The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the lodging industry in Vermont hard. The Vermont Lodging Association (VLA) was recently launched to help advocate on behalf of the state’s hotels.
The association came about after the state’s governor, Phil Scott, created a Mitigation and Recovery Task Force in the spring to address questions and protocols around reopening business in a safe manner. As part of this Restart Vermont effort, various committees were formed, including one for the lodging industry, made up of innkeepers and hoteliers from around the state. They were tasked with developing guidelines to reopen lodging businesses in a responsible and safe manner.
“By this time, over 70% of our workforce had been furloughed and revenues reduced to zero,” said Hans van Wees, general manager, Hotel Vermont in Burlington/co-chair of the association with Tim Piper, partner, Hearthside Group. “As our businesses were slowly permitted to open up by June it became abundantly clear that the impact of the pandemic on inns, B&Bs, hotels and resorts had been disproportionately severe. The restrictions our businesses were expected to operate under were so severe that many did not open their doors until July, or some not at all, and were operating at business levels 70-80% below the year before. All group bookings had been cancelled.”
Many of the people that van Wees knew in the industry were in desperate situations. “As inns were told to close down I remember conversations with many owners who were in great distress, depleting retirement savings and their kids’ college education funds, moving out of their house into their inn and numerous other personal sacrifices,” he said. “Many of these conversations ended up in tears, not only were they affected financially, but also mentally as they saw their dreams crumbling and their families lives deeply impacted as their worries piled up.”
When the state introduced restrictions on travel from outside of the state that severely limited the number of visitors within driving distance, the hoteliers realized that something needed to be done to better represent their interests. “It became clear that, under these restrictions, our businesses could not operate at levels that would allow them to set aside necessary cash reserves during the summer and fall to survive a long slow season from late fall to late spring,” he said. “This realization combined with the uniquely high fixed cost nature of our businesses led us to form a coalition of hotels, inns and B&Bs with the purpose to express a clear voice for our disproportionately affected industry and impress it onto the governor that under these severe restrictions our businesses were going to need significant financial help.”
By the end of the year, the Vermont Lodging Coalition merged with the Vermont Inns and Bed and Breakfasts Association to form the Vermont Lodging Association, an official partner of the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA). “Until then, Vermont was the only state in the nation without a formal trade association,” said van Wees. “Quite remarkable given that our industry is one of the largest employers in Vermont and represents a $2.6-billion impact on the Vermont economy.”
As the industry continues to feel the effects of the pandemic, the association has two goals. “In the short term, our goal is two-fold: financial aid as our industry suffers through this pandemic and as it works through recovery over the coming two to three years,” he said. “Secondly, to work with the governor and his team to safely ease travel restrictions and allow visitors into Vermont with the safety of visitors, staff and our community as priority and allow our businesses to heal themselves and the Vermont economy, as well as the professionals who work in our industry. Our industry’s efforts have led to state grants, from federal CARES act funds, for businesses to partially compensate for lost income between March and September 2020.”
While the effects of the pandemic are far from over, the association will take up other issues as the recovery continues. “The Vermont Lodging Association will be the official voice for the lodging industry in Vermont and will provide: advocacy, education and networking on behalf and for all members,” said van Wees. “As we get through this pandemic and a possible recession that might follow, we look forward to expanding educational programs together with our partners and allied members.”
An important goal is to improve the image of the industry and providing career paths for young professionals. “[We hope] to rebuild a strong network of owners and operators exchanging knowledge as well as developing and enjoying an ‘esprit de corps’ that our industry is known for, or, in other words sharing the joys and fun of working in an industry that celebrates the art of hospitality,” said van Wees. “We all work hard, but we love what we do and above all we feel grateful to be able to have fun every day.”