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Usually Steve Smyka wouldn't be the one pressing linen at the Cedar Rapids Marriott every day. He'd be a little busy running the hotel.
But during coronavirus pandemic, even the general manager has his hands on the laundry.
'Now we're doing 10 jobs as opposed to the normal five,” Smyka said.
It's part of what's been a challenging past 12 months for the hotel industry, with coronavirus wreaking havoc on the travel industry.
Ravi Patel, president of Coralville-based Hawkeye Hotels, said hotels were at 'all-time highs” in occupancy, average daily rate, revenue per room and other metrics before the coronavirus.
Then came a 'very, very disappointing” start to the pandemic. Hawkeye Hotels, which has properties across the country, lost 90 percent of its top-line revenue in the first month of the pandemic, he said.
Patel said the hardships affected each region differently.
'We have properties in the South that have been rebounding much quicker than properties in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, in areas like that,” he said.
In places such as Iowa City or Des Moines, Patel said demand is 'pretty severely depressed.” University-related hotel stays have been down in Iowa City, and business travel is slow in Des Moines.
Patel and Smyka both noted a boost in business in Cedar Rapids, though, after the Aug. 10 derecho.
'That would've been a pretty tough market for us,” Patel said. 'But then there was some increased demand through recovery efforts after the derecho.”
At first, that came from people whose houses were uninhabitable. Then construction crews, recovery workers, contractors and others moved in.
'It was fruitful for a while there,” Smyka recalled. 'It was the silver lining of yet another crisis in 2020.”
Across the country, extended-stay hotels have been 'quite a bit better” than single-night hotels, Patel said. The derecho added to that in Iowa.
Youth sports tournaments also have provided a bright spot for hotels near youth sports venues.
When a youth baseball tournament is at Prospect Meadows in Marion, Smyka said it often results in another 50 to 100 rooms filled in the 220-room Cedar Rapids Marriott. Other days, it's not so crowded.
'It's very hit or miss,” Smyka said.
Matt Traetow, the area general manager for Hotel Equities, has seen a similar trend with youth tournaments at the Xtream Arena in Coralville. Traetow manages the Homewood Suites across the street from Xtream Arena as well as managing the Home2 Suites also in Coralville.
'We had three days of sellouts because of the events going on last week,” Traetow said.
But when youth sports tournaments aren't happening, the outlook is bleaker.
'Business travel is slowly, slowly starting to gain a little, but that's going to take a while,” Traetow said.
Business travel usually would be 'north of 80 percent” of the hotels' business, Traetow said. Now, it is about 50 percent.
Even with youth sporting events, Smyka said occupancy is far from pre-pandemic levels.
'At the end of the day, we're still talking less than half of what it would normally be,” Smyka said.
'It's funny because I hear myself getting excited about half of the occupancy I was doing at this time last year.”
Patel expects the first quarter of 2021, from January to March, to look much like the last quarter of 2020.
'Everyone was thinking as soon as 2021 rolled around, we'd see a big bump,” Patel said. 'That hasn't happened yet. ...
We still have not seen the consumer confidence and the receptivity to travel yet.”
But looking farther ahead, hoteliers are optimistic about the industry as vaccine rollout continues.
President Joe Biden told states that all adults should be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine by May 1. Gov. Kim Reynolds on Wednesday said all of-age Iowans should be eligible to receive the vaccine starting April 5.
Jay Anderkin, general manager of the DoubleTree by Hilton in downtown Cedar Rapids, said bookings in the area have 'grown stronger with each passing month.”
Anderkin pointed to high school graduations, the NCAA Division III Baseball Championships and NJCAA Volleyball Championships as some of the upcoming events that should help his property and others in Cedar Rapids.
Smyka said the Cedar Rapids Marriott has been getting many calls about future events.
'They're inquiring and they're calling on fire,” Smyka said. 'We can't field the calls fast enough.”
He's still short-staffed, though, as the hotel works to bring back employees.
'You can't snap your fingers and bring people back,” Smyka said.
Before the pandemic, Smyka usually would have 140 employees at the Cedar Rapids Marriott. Now he has 53, causing him to take on untypical roles such as pressing linen.
At the same time, those event calls he's taking might not pan out right away.
'They're still booking farther out on events,” Smyka said. 'As they draw nearer, they're still skittish.”
While some industries such as financial services are nearing pre-pandemic levels of employment, the leisure and hospitality still is down 26,800 jobs between January 2020 and January 2021, according to data from Iowa Workforce Development.
Patel said his hotels have been bringing laid-off employees back 'pretty quickly in anticipation of the demand that's going to be here this summer and fall.”
The company also is continuing to proceed with future hotel projects, which in some cases may not be ready to open until 2023.
'We continue to plan to be very active and very bullish as we always have been,” Patel said.
Hawkeye Hotels has needed to borrow money from local lenders while also taking advantage of federal programs such as the Payroll Protection Program.
'Without that, we would be in a very, very different situation,” Patel said.
Even with the anticipated uptick in hotel demand, hoteliers expect a longer wait until travel returns to 2019 levels.
'For us to get back to 85 percent to 90 percent of where we were pre-pandemic, it's going to be well into 2022,” Patel said. 'And probably not a full recovery until 2023, 2024.”
In the meantime, Smyka has found one task that gives him a break - kind of.
'When I drive airline crews to the airport, it's the only time I get to sit down and relax,” Smyka said.
'I actually look forward to get to drive to the airport uninterrupted for a little bit.”
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