Albany hotels partner with universities, get creative to survive

ALBANY— The downtown Holiday Inn Express and the Springhill Suites in Colonie reopened their doors on Thursday for the first time in months. But with no major events happening this fall — conventions, concerts, mass sports events — many hotels remain almost empty. “Yesterday we had two guests,” said Vicky […]

ALBANY— The downtown Holiday Inn Express and the Springhill Suites in Colonie reopened their doors on Thursday for the first time in months. But with no major events happening this fall — conventions, concerts, mass sports events — many hotels remain almost empty.

“Yesterday we had two guests,” said Vicky Sindhu, the operating manager at the Holiday Inn Express. “It’s devastating to see things are not the way they were. It was weird. We are happy we are open, but I wish we could bring in more. Two arrivals a day, four arrivals a day, sometimes zero. Obviously, business is really, really bad.”

Without events at the Times Union Center, the Palace Theatre, The Egg or other venues, businesses having to keep their meetings to under 50 people as per state guidelines, and NCAA sports and other fall events not happening across the region, hotels are hurting.

There are exceptions: Hotels in bucolic settings like Lake Placid and Lake George had unusually successful Septembers.

But the Red Lion on Wolf Road and the Albany Airport Inn & Suites (formerly the Old Residence Inn) are permanently closed. The Albany Airport Inn & Suites is being converted into apartments.

The former Park Manor Hotel is for sale on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020 in Clifton Park, N.Y. (Lori Van Buren/Times Union)

The CrestHill Suites on Washington Avenue isn’t open to guests, but it is housing University of Albany students undergoing two-week quarantines. The Desmond Hotel is hosting some Siena College students for the entire fall semester.

Across the state, there are between 15 and 20 hotels that have partnered with colleges, said Mark Dorr, president of the state Hospitality and Tourism Association. “That has become a pretty decent source of businesses for some of our members,” he said.

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Usually, colleges negotiate a reduced rate. “It’s great having them here — but they don’t replace the usual customer base,” said Tyler Desmond, general manager at the Desmond. “It was significantly less than what a regular guest would be paying.”

The Desmond Hotel’s occupancy rate is down 75 percent and could be down 80-85 percent if restrictions aren’t lifted by November, Desmond said. So far this year, the hotel has seen the cancellation of a whopping 900 events.

Major events at large hotels like the Desmond and The Renaissance have a positive spillover effect on smaller hotels in the area, Dorr said.

“I feel like we are just sort of stuck,” Desmond said. “The laws are put in place to restrict our business, our operations. There is not a lot … we can do.”

Many other hotel general managers echoed these concerns. “We are still at the mercy of a (Centers for Disease Control) announcement,” said Tom Rivera, general manager at the Holiday Inn Express.

Many hotels like the Hampton Inn in Albany, the Red Lion Inn in the Berkshires and the Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid are offering deals targeted to those who want to work away from home and do virtual learning, hoping to attract people who are looking for a change of scenery from their home office.

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The loss of meeting and conference business had a significant impact.

The Albany Capital Center projected filling 10,244 hotel rooms this year; instead, it filled 2,396 between January and the arrival of the pandemic in March, and then the number dropped to zero, according to Doug McClaine, the center’s general manager. The facility has been able to host small events with local businesses, and Zoom webinars. It has only eight events on the books between now and December.

“Our members are really, really struggling,” Dorr said. “Doing what they are doing now long-term is impossible.” Getting approval for events larger than 50 people would be helpful to hotels, he said. He believes this could be done safely at some of the hotels that have large banquet halls and outdoor spaces. “The longer this goes on, you are going to see more closures, for sure.”

Occupancy rates in the Albany area improved throughout the summer, but have remained fairly similar between August and September, hovering around 45 percent, according to data from industry monitor STR.

Out of 2,336 hotels total in New York, the American Hotel and Lodging Association predicts 1,565 would have to close if no additional aid comes from Congress.

The trade association predicts that across the country, 74 percent of hotels would be forced to lay off additional employees and 67 percent would not survive another six months if Congress doesn’t pass another COVID-19 stimulus bill with relief for the industry.

“We don’t necessarily know which crystal ball to trust,” said Jill Delaney, the president of Discover Albany. “I don’t expect a huge, speedy recovery.”

Industry experts say these challenges are not here for a short-term stay: Hotel occupancy numbers, they say, are not expected to return to pre-pandemic numbers until 2023.

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