Housekeeper and porter Jessica Rosas cleans and sanitizes the plexiglass window in the reception area of the Ramada Inn in Hammond on Friday, October 16, 2020. (Kyle Telechan / Post-Tribune)
Housekeeper and porter Jessica Rosas cleans and sanitizes the plexiglass window in the reception area of the Ramada Inn in Hammond on Friday, October 16, 2020. (Kyle Telechan / Post-Tribune)
Every Thanksgiving, Christine Cash writes letters to the tour group operators thanking them for their past or upcoming business.

This year, the general manager of the Ramada by Wyndham in Hammond, said she has no letters to write because many tour groups – like a group from Nebraska that stays at the hotel before heading to Chicago and then Niagara Falls and again on the way back – have canceled their typically annual reservations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cash said.

On top of that, Cash said she’s worried not all tour businesses will survive the pandemic.

“I don’t even know what to write this year because it’s like are they still going to be in business?” Cash said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the hotel industry hard, particularly when stay-at-home orders were in effect, which required a shift in business operations, such as staggering which rooms to rent, grab-and-go breakfast instead of a continental breakfast, closing pools and adjusting rules for the fitness center.

Earlier this month, based on a national survey of its members, the American Hotel and Lodging Association estimated that nearly two-thirds of Indiana’s hotels – or nearly 700 of Indiana’s 1,042 hotels – will permanently close within the next six months if Congress does not approve more financial relief.

South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Speros Batistatos said he mostly agrees with the association’s findings, but added that large hotels that have convention halls, bars and restaurants in cities like Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and Evansville would face the brunt of potential closures.

“All of those revenue streams dried up,” Batistatos said.

Northwest Indiana has hotels that “have a much more focused revenue stream that comes from renting rooms," Batistatos said. Hotels that see most revenue in room rentals have a better chance of withstanding the pandemic because those hotels will continue to see business as people travel for work, road trips, traveling sports and other activities, he said.

“The only upside COVID has given us – and our industry has been battered by it – people now understand the importance of our industry,” Batistatos said.

The Indiana Dunes and National State Park drew large crowds in the spring and summer when outdoor activities were the best escape amid the pandemic, said Executive Director of Indiana Dunes Tourism Lorelei Weimer.

“Outdoor recreation destinations did better than other destinations. We’re not a convention destination ... our strength is our outdoor. So, that really boated well for us in the summer,” Weimer said.

But, with fall and winter – of the off season for outdoor activities – what boosts the hotel industry are the business and construction markets, most of which have been impacted by the pandemic, Weimer said. One way area hotels approached increasing business, Weimer said, was to offer guests a 20% off coupon valid through the end of 2021.

“We’re going to hopefully keep people excited to come to the dunes regardless of what season it is because the dunes don’t close,” Weimer said, saying walking along the beach and hiking is still available in the off season.

But, Weimer said she has been reaching out to members of Congress urging them to support another federal stimulus package to help the industry because “we’re not still to recovery, not even close."

“I think one of the things people lose sight of is it doesn’t matter if you are a branded hotel or a branded restaurant. Most of them are owned by independent owners,” Weimer said. “I don’t think people really realize how dire this is that a lot of these hotel owners are independent and if they don’t survive it’s over.”

From March through April, Cash said the hotel lost seven coach buses that were scheduled to stop at the Ramada on the way to another destination. Events, like weddings, baby showers and quinceañeras – the Hispanic celebration of a young girl turning 15 – were canceled in the hotel banquet hall, she said.

People stopped traveling for work and vacations, and area festivals – like Pierogi Fest – were canceled, which further decreased occupancy, Cash said.

“Dates that I was oversold, that I could’ve sold the rooms five times over, we were lucky if we were doing 20 rooms. Where before, we could’ve sold them for $300 a night,” Cash said.

The hotel, which has 100 rooms, would rotate which rooms were available to rent so that between cleanings the room was empty for 48 hours, Cash said. Hand sanitizer and wipes are offered in the lobby, and guests can call the front desk to request some for the room, Cash said.

The counters in the lobby have plexiglass and the lobby and common area surfaces are wiped down every hour, Cash said.

When business was the slowest in the spring, Cash said the hotel closed the top floor and unplugged everything in the rooms to cut down on cost, she said. Employees also saw a reduction in hours, she said.

Cash, who had COVID-19 in May, said she foresees business remaining the same over the next few months: About 30% to 40% occupancy during the week and increasing to about 80% over the weekend.

Richard Rainey, the general manager of Fairfield by Marriott in Valparaiso, said at the start of the stay-at-home orders occupancy dropped to the single-digits and some staff members were laid off. As the weather became warmer, business picked up and most of the staff was brought back to work with shorter hours, he said.

The hotel did close its pool and fitness center in the spring, Rainey said. While the fitness center has reopened – with a two person occupancy and reservations required – the pool is still closed, he said. A grab-and-go breakfast was offered in the spring, and the hotel has started serving hot breakfast, he said.

The remainder of the fall will “be relatively steady," but the winter will be slower based on the season, Rainey said.

“We’ll probably see a little bit less travel because of the pandemic, but we’re going into a slow season as it is anyway,” Rainey said.

But, in the future, while the pandemic may impact how people decide to travel, once a vaccine is ready and the infection rate decreases people will feel more confident about traveling, he said.

“I think travel will definitely increase as the numbers go down,” Rainey said.
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