Area hotels see increased occupancy; staff shortages may hinder recovery

Whitney Peak Hotel has seen its occupancy levels rise in 2021 after seeing its revenue drop about 60% last year due to the pandemic.

Whitney Peak Hotel has seen its occupancy levels rise in 2021 after seeing its revenue drop about 60% last year due to the pandemic.
Courtesy Photo


Travelers to the Biggest Little City might notice something they haven’t seen before: The hotel employee who checked them in could be the same person who cleans their room.

Hotels in Northern Nevada and beyond say they are struggling to hire enough housekeepers and other hourly workers — including ones they laid off early in the coronavirus pandemic — to keep up with the upswing in leisure and business travel this summer.


Whitney Peak Hotel in Downtown Reno has 30% to 40% fewer employees than it did pre-pandemic, said managing director Niki Gross. This, she said, has led to many employees taking on extra tasks to fill the labor gaps.


“It’s been hard,” Gross told the NNBW. “Getting staff, I think, has been the No. 1 challenge. What we’re doing to combat our staffing challenges is we have managers and other staff that aren’t housekeepers going up into the rooms, stripping the bed, getting the towels, and kind of wearing the ‘housekeeping hat’ to help with the operation.”


Whitney Peak has 310 rooms available to guests, but the property as of mid-July has about 60 rooms out of service while one of its three elevators undergoes an upgrade, Gross said.


The timing of the project, she noted, is actually “a little fortunate.”


“Even if we did have all three elevators functioning and all 310 rooms available, we’d probably have to take some rooms out of service anyway,” she continued. “Because we just don’t have the staff to clean and turn the rooms fast enough on those really heavy demand days. We’re selling out the inventory we do have available every weekend. It’s been like that for weeks.”


ON THE RISE


It’s no secret: The pandemic has shifted where and how people work, and with the economy largely reopened, hotels and the rest of the service industry are struggling to staff up.


That’s pushing hotels like Whitney Peak to look at offering perks like higher wages as well as sign-on and retention bonuses.


“There are really achievable things that will help people be more inclined to sign on, but getting people through the door is the biggest challenge,” Gross said.


John McGinnes, executive director of sales at Atlantis Casino Resort Spa in Reno, said the workforce shortage has been a challenge, but has not affected the property’s service or occupancy levels.


The hotel currently employs about 1,800 workers, he noted. When asked, he did not know how that figure compares to the pre-COVID staff count, adding, “I’m not privy to those numbers.”


For some hotels, though, failing to hire enough workers poses the risk of limiting guest stays amid growing demand.


For months, national occupancy levels have been back above 50% after the hotel industry suffered its hardest year ever in 2020. Whitney Peak, for one, saw its revenue drop roughly 60% last year compared to 2019, Gross said.


This year, however, she said the hotel — if it wasn’t in the middle of an elevator project, and all rooms were in service — would be doing “close to 85%” of its revenue in a normal year.


“And I think that number is going to continue to go up,” said Gross, noting Whitney Peak is seeing daily transient rates that are about 10% higher than in 2019. “As we can bring more inventory online, we’ll be able to test that theory.”


Though he was unable to provide figures, McGinnes said Atlantis is seeing occupancy levels that are rivaling its numbers in 2019, which he called a “banner year” for the property.


“It has to do with that pent-up demand, that so-called revenge travel that everybody is doing, and we welcome it,” he said. “It’s really interesting to go down to our casino floor on a Monday or Tuesday, and see a very lively full casino, and I’m looking at my watch going, is this Monday? Or is this really Tuesday?”


DAILY ROOM CLEANING SHIFT


Last month, U.S. weekly hotel occupancy hit roughly 70%, its highest level since late October 2019, according to June 26 data from hotel research firm STR.


And as Americans continue to travel more, they are encountering a hotel industry that has undergone dramatic transformations and might never return to its pre-pandemic business model.


Some hotels across the U.S. are considering whether many of their customers are willing to accept fewer services than before, such as daily room cleanings, which would reduce labor costs.


That, for now, is not the case in Nevada.


Last August, the Nevada Legislature passed Senate Bill 4, which mandates casinos and hotels in Las Vegas and Reno implement enhanced cleaning procedures, including daily room cleanings. Consequently, properties are also banned from offering incentives to guests to decline daily housekeeping, which some hotels had done as part of an environmental initiative.


Gross said Whitney Peak would prefer to move toward giving guests the option to opt-in to housekeeping services as opposed to opting out.


“I believe that’s going to be the standard moving forward,” Gross said. “I think that’s going to be an industry-wide change. It certainly would help save on labor costs and with us having such a labor shortage right now, it would help us to use the labor in other places where we actually need it versus cleaning a room that guests may not necessarily need or want.”


A survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) last August reported that 86% of travelers would prefer to see the suspension of daily housekeeping.


KEEPING IT CLEAN


That, however, doesn’t mean hotels are easing their cleaning procedures. Atlantis uses enhanced cleaning products throughout its property and has several dozen hand sanitizer stations dotted throughout its hotel alone, said McGinnes.


Atlantis also replaced its escalators on the west side of the property with new ones that include a handrail sanitization system.


“These escalators basically have UV rays that blast the handrails and continuously clean them,” McGinnes said. “It takes care of 99.9% of the microbial bacteria, including COVID, SARS and MERS, so people can be rest assured that one of the highest touched things in our property is constantly being cleaned.”


Meanwhile, Whitney Peak has also continued to implement elevated cleaning practices that, although pricier, are worth the investment for staff and guest comfort and safety, Gross said.

“The guests have been really quick to compliment how vigilant the team has been and commenting how they feel safe,” Gross said. “So, I think our elevated cleanliness standard is here to stay.”

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