What’s It Really Like Trying to Open a Hotel in the Middle of a Pandemic?

PHOTO: Ren Fuller

This is the tale of three different hotels trying to survive.

It’s no secret that COVID-19 has significantly impacted travel and tourism operations across the world—including the ongoing renovations, openings, and unveilings of numerous destinations. We spoke with three hospitality leaders, who have shared their first-hand experiences. One is unveiling a completely new, never-been-stayed in hotel property; another has a hotel that underwent a renovation and reopening; and third is a property that postponed its opening due to logistical challenges but continues to build a name for itself, preparing for when it does finally open.

Just Renovated: Wylder Hope Valley, South Lake Tahoe, California

Wylder Hope Valley is located in Hope Valley, California. This outdoor adventure and wellness-geared property reopened in June after undergoing renovations to become a redesigned, modern, all-season, 165-acre resort. Hope Valley is just 30 minutes away from South Lake Tahoe, making it an ideal road trip destination from San Francisco, Reno, Sacramento, or Los Angeles.

John Flannigan, Founder and CEO of Wylder Hotels, shared his thoughts on the process of renovating and reopening this property during these challenging times—including the impact this timing has had on the property’s visitorship and business success.

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“I’ve been in the hotel business for 25 years now and worked with a lot of different kinds of properties in different locations. My business partner Chet Pipkin, the Co-Founder of Wylder Hotels, comes from a very different professional background than me in electronics, and I think that’s part of the magic of our partnership.

“I had already fallen in love with everything about the property before we restored it. The property was previously the family-owned Sorensen’s Resort from 1926-2019, and we exercised a lot of restraint in restoring the existing structures. The Sorensen family’s Norwegian heritage is carefully preserved at Wylder through original structures, refurbished with a contemporary Nordic flair.

“I’m so proud of the team that helped make those elements come together. It’s an incredible feeling to conceive of something like this, work hard to manifest that vision, and then get this amazing gratification.

 

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Ren Fuller

 

“We had a few issues with delayed construction but ultimately overcame them. We kept all the staff from the previous Sorensen’s resort as well as hired new staffers, so we didn’t run into any pandemic-related issues with staffing, thankfully.

“I just feel so incredibly fortunate because we’re so remote and socially distanced by design and it’s really played in our favor. Of course, we adhere strictly to all CDC guidelines and travel restrictions as a result of the pandemic. When I’m in Hope Valley, my anxiety just dissipates.

“A majority of the people who knew this place as Sorensen’s are so happy that it’s getting restored to this level with such major improvements. We’re promoting the property as a reimagination of the beloved Sorensen’s with all the trappings of exceptional hospitality and modern luxury that we love and we think our guests will too.”

Newly Opened: Maslina Resort, Hvar, Croatia

Maslina Resort in Hvar, Croatia just opened its doors on the iconic Hvar Island on August 10. Its carefully constructed architecture blends into the Mediterranean scenery and offers a specialized design created to honor local culture.

Zoran Pejovic, founder and managing director of Paradox Hospitality and the manager of the Maslina project, shared his experience opening up a new hotel during the pandemic and the complicated decisions he had to make while planning for an uncertain future.

“I’ve spent 20 years in the industry, with a roller-coaster of a career. I have worked on three continents and most of the seas. [I’ve] opened hotels and restaurants in several countries, and worked for some of the most prestigious names in the industry.

“Over the past two years, I have met with hundreds of travel agents, journalists, and other influential people from the travel industry and I have personally shared with them our vision for Maslina.

Nikola Radovani

“It is the uncertainty of this situation that really makes this unbearable sometimes. The island was effectively in lockdown from mid-March to mid-May and people could not come to the island and could not leave the island. We could not get the construction materials and the engineers to come onsite, but we continued working, even if at 10% capacity.

“On top of that, we had to come up with our own understanding of the COVID-19 policies and procedures. We brought on board a medical doctor to be our health and safety leader, to guide us through this process, give us confidence and be with us during the operation, both for the team and for the guests.

“We welcomed our first guests on August 16. We are planning for 2021 and working on creating more flexibility within the team.”

Delayed Opening: El Capitan, Merced, California

El Capitan Hotel in Merced, California pays homage to the property’s historic roots as the site of the town’s first railroad depot. The property is located in agricultural Central California halfway between San Francisco and Yosemite National Park.

Robin Donovan, the managing director of El Capitan, has extensive experience in the hospitality industry, having opened three hotels during previous times of national crisis, but said this situation has been the most challenging so far.

“I’ve been in the hospitality and hotel business for 30 years. This is at least the ninth hotel I’ve overseen in my career and my fourth opening. I very much enjoy what I’m doing—but everything here is constantly changing. The unpredictability has been hard for me to hire people. People were also just unsure of their safety, going back to work in a public setting.

Courtesy of El Capitan Hotel

“I’m usually a leader that can tell the team ‘this is what we’re going to do, this is our plan, let’s go out and get it done’ and I’m having to be very fluid and very flexible which is fine, but it’s not something I have control over.

“I’ve previously had disaster experience to call upon–but not here. I’ve opened up hotels during the dot-com bust, I opened up a hotel during 9/11, and after the great recession. This has been the hardest. My employees’ safety and the safety of my guests have to mean the most to us, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

Courtesy of El Capitan Hotel

“Economically, the property’s transient occupancy tax will be going straight back into the city’s conferences and general fund which they didn’t have before. We’ve been helping the local businesses as much as we can.

“We are all about going into our community and finding what we need to connect with the locals. Our brand takes five words [‘vital, cultural hub, haven, artesian, and historic’] that fit that local community, the neighborhood, and we build off of it.

“Yosemite is just 80 miles from us—so we’ll get a lot of people who are traveling between Yosemite and San Francisco as a central point. Merced is a hidden gem that’s getting polished up, and when we open, it will be fantastic.”

These three property teams have been working hard to push through the challenges of the pandemic, and their leaders will continue to support their onsite employees and guests to build a successful future for travel and tourism.

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