When you listen to Rupesh Patel speak, it’s easy to feel optimistic. Because despite difficult market conditions, the Daytona Beach-based hotelier and hospitality influencer is finding ways to increase business and be hopeful for the industry’s future.

Patel was recently a guest on our Real Estate Industry Update video series. James Moore senior manager Justyna Mueller—a member of James Moore’s Real Estate Services team—chatted with him about COVID-19’s impact on the industry, how hoteliers can help, marketing tips and the power of positivity.

Buoyancy… and Patience

Hotels often live and die by the events in their areas, and Patel’s property is no exception. When the pandemic first hit in the spring, the Daytona 500 had already been run and Bike Week was in its final days. That influx of revenues helped area hotels stretch their dollar through the first few months of the COVID shutdown.

After that, however, it was a different story as occupancy dropped to 20%. Morale became a difficult thing to maintain, but Patel knew patience would be needed.

“There were days that nobody came in besides the manager that worked the entire hotel,” he said. “And then we kind of made it through, and Memorial weekend came around, and things started picking back up. (COVID) numbers started going down in Florida and in our county.”

Business slowly increased as summer went on, with occupancy rates hitting 50-60% in many areas. While not exactly a hospitality boom, it was enough to support payroll and other necessary expenses. Patel said that, to date, no hotels in Volusia County have had to close their doors.

What can hoteliers do to help their properties stay afloat? Patel has several recommendations.

Make Cuts that Count

According to Patel, many hotels have focused on reducing overtime hours to cut costs. This means scrutinizing minutes spent cleaning each room (and implementing limits) or discontinuing everyday housekeeping altogether. Some have also stopped daily hot breakfasts, eliminated buffets and otherwise scaled back dining options.

While these are money-saving measures, they also helped increase safety. Less physical contact with guests means fewer opportunities to transmit coronavirus. Other good sanitation measures include wiping down high-touch room items like remote controls and phones. Some hotels have also removed these items when they’re not essential (for example, in-room coffee makers).

Patel suggests you communicate these and other changes affecting their stay clearly and as early as possible. Make sure they’re advertised on your website and social media (more on that later) and communicated at booking time.

What shouldn’t you cut? Quality. The services and amenities you still provide should be delivered with the same commitment to excellence. A smiling face and warm greeting don’t cost a thing.

Patel also suggests you keep the small-yet-memorable touches that guests remember. He recalls how he decided to keep his lobby music subscription. “When you walk into a hotel lobby and it’s quiet, it’s kind of eerie, right?” Patel said. “And I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t mind spending whatever we pay a month on this hotel music.’”

Finally, don’t cut your marketing efforts. While they’re a common target when money is tight, savvy hospitality professionals know this can backfire.

“I found some historic data and research,” said Mueller. “Companies in depressed markets that invest in their marketing (instead of going completely dark) are in a much better position when the recession turns around and they’re finally able to attract more customers.”

Patel enthusiastically agrees and reminds hoteliers that marketing efforts don’t have to cost much. As with nearly everything these days, the key to success is your online presence. Thankfully, much of that work is free.

Marketing Your Hotel in a COVID World

One of the most powerful tools in your online presence is the customer review. According to Hotel Business, 81% of people always or frequently read reviews before deciding on a place to stay. Good reviews increase your online ratings and inspire confidence in shoppers.

Aside from providing an exceptional hospitality experience, the best way to get a good review is to ask for one. Even if you’re facing low occupancy, the opportunity is there. If you only have 10 rooms booked in your 100-room hotel, that means you have 10 parties staying there. That equals 10 (or more!) opportunities for good reviews.

You can also leverage other aspects of your online presence to help potential guests feel comfortable with your hotel. Update your website, Google listing, Facebook page, Instagram, etc. to show how you’re ensuring a safe yet memorable experience. Mention your cleanliness standards and other precautions, and demonstrate it with entertaining pictures and videos.

“Just a few months ago, you would just walk into a hotel and you would know it was clean, right? You were just expecting it to be clean. Now you have to go above and beyond with the sanitization practices,” Patel said. “Don’t just do it, but actually show it. That makes people feel comfortable and gets their confidence back up.”

When you do use paid advertising, make sure you’re directing it to an audience most likely to buy. With airline travel still seen as risky, more people are driving than flying unless they must travel for business.

This is why Patel believes the local drive market is the best focus for your advertising. And since these consumers want a safe yet relaxing experience, emphasize how your environment fits that bill. This is where beach properties—and others that emphasize the natural outdoors—have an advantage.

“You see cities like Daytona Beach thriving, and if you look at the numbers, they’re doing much better than Orlando,” he said. “You could easily social distance just by arriving to the beach and setting yourself down 10 feet away, 20 feet away from the next person.”

Prospects Going Forward

Patel admits that the immediate future remains uncertain for the hospitality industry. Early fall is usually a slow time of year, and event cancelations come into play. While many events from earlier in 2020 had been rescheduled for the fall, some are being postponed yet again. All of this affects hotel owners and other hospitality professionals.

While it’s understandable to be concerned, Patel’s upbeat attitude helps him find positive ways to make a difference. He participates in mentorship programs, counseling at least 30 people in the last few months. He also hosts Hospitality Live, a LinkedIn Live video series that provides information and encouragement for industry professionals.

Through these efforts and his everyday work, he conveys a philosophy of continued learning and positivity.

“That’s kind of my thing. I just kept learning. That’s my advice I give to a lot of these people that are hurting right now. You’ve just got to keep going, right? And you’ve got to stay positive. I think [if] we just stay positive, good things come out of that.

“Maybe the hotel [industry]… this is not our time right now. I look at it like, ‘Hey, it’s eventually going to come back and we’ve just got to continue.’ That’s what we do.”

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