With summer right around the corner and Covid levels dropping precipitously in the state of California, travelers are gearing up to get out of the house and experience a vacation for the first time in nearly two years.
That precipitous drop means that California has already entered Tier 4, or the Yellow Tier, and as of June 15th, the state will move beyond its tiered framework, which will allow hotels to fully open their doors to guests with 100% occupancy, without social distancing, and masks optional.
Questions remain: how will travel look in a post-covid world? Will hotels operate the same as they did before? What changes will be permanent to keep the health and safety of guests top of mind?
To answer some of these questions, and to get you prepped for your first post-Covid road trips, I talked to some boutique hotels around the state to see what’s new, what’s different, and how to feel about venturing back into the world of hospitality.
At The Colony Palms Hotel and Bungalows in Palm Springs, a feeling of normalcy is already pervasive. The mostly outdoor common areas in this decidedly adults-only hotel find lithe sunbathers lounging on tea-green chaises while masked servers bring liquor-filled drinks poolside. The hotel has mostly enforced mask mandates, kept a lower capacity, and provided ample social distancing, but come June 15, they’re getting ready to be back to pre-Covid policies.
“In terms of permanent changes, there is not going to be a lot,” said Peter Lenton, general manager of The Colony. “Obviously, a little bit about cleaning, but even things like QR codes for menus, and what not, won’t be a permanent thing. As for guests and what they’re asking for, it’s more along the lines of heavy cleaning requests and things like touchless check-in where we run your credit card in advance. Some people didn’t want their luggage being touched during Covid, but we haven’t seen that for three months.”
Not only is The Colony heading back to normalcy, according to Lenton, the hotel has never been busier and had their best April in the history of the property.
Moving up state from The Colony, the Ojai Valley Inn is on the larger side of boutiques, with 303 rooms and suites, golf course, tennis center, four swimming pools, and more. Known for being a secluded hideaway with a stellar culinary program, the hotel has gone through a rollercoaster of ups and downs since the pandemic started.
“Obviously, there have been a lot of changes,” said Chris Kandziora, the general manager of the Ojai Valley Inn. “When we shut down, everyone was in the same boat, where we all had to understand how we could safely reopen, or what protocols will be in place. Some of the most significant changes we made was investing in additional public space. Beyond the cleaning protocols, we restructured pool decks and restaurants. But we finally had to make a decision to only sell 200 of our 300 rooms because that was the sweet spot where we knew we could comfortably provide luxury service for guests by having the space that they needed, and being able to get the service they want.”
The Ojai Valley Inn actually closed twice – the first time in March of 2020 and then again in the winter of 2020 before reopening for good in February 2021. But that time off also provided Kandziora and the hotel owners with some time to fully reflect on the property and make some long needed changes. The team at the Ojai Valley Inn spent $12 million to update suites, put in new floors, fix roofing issues, and more. But one of the best changes at the hotel was realizing they could be more flexible with various staff for working from home, which actually increased productivity.
“We invested in the technology for our reservation sales employees to be working from their homes. And what we found is the productivity went up, their happiness went up, it cost less here on property, and we were able to actually monitor their performance even more with the technology we invested in,” said Kandziora.
As for keeping guests feeling safe, the majority of the changes are around cleaning protocols. The property invested in MERV 13 filters (minimum efficiency reporting value filters that catch up to 90% of particles) and have a longer cleaning time per room. As for the culinary side, the Inn plans to move back to full buffets eventually, but for now are sticking with a served buffet experience.
Similar to The Colony, the Ojai Valley Inn has also never been busier. At the time of the interview, there were only three days available in June, four in July, and only eight in August.
One of the more interesting boutique hotel operations happened to open during the pandemic. Over in Solvang, a town known for its Danish architecture and big wine culture, is The Winston, an invisible service model hotel with 14 rooms that is ideal for guests who still have the pandemic on their brain.
“The Winston is this beautiful, luxurious property where we reach out to the guests prior to arrival and everything operates pretty much electronically,” said Charity Baxter, the Regional Operations Manager for the hotel. “So, you don't necessarily see staff at the property. We do have staff on property available, but they're kind of in the background. We send guests a code to their front door and to the room prior to arrival. So, there's not a front desk. And then we use messaging software that is applicable via text messaging, to communicate with them and what their needs are throughout the day. It’s definitely for a different type of travel person, but the majority of the people have loved the freedom.”
The Winston opened in August of 2020, and it was mostly dead at the beginning, but has since been nothing but busy. The hotel also customizes breakfasts for guests through their messaging app and simply leave the food at the door at a pre-planned time, avoiding any contact with staff.
As you prepare to venture out this summer, there are a few things to know. First, hotels are already incredibly busy and almost fully booked. Occupancy rates have nearly reached pre-pandemic levels, and in a place like California, some hotels are exceeding those rates. Second, hotels want you to feel safe. Most of the properties I spoke to had enhanced cleaning protocols that will be a staple of the industry moving forward. Third, the smaller the hotel, the more customizable your safety experience will be. Hotels are a business and when there are hundreds of rooms, it can be hard to meet the same cleaning standards of a smaller property. And finally, trust the science. The hotels in California are following CDC guidelines for their decision making and Covid rates in California are among the lowest in the country.
Bottom line, it’s time to travel. Do your research, ask all your questions in advance, and get out of your comfort zone. The pandemic isn’t over, but the boutique hotels that you can drive to throughout the state are open for business and are welcoming guests with open arms – and mostly still-masked faces.