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With 'bleisure' and fewer workers, the American hotel is in recovery

Vinay Patel, head of Fairbrook Hotels, owns 11 hotels around Virginia.
Amar Patel
/
Courtesy of Vinay Patel
Vinay Patel, head of Fairbrook Hotels, owns 11 hotels around Virginia.

Midday is quiet at a Hampton Inn & Suites near Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia. Staff restock the snacks. A young dad bounces a baby among the grays, browns and teals of the lobby. Eventually, a couple of new arrivals roll a suitcase to the front desk, asking to check in early.

The hotel's owner, Vinay Patel, has noticed this interaction waning.

"People are now literally not wanting to go to the front desk," he says. "They'll check in online on the phone similar to the airlines and go straight to [the] room."

Technology has long been transforming hotels, and the pandemic accelerated that change.

It's Tuesday, and for this hotel, that used to mean a crush of business travelers. Instead, Patel has been welcoming a new type of guest: here not just for business or leisure, but a combination of both. "Bleisure" is a hot new term in hospitality, the product of remote-work culture.

All this is part of a big post-pandemic reset for the American hotel: It's shaken up travel habits, erased jobs and put the industry on a circuitous path to recovery.

Getting by with fewer workers

Today almost 200,000 fewer people work in hotels and other lodging than before the pandemic, federal data shows. That's a 9% drop. Lower employment often implies an industry in trouble — but hotels may actually never need as many workers as they once did.

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When travel cratered in 2020, hotels were wiped out and over a million workers lost jobs. Housekeepers, front desk agents, maintenance staff went into construction, food, retail. Those who stayed trained to do new tasks. Hotels that offered extra services, like lunches, scaled them back.

Over time, guests learned to skip daily room cleanings for COVID precautions. Breakfasts got more self-served and automated, with waffles and pancakes tumbling out of machines. And in the long run, operating with fewer workers saves companies money.

"You know, like it or not ... the pandemic has kind of taught us a lot," says Patel, who owns 11 hotels around Virginia. "We've become a lot more efficient."

Less business, more "bleisure"

Vacationers surged back to hotels with "revenge travel," but foreign tourists and corporate travelers are still not back in force.

"That's the biggest impact," says Miraj Patel, the chair of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, whose members own the majority of U.S. hotels, and Vinay Patel's nephew. "The full recovery is still not there."

The "bleisure" travelers make up for some of the losses, says Vinay Patel. They come for meetings, and stay longer to visit the Virginia wineries. And at the Hampton, six miles from the airport, that's upended the ebb and flow.

Before the pandemic, "you do not mess with Tuesday-Wednesday," Patel recalls. "Business travelers come down on Tuesday-Wednesday."

And these days? "It's spread out a lot more," he says.

Questions about the industry's future

Major hotel chains, like Hilton and Marriott, have seen their stock price resurge to record highs this year. That's partly because luxury hotels have fared much better than the rest.

People stayed more often at upscale brands and less in economy lodging in early 2024 versus 2023, says Jan Freitag, who tracks hospitality analytics at the real estate data firm CoStar.

Overall hotel occupancy neared 64% in March compared to 68% in 2019, CoStar found. That suggests near-recovery from pandemic collapse, though the lag does obscure millions of rooms that got built, opened and not filled.

"We have more rooms available now, and we are selling fewer rooms than we did," says Freitag.

Price-wise, the average cost has jumped to $155 per room from $129 in 2019, Freitag says. That's a 20% increase. At the same time, overall U.S. inflation added up to almost 23% over those years. So hotel owners list plenty of higher costs, too: taxes, wages, insurance, coffee, cups, linens, detergent.

Add in high interest rates, plus banks being stingier with loans, and a new concern hovers overs the industry's future: Fewer people have been buying and building new hotels.

That includes Vinay Patel in Virginia, who keeps delaying construction on a lot where he originally planned to break ground when the pandemic began.

"I just can't make the numbers work right now," he says. "I have to wait another year to two years."

Still, he notes a silver lining: There's less competition for his existing hotels — for now.

NPR's Scott Horsley contributed to this report.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.