On the south end of Michigan Avenue in Chicago, in an area known as the "cultural mile," the four-star Hotel Essex has set aside 274 rooms for a particular purpose. The rooms won't be home to weary travelers, but rather are being reserved for the city's police officers, firefighters, and paramedics on the front lines of the pandemic. The hotel is one of five in the city owned by Oxford Capital Group LLC that has agreed to house first responders or provide beds for hospital overflow. The hotels are supplying upwards of 1,100 rooms and providing three meals a day to guests, with the city footing the bill. First responders who are worried about bringing the virus back home to their families now have a comfortable place to come back to after their exhausting shifts are over. Asymptomatic COVID-19 patients and those requiring isolation for testing positive or being exposed to the virus won't be taking up essential space inside overburdened hospitals.
More than 4,000 miles away, Madrid's Ayre Gran Hotel Colon has already fitted its rooms with medical equipment. The hotel is helping contribute to the over 60,000 hotel beds newly-dedicated to the city’s health services. Back in mid-March, the Spanish government ordered for the closure of all of the country’s hotels after deaths jumped by more than a third and the number of cases rose by a quarter.
As of May 6, global coronavirus cases have exceeded three million, with over 247,000 deaths. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the world's once-thriving hospitality industry is facing one of the most devastating economic blows in history. In early March, CNBC reported findings from Tourism Economics that estimated a loss of $24 billion in foreign spending for the U.S. travel and tourism industry. Hotel occupancy in the country during the week of April 5 to 11 was dropped nearly 70 percent compared to 2019, and Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson told CNBC that the coronavirus hit the hotel company's business worse than 9/11 and the Great Recession combined. "We're now seeing revenue down 75 percent plus, probably I suspect nearing a 90 percent decline in the United States," Sorenson said. "And obviously at those levels, there just isn't any business in hotels." Considering the long-term economic tolls of COVID-19, some businesses may never open their doors again.
But even though most travelers aren’t planning on staying in a hotel any time soon, that doesn’t mean that hotel rooms across the globe have remained empty. Enter in the new normal of the hospitality industry: All over the world, hotels are being repurposed into accommodations for medical professionals, hospitals, and shelters for coronavirus victims.
Five hotels in Japan, where confirmed coronavirus cases passed 14,000 on May 1, were rented out by Tokyo’s metropolitan government for citizens with mild symptoms, keeping hospital beds free for those with more severe cases. The city hopes to increase the number of rooms from 1,500 to 2,800. Japan even unveiled a series of talking robots to help staff the hotels in tasks such as cleaning to reduce the risk of infection for human employees. The robots are also designed with features that remind patients to check their temperatures and get enough rest. Guests also have access to health management applications to record their symptoms on hotel-issues computers and tablets.
In mid-April, hospitals in Philadelphia were already nearing capacity, causing the local government to convert three hotels and a venue arena as overflow sites. The city's managing director is reportedly optimistic that the city will have enough space thanks to the new accommodations but is still working on gaining more capacity.
Housing Medical Professionals and First-Responders
Over 17,000 hotels have registered for the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) Hospitality for Hope initiative, which connects hotels and government agencies in need. Most recently amid the pandemic, they’ve been matching hotels as temporary housing with first response, emergency, and health care workers. There have been over one million hotel beds pledged to Hospitality Helps, an organization connecting healthcare and government agencies with hotels and other lodging providers already ready to supply beds.
Hilton donated one million hotel rooms for the use of doctors, nurses, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, and other medical professionals currently responding to the pandemic through the end of May. Marriott recently donated $10 million worth of hotel stays for doctors and nurses in areas most affected by the virus. About 25 percent of Marriott's 7,300 worldwide hotels have already been closed temporarily.
Accor Hotels, which has been hailed for its sustainability practices in the past, launched an emergency response platform in April to provide accommodation to NHS workers and disadvantaged citizens in the U.K. Over 60 of the company’s hotels have already been repurposed. ”We are proud to be supporting the needs of the Government during this national and global crisis,” said Thomas Dubaere, the COO of Accor Northern Europe. “Together with our partners, we have made our hotels available for use as emergency safe spaces for the homeless who are especially vulnerable to this virus. Our business is committed to people and hospitality, and as such, we are pleased to open our doors to those in need during this national and global crisis.”
Ty Warner, the owner of the Four Seasons New York, made the call to repurpose the luxury accommodation into a free emergency residence in a matter of days, installing measures to keep staff separated from guests, who would now consist entirely of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. Elevators are reserved for one person at a time, nurses stand outside measuring temperatures of guests before they enter, and 143 rooms are vacant to prevent overcrowding on property.
The hotel has gone a step further and implemented a mental health program for guests, as well. “My team and I have started daily call-arounds,” said Elizabeth Ortiz, hotel director in charge of personnel told the New York Times. “We literally call every single employee to ensure they are getting to work OK, they are feeling OK. A big part of it is also showing gratitude.”
Temporary Homeless Shelters
While the elderly and those with underlying conditions have been considered the world’s most vulnerable to COVID-19, the homeless population has been hit hard as well.
In Toronto, where at least 7,000 people spend their nights in homeless shelters regularly, the local government has teamed up with Doctors Without Borders to bring 2,000 people out of homeless shelters and into hotels, emergency shelters, and public housing units. In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan committed over 10 million pounds (almost $12.5 million) to provide hotel accommodation for the city’s homeless. The InterContinental Hotel Group, Travelodge, Best Western, and Accor Group have all signed up for the project. Also, cab drivers have volunteered to transport people to the hotels, and local catering companies are supplying meals to guests. “There is still much to do: more money, volunteers, and hotel rooms will be required. Looking ahead, my aim is to make sure that the ‘In for good’ principles are applied for all London’s rough sleepers—something that will require continued support from the government,” said Khan. “I am confident that by working together, we can help save the lives of many Londoners who would otherwise be facing the pandemic on the streets.”
In early April, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that money from the federal government would help pay for 15,000 hotel rooms during the pandemic. The initiative, dubbed Project Roomkey, will target specific hotels in the counties with larger homeless populations with higher concentrations of COVID-19. The federal government agreed to pay 75 percent of the costs associated with housing homeless people. According to Time, the total cost to rent out the 15,000 hotel rooms and provide staff to the facilities will be about $195 million for three months. Further south, the county of San Diego, where about 8,000 citizens experience homelessness, has secured 2,000 rooms. San Francisco, with a slightly higher concentration of homeless people than San Diego, has leased 945 rooms in eight hotels to help house a combination of homeless and those unable to self-quarantine at home. Los Angeles has set its own county-level goal of 15,000 rooms (a reported 60,000 homeless people live in Los Angeles County, by far the largest concentration in the state). California also partnered with Chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen to provide three meals a day to select Project Roomkey hotels.
While several well-known brands such as Comfort Inn and Radisson are participating in California’s Project Roomkey, state and county officials are reporting more success with small boutique and independent motels. Health officials have decided not to release the specific names of hotels operating within the program for fear of individuals showing up and demanding rooms without medical referrals.
In addition to hospital overflow, temporary housing for medical professions, and homeless shelters, other hotels throughout the globe that have remained open are offering limited coronavirus packages for those who need to quarantine outside of their homes.
Le Bijou Hotel & Resort in Switzerland is continuing to sell stays inside its repurposed luxury apartments, advertising as "quarantine apartments." A two-week stay costs between $800 and $2,000 per day and guests can pay an additional $1,800 for twice-daily medical visits or $4,800 for an around-the-clock nurse. Guests can also shell out $500 for a coronavirus test.
Some hotels in Hong Kong are offering long-stay packages targeting guests needing to be quarantined (starting March 19, travelers who arrive in Hong Kong from abroad are required to implement a 14-day home quarantine). Thousands of students traveling back to Hong Kong from foreign countries are choosing to spend their mandatory quarantine in hotels to prevent their families from being exposed. Dorsett Hospitality International has started offering packages at its nine hotels in Hong Kong. The Dorsett Wanchai has a 14-day package starting at 6,888 Hong Kong dollars (around $889), less than half the average price. The five-star Park Lane Hong Kong offered packages starting from 800 Hong Kong dollars (around $100) per night, also less than half the standard rate.
Some of these “coronavirus packages” have incited controversy and conversations of ethics. According to CNBC, René Frey, CEO of travel guide publisher Rough Guides and resident of Switzerland, thought that Le Bijou was irresponsible by staying open in this capacity. Taking new bookings in the current situation says Frey, showed a “lack of solidarity with all the small shops closed by federal law.” Switzerland has instigated social distancing measures similar to other European countries and the United States. A spokesperson for Le Bijou said that the hotel was simply trying to stay in business and maintain employment for its 60-plus employees without having to rely on government bailouts.
World Health Organization. "Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Situation Report - 107." May 6, 2020
City of Toronto. "Street Needs Assessment." Nov. 2018.
Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. "2019 Homeless County by Community/City."