivot in the past two weeks to combat this,” said Jenn Kimbrough, regional director of sales for ZMC Hotels.
Minneapolis-based Graves Hospitality has started to create first-responder floors at its hotels at lower rates to respond to the crisis.
“I have a lot of friends who are first responders,” said CEO Ben Graves. “But they don’t want to put their families at risk.”
He said that one friend is sleeping in their garage to isolate from family.
Iowa-based Hawkeye Hotels, which opened four hotels in the Twin Cities last year with Minneapolis-based JR Hospitality and has eight others in development, has adapted its hotel to include special rates too.
The hotels now offer discounted “care rates” for anyone traveling due to the COVID-19 outbreak such as people traveling for funerals, visiting family, and traveling medical personnel. The hotels also have started “day use” rates to allow people who want to work alone in a different setting than their house opportunities to book a hotel room for the day or the week.
The four hotels, which include Fairfield Inn & Suites Shakopee, Hampton Inn Lakeville, Courtyard by Marriott Edina Bloomington, Holiday Inn Express & Suites Mall of America — MSP Airport, are offering discounted weekly rates as well.
“We are trying to be as creative and adaptive as possible,” said Hawkeye Hotels spokeswoman Allison Ordman.
Cities across the country have begun to establish extra hospital beds in hotels to help reduce the pressure on traditional medical facilities. In Chicago, whereas of Thursday close to 3,500 cases of COVID-19 have been identified, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has allotted 2,600 hotel rooms for quarantine and isolation of COVID-19 victims.
Last week Hennepin County used a third area hotel to provide temporary shelter for the homeless who are impacted by COVID-19 in a move to hinder the spread of the virus at packed shelters. The new hotel site is dedicated specifically to isolation spaces for people who are awaiting test results or have tested positive for COVID-19. So far, more than 230 high-risk Hennepin County residents have been moved from shelter settings into hotels. Ramsey County has provided funding to house a group of elderly residents at the Catholic Charities Higher Ground facility to stay in the InterContinental St. Paul Riverfront.
Hospitality Minnesota CEO and President Liz Rammer said hotels have contacted the organization to help them connect with hospitals, municipalities and service organizations. Yet while repurposing hotel rooms will help generate some revenue, the new bookings will likely fall far short of what hospitality companies usually generate, she said.
“It’s the hotel version of curbside takeout,” Rammer said. “It’s a small amount [of revenue] to keep getting by. … At the same time, you are helping the community.”
Hotels in Minnesota interested to connect with community partners are encouraged to sign up for AHLA’s Hospitality for Hope Initiative, a national database of hotels that government and public health officials can search. More than 200 Minnesota hotels have already signed up.
The Rupps, who manage and own numerous restaurants and properties, have had to furlough their entire staff of about 250 employees.
Utilizing the rooms and suites that have kitchenettes in the 56-room Hotel 340, they have begun to accept applications for extended stays charging $350 per week or $995 per month for units that would normally cost $129 to $239 a night. In order to staff the 24/7 concierge desk, the Rupps said they were going to apply for a small-business loan as part of the government’s $2 trillion coronavirus relief package.
They are seeing demand from older guests who want to stay close to family but are practicing self-isolation.
“By any stretch of the imagination, it’s not apples to apples,” said Stephanie Rupp. “It is a way to bridge the gap.”