What It's Like To Open A New Hotel In The Midst Of The Pandemic
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Why would anyone open a new hotel in the middle of a pandemic? NPR's Alina Selyukh brings us the stories of two hotel chain owners who are doing just that.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Navnit Patel dialed into our video call from exactly the place I'd hoped - a room inside one of his hotels. Then he turned his camera around for show and tell.
NAVNIT PATEL: I don't know if you can see, but I...
SELYUKH: Wait. Is there, like, plastic covers on the mattress?
N PATEL: Yes because we're still waiting on some inspections.
SELYUKH: This pet friendly, equipped kitchen, extended stay hotel is brand new, as in it hasn't opened yet, but it's about to.
N PATEL: The hot water's on. The lights are on. The TV works. So all I need is some bed sheets and a couple of pillows, and you're good to go.
SELYUKH: It was supposed to open a lot earlier, back in the spring, when usually the hotel business starts to get going for the year. But in 2020, you know what happened instead.
N PATEL: Come March 15, literally every single hotel in this country, including ours, everywhere, fell off a cliff.
SELYUKH: Navnit Patel and his brother-in-law co-own five hotels. This new one is just south of D.C. in Virginia in a shopping cluster by the interstate highway between two military bases. They broke ground two years ago. Their company, Marquee Hospitality, got a franchise through Marriott, ordered materials, even hired a general manager. The pandemic brought setbacks. Delays began to cascade.
N PATEL: Like when Georgia shut down, our carpet was delayed because a lot of the carpet mills are are based out of Georgia. We had furniture shipments that were actually delayed on the west coast of California because of the container ships that were quarantined.
SELYUKH: A hotel is a big investment whether it houses people or sits empty. Mainly, it's a huge mortgage. Trying to make some money from a few guests is better than nothing.
VINAY PATEL: You can't just shut it down and stop it because you lose a lot of money in the long run.
SELYUKH: That's Vinay Patel, another hotel owner opening to new locations. No relation to X, both children of immigrants from the same region in India - their parents' generation drawn so much to the business The New York Times called them, tongue-in-cheek, the Patel Motel Cartel. Both Vinay and Navnit Patel grew up literally in hotels. They made up rooms, cut grass, answered phones. Now they both face a surreal new reality - being a hotelier in a pandemic. Here's Vinay Patel, head of Fairbrook Hotels.
V PATEL: We're typically running 80% occupancy. Now we're running 40. So we're still at half occupancy.
SELYUKH: Usually, he strikes a nice balance with his nine properties - folks staying at hotels along highways for weekend trips and crashing in hotels near airports for weekday business. Now, people have been driving, but often not that far. And corporate travel is decimated. Half an empty hotel is better than one with a few stray guests like it was in the spring, but it's not enough. Both Fairbrook and Marquee had to lay off and furlough staff, asked banks to defer payments and applied for federal pandemic loans to help pay wages.
V PATEL: Many of our hotels, we're probably at the last one or two payroll cycles left in that.
SELYUKH: Now it's been six months of loan deferrals, and banks are getting antsy. There are still taxes, water and electric bills. Both Patels are dipping into personal funds, hoping lawmakers manage to pass new financial relief. Trade groups say, without it, a wave of hotel foreclosures is inevitable. Here is Vinay Patel again.
V PATEL: The problem is that looking ahead to the next six months - and I don't mean to stereotype - but the winter's coming on - (unintelligible).
SELYUKH: The "Game Of Thrones" joke cuts deep because winter is when many hotels go dormant in the best of times, which makes it an even stranger moment to be staffing up and furnishing brand-new properties. Actual dates and plans are still in flux, but like the proverbial show, a hotel opening must go on. Alina Selyukh, NPR News.
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