E.J. and Tonya White said they were looking for bargains at the liquidation sale of the Sheraton where E.J. used to play drums at black-tie balls.
As he walked past furniture tagged with discount prices — a king-sized bed for $250, $29 for an end table — E.J. White recalled how the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Tysons, Va. looked in more prosperous times. White, 38, played drums for a band that performed in the hotel's black-tie balls for fraternities.
"They usually have a photo booth out here," he said, pointing to the space just outside the Fairfax Ballroom's heavy wood doors. "They have tables, they have a stage set up. So it's very nice and upscale and elegant."
Those days ended when the pandemic made large indoor gatherings unsafe. Now White and his wife returned to the hotel to browse its going-out-of-business sale and possibly find deals for spending evenings at home.
"We're looking at a lot of things for the kitchen," Tonya White said. "My husband wants to put a bar in the basement."
The parent company of the Sheraton Premier Tysons Corner Hotel laid off 186 employees in early April. It reflects an industry-wide slump that is especially acute in Northern Virginia, where hotels were 32% full last October compared to 80% the year before, according to Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association.
Terry estimated 20 Virginia hotels closed on a temporary basis during the pandemic, and although most have since reopened, the outlook is bleak. More hotels may follow the Sheraton's path.
"There's no government or business travel happening, no corporate meetings or other meetings occurring," Terry said. "I think the winter months are going to be particularly difficult for our hotels, especially in Northern Virginia."
Some hotels have found new economic life by contracting with local authorities. Fairfax County has arranged to provide temporary shelter in 355 hotel rooms at other properties for people at high risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19 and for those who cannot safely isolate or quarantine, according to Shweta Adyanthaya, a spokesperson for the county's Health and Human Services office. This Sheraton, however, will have no such arrangement.
Still, the gleaming, glass-clad building is full of furniture. Enter Nicole Kabealo, project manager for the Dayton, Ohio-based International Content Liquidations. She guided buyers to wander the guest rooms to pick their purchases: on Wednesday, the rooms in floors 11 to 15 were all open.
"They pick the exact bed that they want, they pull it down," Kabealo said. "We don't supply any muscle."
Kabealo estimates about 600 people came by each day this week to buy everything from $2 power strips to $17,000 chandeliers.
"We sold all the carpet in the main ballroom," she said. "They're waiting for us to have everything off of it so they can come and pull it up."
Wil Corps holds a stack of bedsheets. He says in the pandemic he's getting guests who book for a month or two at his vacation rentals, rather than just a few nights.
Although hotels are suffering, some of the Sheraton's goods will go to businesses that are thriving. Wil Corps, 48, picked up white bedsheets and planned to buy mattresses, pillow covers, glasses and coffee mugs as well. Corps, of Fairfax City, owns ten rental properties near Lake Anna, Va., and in Puerto Rico. People used to only stay for a few days, "but now people are renting for a month, two months," Corps said. "And it's people from here that are going down because, you know, we have good internet and everything, so they are working from where they are vacationing."
A builder at the sale planned to buy toilets at a steep discount. A handyman said desks were cheap, too.
For other visitors, the priced-down furniture with some signs of wear and tear offered a path to reducing expenses in tight times.
Ali, 40, planned to buy two lightly used black and white arm chairs, standing lamps and mirrors for himself and his girlfriend Mahsa. They asked to use their first names only so they could candidly discuss their finances. Ali said he had his hours cut as a university professor and researcher. Mahsa, 32, lost her job as a graphic designer and was learning UX design, living off her savings. Ali, of Arlington, said the two often went to McDonald's for date night.
"We are trying to avoid any unnecessary expenses until we feel financially safe," Ali said.
Like the couple, many hotels in Virginia are also trying to cut expenses until the economic picture improves. However, government assistance to support payroll ran out months ago. In winter, fewer guests are expected. If pandemic conditions carry on over the coming months, it could mean many more opportunities in the D.C. region to get comfortable beds at rock-bottom prices.