Lehigh Valley hotels slowly seeing uptick in guests despite pandemic’s persistence

Staying at a hotel amid the coronavirus pandemic might look and feel drastically different than it did in 2019.

There’s plexiglass now between guests and the concierge in the lobby. Passers-by are mandated to wear facial masks. Some amenities, such as hot tubs, might be closed. Minibars in suites could be totally empty.

None of this, though, seems to be deterring those eager to leave home in 2021.

About a year ago at this time, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a shutdown of all non-essential businesses, including hotels, and encouraged residents to stay home for an approximate three-month span. Lehigh Valley hotels interviewed for this story say it’s just more the reason they are experiencing an uptick in guests — mostly across Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. Some are reporting surges in bookings even from pre-pandemic levels in early 2020.

“People have felt boxed in at home and are eager to get out and see things — it is a freedom that many feel they didn’t have last year,” said Jennifer Doncsecz, president of Bethlehem-based VIP Vacations, Inc. “Planning a vacation also gives people something to look forward to, which is much needed after dealing with COVID.”

Travel experts also say they aren’t surprised by the pent up demand to travel this year.

“As more individuals are vaccinated and restrictions are lifted, people from across the country will be able to travel safely, and our industry will be ready to meet this pent up demand by providing consumers with access to all available options and the information they need to plan and book their next trip,” said Steve Shur, president of the Travel Technology Association, in a news release.

The group reported more than 80% of American families have already made 2021 travel plans. A recent survey by Travel Tech also found 65% of respondents plan on traveling more than they did pre-pandemic; 59% of families said they’re more likely to drive than fly; and 62% of travelers were interested in vacationing close to home.

At Hyatt Place, 45 W. North St. in Bethlehem, general manager Tom Cherundolo said his hotel is seeing an influx of of guests booking through various different channels. These include websites like Expedia and Travelocity, as well as other third-party websites and apps.

Bookings are a good 50% more online than in 2019 and 2020, he said. And the majority of folks are taking shorter, weekend getaways without much advance planning. Others are booking for smaller weddings and sporting tournaments. The hotel also is accommodating families working remotely and children learning virtually during the week.

“With work and school from home, there seems to be some flexibility with how people define ‘weekend,’ ” Cherundolo said.

Alyssa Lippincott, national sales manager at Wind Creek Bethlehem, said guests became more comfortable staying at the resort by late 2020. Once the Moderna vaccine in late December joined the vaccine from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech, and began distribution locally as part of the state Department of Health’s first wave of distribution, those guest figures ramped up.

Wind Creek now is seeing a first quarter 2021 revenue uptick of about 18.4% over fourth quarter 2020. Figures were not immediately available for 2019 or first quarter 2020 when requested by a lehighvalleylive.com reporter.

“During the latter half of 2020, individuals were comfortable going out, provided enhanced safety measures were in place,” Lippincott said. “With vaccines becoming more readily available, the demand now is even more so.”

Justin Genzlinger, Settlers Hospitality CEO and owner, said The Sayre Mansion, 250 Wyandotte St., Bethlehem, also is experiencing a slight increase in inquiries and bookings since early 2020. He estimated about 5% more guests are coming to the hotel over 2020 but vastly lower than 2019, in which bookings were up by 50%.

“People are making plans and feeling more confident in the ability to travel,” Genzlinger said.

Not all hotels, however, are seeing the increase so quickly.

At Hotel Bethlehem, 437 Main St., Kelly Ronalds, director of room sales and guest experience, said the hotel is having a difficult time returning to the levels of 2019 and early 2020 bookings mainly due to pandemic restrictions. This is because the hotel relies heavily on bookings from hosting weddings, banquets and business conferences.

Current restrictions allow indoor events at 15% of maximum capacity, regardless of venue size.

“While we see an uptick in leisure travel … we are not seeing it surpass 2019 levels,” Ronalds said. “Our target markets are still struggling with the pandemic and not everyone is comfortable traveling yet. They are still very cautious.”

Most of Hotel Bethlehem’s reservation bookings are falling within a short-term window, such as 30 days.

“People traveling want to make certain as to what’s open, what are the policies, and make certain they are healthy to venture on a trip,” she said.

Hotels nationally are pulling out all the stops in hopes of bringing guests back to their sites by 2022 in levels they had seen prior to the pandemic.

There has been some promotions, such as “work-from-hotel” packages, in which such major hotel chains as the Hyatt, including the Bethlehem location, offer a compelling package. This can include anything from discounted rates to room upgrades to complimentary laundry services to a free breakfast or personal training appointment.

Other chains have been touting mobile keys, contactless check-in options, and using smart phones to work smart televisions instead of remote controls. Room service has also been contactless, in which a simple bag can be left outside the door, or there’s grab-and-go food options. Some are nixing daily housekeeping visits all together to further cut down on interactions between guests and staff.

International hotels, such as Peninsula Hotels in Hong Kong, are eliminating rigid check-in/out times, allowing guests to arrive as early as 6 a.m. and depart as late as 10 p.m. at either end of their stay, according to the hotel’s website.

Lehigh Valley hotels are jumping on similar trends to entice guests to their sites.

To keep all guests safe, the hotels reported adhering to guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are temperature checks for employees. Wind Creek implemented disposable menus at its restaurants, social-distancing at all casino games, elevator attendants, and round-the-clock cleaning since the pandemic began.

At the Sayre Mansion, guests in January and February received reduced rates. They also launched afternoon tea time every Thursday at the Victorian-era hotel.

Hotel Bethlehem recently began updating rooms with modern furniture. Rooms with Queen-sized beds, Ronalds said, are retaining their Colonial charm but more than 100 other rooms and suites are receiving the updates. Air purification systems also have been added in each guest room.

Packages also are being offered to entice more visitors to Bethlehem, in which Hotel Bethlehem is partnering with area attractions. Ronalds said the hotel looks for experiences that immerse guests in the city’s rich history.

“We find that these packages are becoming more popular due to the pandemic,” she said. “Guests want outdoor experiences …”

Ronalds said some popular activities include the Historic Bethlehem River Tours and Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites walking tours.

Visitors also enjoy the Lehigh Valley due to its close proximity to outdoor activities and such attractions as the Crayola Experience in Easton and Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom in South Whitehall Township; museums and history; and entertainment venues, such as SteelStacks in Bethlehem and the State Theatre in Easton. The Hyatt additionally saw some winter bookings for guests traveling to Camelback Mountain in Pocono Township, Monroe County.

“Some of our guests just want a change of scenery and a brief getaway in a nice hotel, in a great downtown where they can also enjoy a great meal and some shopping,” Cherundolo said.

Wind Creek Bethlehem is taking steps even further to draw in more guests and revenue — in the works even before the pandemic began.

The resort is undergoing an extensive renovation project, called the Tower 2 Expansion, estimated to cost north of $90 million. Work currently is underway and slated to be finished by fall 2022.

Once complete, the 13-story hotel will connect to the resort’s existing hotel, with a newly upscale entrance and lobby unifying the two sides. The project also includes 276 new rooms, for 558 keys total between the new and existing hotel towers; 35,200 square feet of meeting space, a 24,000-square-foot ballroom, high-end bar off of the lobby, indoor pool, fitness center, rooftop pool with an outdoor space and fire pit and 11,600-square-foot spa spanning the top floor, just above the suite level of guest rooms.

Guests will arrive along the expanded and revised access road under a four-lane porte-cochère. Plans also call for new trees and other landscaping and lighting, as well as an improved pedestrian crossing from the Wind Creek surface lots to the hotel, event center, outlets and casino.

Wind Creek Hospitality, a company owned by the Alabama-based Poarch Band of Creek Indians, bought the property from Las Vegas Sands Corp. in May 2019 for $1.4 billion. Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem opened in May 2009.

Wind Creek Casino

A Missouri-based law firm is investigating claims Wind Creek Casino did not pay its tipped employees properly.File photo | For lehighvalleylive.com

Travel industry experts say the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on an industry that hasn’t seen a downfall in multiple decades.

Doncsecz, the president of VIP Vacations, said to get back to pre-pandemic overall revenue, she believes the travel industry will be one of the last to recover. If hotels were able to survive the March shutdown, she said, many took a second blow when Wolf ordered mandatory quarantines statewide this past November.

Regional hotels also might have a difficult time attracting locals in the warmer months and will need to sway more out-of-state visitors to gain more revenue. Doncsecz’s office has been inundated with clients wanting to book flights to sunny destinations.

“I think it will be some time before we see local hotels rebound,” Doncsecz told lehighvalleylive.com. “Right now, people want to get out of the area and chill.”

Cherundolo, at the Hyatt, agreed, calling the impact on business staggering. His hotel also took hits when business people began meeting virtually over computers instead of booking conference rooms for face-to-face gatherings. Some of the Hyatt’s staff remains on furlough, he said.

“We have a long way to go to recover lost revenue,” Cherundolo said. “Even as we see some improvement in occupancy, with lower demand, it is estimated that it will take years to rebuild rates to pre-pandemic levels.”

Area hotels, however, might have some luck with Pennsylvania residents who don’t want the hassle of the changing restrictions overseas. Currently, many destinations are moving the COVID-19 test requirement from nine days prior to the trip to anywhere up to 72 hours prior and they have changed which type of test they will accept, Doncsecz said.

In January, the CDC additionally put in place a requirement for anyone coming into the United States — even returning Americans — to receive a test 72 hours prior to the return flight, despite even being vaccinated.

“Because of these requirements, sometimes it is overwhelming and it could cause potential travelers to opt to not even plan their trip,” Doncsecz said.

A major threat post-pandemic, some experts say, will be the competition of Airbnb and similar apartment sharing websites. Hospitalitynet reports the valuation of Airbnb, an online service allowing people to rent their homes to travelers, is becoming higher than a lot of major hotel chains. The company reportedly is in advanced talks with private equity firms to raise funds that would give its overall market value of $10 billion — higher than major hotel brands such as Wyndham Worldwide (U.S. $9.4 billion) or Hyatt (U.S. $8.4 billion), according to the report.

This means guests can score units at similar rates as new hotels or less.

Doncsecz, however, remains skeptical of the Airbnb market — at least during the pandemic.

“I believe that consumers will want standardized cleaning and sanitary protocols and AirBNB does not require any such standards so consumers are aware of this and are looking towards more ‘certified’ safe and clean places to stay,” she said.

For patrons, Doncsecz said they should expect hotel rates — currently at an all-time low — to climb as more pandemic restrictions fall to the wayside.

“Major hotel brands have invested so much in sanitary protocols and they have done a wonderful job, however, eventually the hotels have to recoup monies from their losses in 2020 and their new expenses regarding sanitary protocols,” she said. “The economy and costs of travel will have the greatest impact on our clients.”

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Pamela Sroka-Holzmann may be reached at [email protected].

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