BEMIDJI -- On a typical day, Joy and Faith McIntyre would both be out the door before dawn, and hotels across the country would be bustling with activity. But let's be honest, there is no such thing as a typical day anymore.
Here in Bemidji, early-rising staff at the DoubleTree and Hampton Inn and Suites would kick the day off by preparing breakfast; front desk attendants would be ready at the phones to secure reservations; housekeepers would go from room to room, cleaning and sanitizing -- all the while a steady flow of guests would check in and out.
But now, that activity has all but stopped due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the McIntyre sisters -- both working in the Bemidji hotel industry -- are currently facing their own set of challenges because of it.
“We've gone from a busy hotel down to zero,” said Rich Seigert, owner of both the DoubleTree and Hampton Inn and Suites. “It's like taking your paycheck, and you get about 5% of what’s leftover. That's where we are.”
While the DoubleTree is still operating -- albeit at a low occupancy rate -- the Hampton Inn and Suites has closed its doors for the time being.
The two lakefront hotels are just a local illustration of a crisis within a crisis for the 56,000 hotels nationwide.
With at least 297 million people in at least 38 states being urged to stay home around the country because of COVID-19, hotel occupancy rates are trending toward zero, forcing many to close their doors.
Those that remain open are operating with a skeleton staff -- having laid off or furloughed employees.
Joy, who worked at the Hampton Inn and Suites as a breakfast hostess and gift shop supervisor, was recently laid off.
She said a decline in occupancy was first noticed when her hotel began to lose weekend travelers and even more so as conferences began to be canceled. Eventually, the number of business travelers started to dip as well.
“It just got to the point that, because we didn't have the occupancy, they officially shut down the breakfast area and laid off the workers in there, which was me and a few others,” Joy said.
Like restaurants and bars, hotel breakfast areas are only allowing takeout options.
At the time of her interview with the Pioneer earlier this week, Faith was employed at the DoubleTree as a food and beverage supervisor, though, her hours had been greatly reduced.
She said her hotel had also experienced a severe decline in occupancy, and staff had to abide with strict regulations to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.
“Lately, we've had to do room service and leave things outside guests’ doors, which is kind of awkward because our whole motto for the hotel is 'the simple acts that make people feel human again,'” Faith said.
On Friday, April 3, Faith was also temporarily laid off after DoubleTree management decided to no longer offer food services.
Additionally, hotel swimming pools have been shut down, conferences are no longer allowed and many businesses are reducing travel for essential workers.
A decrease in essential worker travel means even less business for hotels.
“It's basically a very limited situation. It's really come to a screeching halt. If I was to speculate, I can't imagine there's more than 10% of the rooms rented in an average week,” Seigert said when asked how he envisioned other hotels were faring in Bemidji.
“It's just dead. On a national basis, the president of the Hilton Corporation said the hotels are running from single digits to a maximum of 15% across the United States,” he added.
However, hotel corporations are implementing policies to better assist guests during the pandemic. As of March 25, Hilton guests can change or cancel existing and new reservations at no charge until June 30, even if the reservation is noted as non-refundable.
And IHG, which owns chains in Bemidji like Candlewood Suites and Holiday Inn Express (also temporarily closed), is waiving cancellation fees for existing and new bookings, though, it's only for stays between March 9 and April 30.
Despite owning Hilton brand hotels, Seigert said he’s still uncertain about the amount of support his hospitality businesses -- and those of others -- will receive.
“It might vary from one corporation to another. They might give you some leeway. I kind of think if there's anything that's going to come through for most businesses it will be done on the stimulus program from the federal government and from the state of Minnesota,” Seigert said. “Those programs are just starting to initiate a little bit, so we don't even know what's going to happen or what we're going to get.”
As for Joy, she’s also uncertain as to how long her unemployment will last. She was told that upon the Hampton Inn and Suites’ reopening, she would reclaim her job.
“As of right now, there is no time frame for us to regain our jobs,” Joy said. “It was just a temporary layoff for occupancy because there were not enough people staying for the amount of staff we had, which is totally understandable because you can't have a hotel without people.”
On the other hand, Faith said DoubleTree is trying to work with its employees to ensure that those who are still employed can earn an income despite more limited scheduling.
“We've battened down the hatches, and it's really only a couple of people working at a time per day,” Faith said. “So they've been giving chances to all of our different employees to be on the schedule, whether it's just one day a week or something.”
Like many in the hospitality industry, Seigert hopes conditions “get back to order” in the near future for the sake of the economy. However, he said if stay at home orders extend into May, he expects to see “some major setbacks going on with businesses.”
“I think we've already begun to see some businesses are closing up permanently,” Seigert said. “They're not going to reopen.”
Yet for the two sisters, they’re looking to stay optimistic amid adverse circumstances in life and in work.
“I don't know how it will look for employees coming back to work -- if they'll just break a couple people in at a time or if they'll just hire everybody back,” Joy said. “But we’re just trying to stay positive because everybody's dealing with the hypothetical right now."