Facing a second indoor-dining shutdown in November, executive chef Thomas Lents was back to square one trying to figure out how to keep his Detroit restaurant, the Apparatus Room, afloat. The rooms director at the affiliated Detroit Foundation Hotel was similarly worried.
The two commiserated. “We’re going to have an empty restaurant and an empty hotel again,” Lents said. And then inspiration struck. “It was kind of that chocolate and peanut butter moment: ‘Wait a minute, we can maybe make this work.'”
It’s the kind of necessity-driven idea that hotels around the world have been weighing for nearly a year as the pandemic slashed vacations and business trips and emptied rooms that would have otherwise been filled with travelers. Hotel occupancy in the United States plummeted to 44% in 2020, a record low, according to travel research firm STR.
Early on, hotels opened their doors to medical workers or first responders, people who were recovering from coronavirus or those with nowhere else to stay. Over time, some pitched their properties to workers who could easily uproot and take their Zoom meetings from afar. A few enterprising companies offered “schoolcations” or promised technical help for students who were learning virtually.
But many have found ways to generate business even when guests don’t stay the night by transforming rooms from places to sleep to places to get things done without other people around.
For the Detroit Foundation Hotel, the solution was to turn 30 empty rooms into private dining spaces for people who still wanted a restaurant experience. Customers pay $50 for use of the room, order through the phone and call when they’re ready for courses. Servers leave dishes on a tray outside or just inside the door, and masks are required when anyone comes in.
It turned out that plenty of people wanted exactly that: The Apparatus Room took hundreds of calls a day and ended up with a waiting list. With the restaurant allowed to reopen Wednesday at 25% capacity, the number of private dining rooms has been halved; Lents said they are still sold out.
“It’s about trying to offer hospitality; people want to do the things that they can’t do right now,” Lents said, like going out for dinner and a movie. “Come in, have dinner, watch Netflix. We can offer that in a safe environment.”
At the Sofitel Washington DC Lafayette Square, there’s no fee for the room, but anyone who wants to order from the “enhanced private dining menu” has to spend at least $70 on food and drinks.
Eating in a private room might seem like a luxury, but hotels are making a pitch for a more practical activity: working. The Mandarin Oriental asks “Had enough working from home?” on the promotional page for its “working from M.O.” program, which offers a room, free Wi-Fi, printing services and fitness center access from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m.
The “Work From Hamilton” offer at D.C.’s Hamilton Hotel includes a Keurig coffee maker and a fax machine or printer upon request; prices start at $79. The Sawyer in Sacramento, Calif., rents out pool cabanas for $150 a day for people who want to work poolside; lunch, water, Wi-Fi and parking are included.
In Brooklyn, the Wythe Hotel turned loft-style rooms into offices in partnership with co-working company Industrious over the summer.
“At the time it felt like a big experiment – is this going to work?” said Anna Squires Levine, chief commercial officer at Industrious. “We were pretty bowled over by the demand.”
They expanded that arrangement into a membership program this week, offering four days of office suite use each month starting at $300 per month, with the option to book more. Members who want to stay longer than a workday get 25% off a night’s stay.
Yannis Moati, CEO of HotelsByDay, which lets people book rooms or amenities for part of a day, said some hotels are listing “gym rooms” so customers can use a Peloton in privacy. His company launched in 2015, but he said he thinks the pandemic will force hotels to be creative in a whole new way moving forward.
“Hotels are going to be, in our view, more flexible than ever,” Moati said. “Whereas before they used to focus solely on overnights, post-pandemic they’re going to be much more flexible in their use of the space.”
Steven Carvell, a professor of finance and director of the Center for Real Estate and Finance at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, said hotels have to balance union rules and potential liability as they consider ways to be flexible.
He said he has heard of some hotels being used for college students to take virtual classes in, or requests to rent out rooms for parents who need a place for their kids and a child-care provider to spend the day. One New York City hotel, he said, is allowing film crews to shoot at normal times of day when they would have previously needed to schedule filming late at night.
“It depends on the level of desperation at this point,” Carvell said.