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West Virginia's hotel industry seeing uptick in travelers, still facing COVD-19 related challenges (WV News)

5/16/2021

Clarksburg, W.Va. (WV News) - West Virginia’s hotel industry, which has been battered by the pandemic, is seeing some positive changes, but it still faces some challenges ahead.

West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts said the industry is beginning to get back on track.

According to AAA, there will be 60% more travelers this year, beginning with a surge on Memorial Day weekend. Roberts said many hotels are thinking that occupancy leaning toward pre-COVID-19 numbers will be reached by July and August, when many vacationers will be doing their summer traveling.

He said the industry is seeking employees and has concerns about being able to hire enough workers.

“They really know they will have opportunity to hire people and have a lot of business as we head into the summer, and they are trying to figure out how to make it all work and get their people back in the workplace as fast as they can,” Roberts said.

According to Clarksburg Visitors’ Bureau Executive Director Tina Yoke, the North Central West Virginia region is already seeing an uptick in travelers due to people attending sporting events, tourism events and other functions.

“We are delighted that’s happening. All hotels are still following the COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines, but they are welcoming guests,” she said.

As restrictions continue to decrease, Yoke said that trend would only increase. Plus, with the opening of The Bridge Sports Complex in Bridgeport, the Clarksburg Amphitheater and the Robinson Grand Performing Arts Center on top of the continuing baseball events at the Bridgeport Recreation Complex, summer is looking good for hotels, she said.

Lisa Sutton, director of sales at the Hilton Garden Inn and Clarksburg Visitors’ Center board member, said the hotel has already experienced some sellout nights thanks to athletic tournaments in the area.

Compared to this time last year, the numbers are looking great, she said.

“For example, March of last year was kind of the beginning of COVID-19 when things started getting really ugly in our industry. The month of March had started strong and the last 10 days, just nothing. If you look at that compared to this year, we are about 20% (occupancy) ahead for the month of March (last year). ... In April, that was pretty much the height of COVID-19 here, and last year’s number were at 23%. This year’s numbers are at 65%,” she said.

For May, Sutton said they are “knocking it out of the park.”

“Last year’s bar was pretty low so we knew we were going to do better than that, but we are actually seeing more of a double-digit increase year over year and also in terms of revenue in general because we also have conference space and live meetings that are making a comeback,” she said.

Just about every other day, there is at least one corporate meeting at the facility.

Though there is success, the industry-wide need for jobs is apparent.

“We are quite literally always hiring. It has been that way,” she said.

Last year, many employees, herself included, were furloughed. Thankfully, in the form of unemployment benefits and funds from the CARES Act, those who lost their jobs were taken care of, but for the workers who are the “heartbeat of the hotel,” including front desk workers, housekeeping, food service workers, laundry employees and more, the benefits have made it not logical for them to return yet.

“We’ve been fighting that struggle for an entire year now. We have some wonderfully loyal employees who say, ‘We like Hilton and are ready to come help you out,’ and so many of them did. But we do still have a deficit. ... We’d love to see some people who are ready to roll up their sleeves and are ready to help,” she said.

Sutton said the staff has been meeting these challenges laid before them thus far with the increased volume of visitors, and are preparing for more of an influx as the summer gets underway. She said the search continues for those who are able and willing to come help with the busy months ahead.

Chris Audia, marketing manager of Lewis County’s Stonewall Resort, said despite COVID-19 last year, the area still proved to be popular thanks to the lake, hiking trails, golf course and other amenities.

“This year’s warmer months are already shaping up similarly, and we’re excited for another great summer ahead,” he said.

With summer on the way and COVID-19 gearing down, Audia said it’s never been a better time to reconnect with nature at the resort.

“After being tucked away for a long winter, our nearly 2,000 acres makes for a great escape where naturally social distancing comes easy. We’re excited to be a safe destination for couples and families to create lasting memories this summer,” he said.

Though the travel industry as a whole is experiencing widespread staffing shortages across the country, Audia said the resort is still striving for success.

“In preparation for the summer season, we’ve recently hired a significant number of new members to our team to ensure we’re providing the same genuinely warm service and hospitality that our guests have come to expect from us,” he said.

To help with challenges the industry continues to face, industry leaders and experts are advocating for the passage of the Save Hotels Act, which would provide a lifeline to hotel employees, providing up to three months of full payroll support.

“While many other hard-hit industries have received targeted federal relief, the hotel industry has not. No industry has been harder hit by the pandemic, and the results of this survey make clear that Americans support targeted Congressional action to keep hotel workers employed. After the most devastating year on record for hotels, we need additional support from Congress to retain and rehire our associates, revive our local communities and restart our economy.”” said Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the American Hotels and Lodging Association.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the leisure and hospitality industry has lost 2.8 million jobs during the pandemic that have yet to return, representing more than 25% of all unemployed persons in the United States. In addition, the unemployment rate in the accommodation sector specifically remains 225% higher than the rest of the economy.

Staff writer Steven Baublitz can be reached at (304) 626-1404 or sbaublitz@theet.com

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