Tennessee’s hotel industry struggles to recover amid uncertainty of pandemic

Special Reports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – As Tennessee’s second-largest industry, the economic downfall caused by COVID-19 is having an insurmountable effect on the hospitality workforce.

President and CEO of Vision Hospitality Group Mitch Patel said he tried doing everything possible to save his employees.

“This is about livelihoods. This is about jobs. This is about the human toll, it has been the most difficult part of this,” Patel said. “Every point in occupancy that Nashville gains, then that means more people can be employed.”

Bookings did not bounce back as many had hoped. Patel said in the Great Recession, it took roughly two years to reach the biggest drop in occupancy on record. In 2020, a record drop happened in just three weeks.

The empty lobby is a stark contrast from earlier in the year. In February, the Fairfield Inn and Suites in the Gulch regularly operated at 90 percent occupancy. In October, the hotel is lucky to fill 30 percent.

“We thought that it would get back to normal a little bit quicker. That did not happen,” Patel said.

Needless to say, the pandemic’s impact left many in shock, including General Manager Barry Volkers.

“I don’t think anyone’s been through anything like this before,” Volkers said.

Just after September 11th, 2001, hotel bookings dipped nine percent. The Great Recession saw a 17 percent drop. In 2020, business is down 50 percent. The pandemic’s impact is greater than previous downturns combined.

Volkers said he has mowed grass and cleaned rooms in an effort to keep as many employees as possible. The manager said events like conventions and concerts must be part of the “new normal” to bring people back and fill rooms.

“If you don’t have that, then you have X amount more rooms, and everyone’s lowering their prices down to get anyone that they can,” Volkers said.

Patel said he is expecting a bumpy road over the next six months as business typically slows during the holidays. March 2021 could be a pivotal point for the industry, assuming COVID-19 cases do not grow significantly.

“To no fault of restaurateurs, to no fault of hoteliers, this is not an economic crisis. This is not because people said you know what, I don’t have the funds or the means to go out to eat or travel. This is a medical crisis,” Patel said.

The hotelier did not think every business like his would make it. However, he committed to continue the fight of survival for his livelihood and employees.

“This virus is not going to break the American or human spirit. Travel, I think equates to freedom,” Patel said. “This is the greatest country in the world. Nashville is one of the greatest cities in the country and the human spirit will eventually prevail.”

Industry pundits said hotel stays have climbed slowly. They estimated three to four years before record occupancy levels would return.

The industry received nine percent of federal relief funding in the pandemic. Hoteliers told News 2 they would like to see more.

News 2 is reporting on Nashville’s historic growth and the growing pains that come with it. Click here for more Nashville 2020 reports.

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