HB Exclusive: CHLA’s Patel discusses opening of Calif. economy

California Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed this week that his state will fully open the economy on June 15, easing travel restrictions and bringing leisure and meeting travel back to life.

Under the announced guidance, guests and employees will no longer be required to socially distance, but will be required to wear masks and strongly encouraged to be vaccinated. Newsom and the California Department of Public Health said they are confident in the move as vaccine availability is strong and California’s hospitalizations remain low.

For hotels in California, this was welcoming news as an open economy will likely bring more guests and will also enable furloughed hotel staff to come back to work.

The California Hotel & Lodging Association (CHLA) has been working tirelessly with the governor and other state officials since the pandemic began to get to this point.

“There’s been a lot of open communication between Go-BIZ [the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development], the California Department of Public Health and our industry, and I just think all the little wins and all the little things that we did over the year really helped push policy and really shows the industry favorably,” said Bijal Patel, the organization’s chairman, as well as VP at Santa Cruz-based Coast Redwood Hospitality. “We hosted cruise ship travelers at the very beginning of the pandemic and that evolved to housing first responders and at-risk communities. So, we really took this opportunity in the last year to really build a very solid relationship with Sacramento. Any time there was a need in Sacramento, we jumped up and fulfilled it.”

On April 15, the state will be open to group meetings. The CHLA was very instrumental in making that happen. It released guidelines for meetings and events in October 2020, and last month set up a mock meeting at the Hyatt Regency just across from the state capitol in Sacramento.

“We hosted two days of mock set-up meetings, where we said, ‘This is how we should have meetings set up and have [them]safely,” said Patel, who noted that mock meetings were also held in San Diego and Los Angeles. “These are all the protocols and things that we will do to keep our guests and our attendees safe. I think this is catching on and it’s getting people familiarized with something that they’re a little uncomfortable with. That kind of innovation is really going to pay dividends now.”

Getting the meetings business going again will be integral to the industry’s success moving forward and to help recoup some of the losses accrued in the last year. Patel noted that occupancy was in single digits at the beginning of the pandemic, and “when we reached the point where we could reopen for leisure and tourism, it was good Thursday through Sunday, where we probably got up to 40% or 50%.”

He continued, “Our next goal is getting people to travel again for business, getting people to meet again for business and having events. We are actually hosting our first in-person executive committee meeting in Huntington Beach in two weeks. We’ve done that to show the industry and to show the economy that we are willing to meet right away and travel.”

Once the state’s economy is opened on June 15, Patel expects travelers to return rather quickly. “I do think we are going to see incredible pent-up demand,” he said. “We’re already seeing an uptick in spring break, and I think leisure travel is definitely on the up and up. With the June 15 announcement, I’m hoping our corporate visit travelers are going to be back. I’m hoping all the tech companies that are working from home right now are all going to say, ‘OK, we’re going back to the office, and we’re going to meet again.’”

The biggest obstacle he sees is getting the 80,000 employees furloughed and laid-off during the pandemic back to the hotels.

“Hospitality has always been an industry that has really fostered a very familiar bond with our staff and our associates,” Patel said. “A lot of associates are industry veterans; they really take the time to immerse themselves in our properties. Hotels on their own are just buildings, but what makes hospitality a great experience are the people. Losing 80,000 of our people in the last year has been really catastrophic for our industry. Our challenge now is going to be: How do we bring those associates back? We’re definitely going to need them, but we’ve lost some of them to other industries.”

As business travel returns to California, the amount of attendees will be dependent on the number of vaccinated or COVID-tested attendees. Patel noted, “If you have proof of a COVID test or a vaccination, your capacity on your meeting almost doubles or triples versus if you’re not going to have that, they’re very limited to only 100 or 200 people.”

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