By Sara Schonhardt — For Foothills Forum
When Innkeepers Drew Beard and his wife Deb Harris thought about how they would reopen the Gay Street Inn in Washington amid the COVID-19 pandemic they took a walk through the house and tried to experience it the way a guest would — everything from check-in to book borrowing to evaluating which rooms allowed for some seclusion.
The shutdown forced by the pandemic put a massive dent in economic activity. And now, as business slowly resumes under state-issued guidelines, many are rethinking their operations in ways they never could have expected.
That’s particularly true for local lodging establishments, which traditionally provide an intimate, personalized experience that involves greeting guests face to face, pouring them a drink and connecting them with one another over a communal breakfast.
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Heather Turner, the marketing director at the Association of Lodging Professionals (APL), an industry group, said among the main challenges she’s hearing from members are the need to provide reassurance to guests, procure cleaning supplies and secure funding for adjustments.
APL has been providing resources and webinars on everything from marketing to sanitizing, but Turner said re-thinking the guest experience and offering different, more varied options could be beneficial in the long run.
For Beard and Harris the transition was about finding ways to keep their connection to customers while also maintaining appropriate distancing.
They’ve worked to offset the personal interaction with emails that offer county information, travel tips and breakfast orders. They’ve retrofitted rooms with mini-fridges and coffee makers and have changed the door keys to coded locks so guests can choose to check themselves in. The library has a book return basket and for happy hour they deliver pre-ordered cocktails to each room in small mason jars.
“It’s been a lot of little things like that, that you wake up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought of that,’” Beard said.
The inn has booked eight rooms since reopening the weekend of May 30 — roughly 25 percent of the business it did during the same period last year — so they’re still seeing what works and what doesn’t, he added.
Other small lodging establishments in the county are also in the testing phase. In addition to implementing more rigorous cleaning and sanitizing procedures advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many now offer self-service check-in and in-room or pre-packaged breakfast options. Many say they’ve spaced dining tables more widely throughout their rooms to allow for more distancing.
They’re also placing hand sanitizer throughout their properties and are asking guests to wear masks when in common spaces. They’ve removed throw pillows and many are relaxing their re-booking or cancellation policies.
Hopkins Ordinary Bed and Breakfast & Ale Works has taken away its self-serve coffee station and is leaving rooms empty between guests when possible. Both Hopkins and Gay Street Inn are also offering discounts for multi-night stays to reduce the amount of turnover and give them time for cleaning.
The thinking that has gone into reopening started for many businesses weeks before any phased timeline was announced by the governor, “because you have to buy things, you have to increase supplies,” said Sherri Fickel, co-owner at Hopkins.
The changes have also not come cheap, at a time when many small businesses are already seeing their finances stretched.
“In addition to losing revenue, we’ve definitely invested in the property,” said Beard, who sees the adjustments as a way of hedging for the future.
His inn was able to finance some of those changes using federal relief money it got through the Paycheck Protection Program, which several other county B&Bs also received. Yet given the many variables and complexities, not all have chosen to re-open.
Vacation rentals offered through platforms like Airbnb or HomeAway allow for more isolation. But they’ve also had to adapt their operations.
Amissville resident Merilee Poe, who runs Miss Kitty’s Place, has been following HomeAway’s guidelines. She asks that departing guests open the windows to let in fresh air and put used linens on the sun porch. She’s removed DVDs and board games from the house and is leaving at least 24 hours between stays.
Poe said she’s gotten a lot of inquiries from people who want to come and telework, but the internet and cellular service isn’t good enough (she installed a landline recently for emergencies). She also chose to take the house off the market at the peak of the pandemic rather than rent it to monthly guests to reduce the risk of visitors bringing the virus in from surrounding hotspots.
Poe, a decades-long resident, received a small grant from Businesses of Rappahannock to help pay bills and allay some losses from cancellations — including guests meant to attend her granddaughter’s wedding, which was postponed.
And while she’s seen reservations return in recent weeks, she does have concerns that Rappahannock could see a rush of visitors looking to escape from the city this summer.
Indeed, Airbnb data show people are booking stays closer to home, often outside major cities and that cabins and cottages are more popular than they were at the same time last year.
“It’s nice to get tourism, but not to be overrun when there’s an epidemic going around,” Poe said.
Changing for the better
With every crisis comes opportunity, and Fickel said they’re watching to see how the changes they’re making play out.
In the brewery, for example, they’ve opened the garden for table service at reduced capacity and have seen some positive outcomes.
“We have fewer people but probably sell just as much beer and we’re giving a better level of service,” Fickel said.
Some changes, such as the candy bowls and communal port service the Gay Street Inn used to offer, may never return. But adapting the business to better understand customers before they arrive and pre-arranging things like cocktails and breakfast, could ease the workload in the long run.
“We’re hopeful that the silver lining in this will be some new efficiencies in how we run the business,” Beard said.
Here’s a list of other lodging currently open. If you don’t see your business listed, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org:
Glen Gordon Manor
The Inn at Mount Vernon Farm
White Moose Inn
Foster Harris House (reopens June 12)
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