Before the pandemic, the biggest concern at Post Ranch Inn was whether the coast-clinging Highway 1 would stay open. Then Covid came and it didn’t matter if the road was open, because everything else was closed.
The past 20 months has been a perspective shift for everyone in hospitality, according to Mike Freed, a managing member of Passport Resorts, the company that operates Post Ranch. But for some hospitality brands in California and Hawaii, what started as surviving, has slowly turned into thriving.
“We went from the worst year in the history of the hotel to one of the best years in the history of the hotel,” said Freed.
And while there are still plenty of challenges, a few hotel brands have managed to embrace the change — and the innovation that comes from necessity, from new ways to manage housekeeping to cutting-edge clean-air technology to rethinking the cultural component of places.
Featured Photo: Cliff House at Post Ranch Inn
Ka’anapali Beach Hotel in Maui, for instance, used the pause to find new ways to share the local culture, according to John D. White, director of Sales and Marketing.
“We needed to find ways to still allow the guests to experience all the elements of Hawaii culture. It was a challenge to see how we were going to do that and stay safe,” says White. “We wanted to have all of our cultural practitioners involved in the redesign, including making items for the new rooms.”
And good timing didn’t hurt. The resort was already planning an $80 million renovation to start in April 2020, so when everything shut down, staff didn’t have to apologize for the noise or inconvenience, White said. “We didn’t have any guests to disrupt.”
Although the renovation became part of the innovation; there’s now a two-tier rate structure with the traditional rooms at one price and the newly renovated at another, opening the door for more guests to access the setting, service and culture.
According to Freed, Post Ranch Inn pulled its biggest pandemic-era success out of thin air. Or really clean air, actually, especially in the resort’s iconic restaurant.
“The single most important thing we did is we hired an indoor air-quality expert who analyzed indoor air quality,” Freed says. “The indoor air quality was probably better than outdoors, which is something at Big Sur.”
The resort installed personal HEPA air purifiers at every table and larger ones between each table, which means the air is completely exchanged six times per hour. Potential guests can now look online to see what the air quality in the restaurant is in real time. The resort also focused on non-toxic cleaning products, including an electrified salt-water solution made on the property, on offering more outdoor activities, and on a program that helps guests get better sleep. The premise: Guests who are less anxious will return.
The attention to safety, says Freed, solved a variety of other possible issues. Workers felt safe, so staffing wasn’t an issue, and guests felt safe and spent more than if they’d dined in their rooms. “I paid for the entire system in my restaurant in three days. My revenue went up substantially.”
With the Outrigger Hospitality Group, success for its Hawaiian resorts during the pandemic meant support from on top and closer ties to the community, according to Sean P. Dee, executive vice president and chief commercial officer. The focus has been on emphasizing “the relationship between caring for the host, the guest and the place.”
While hiring continues to be a problem, he says, cooperation with the community has helped them overcome most pandemic-related issues. “We have been able to thrive — even in challenging times — thanks to the resilience of our incredible hosts,” says Dee. “This platform of caring for each other and the community provided a solid foundation during this pandemic.”
One of the ways the brand survived has been “additional serve and amenity options for guests specifically addressing the needs of the leisure traveler,” says Mühle. “Guests and staff alike have been creating a sense of ownership.”
The result has been better guest reviews and higher ratings online, which in the end raises the property’s reputation, not just for having a great product, but for having bonded with guests through hard times.
A deeper connection to — and reliance on — the guests themselves is a recurring theme for some of the well-known hospitality companies, which has not necessarily always been the case for hotels that depend on inbound tourism where guests are less likely to return to the same destination. The shift, however, made a big difference at The Argonaut Hotel in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf district, according to Stefan Mühle, the company’s area managing director.
If nothing else, the pandemic has made hospitality companies take a hard look at “best practices” and evolve, according to Post Ranch Inn’s Freed and others. And some things, they say, will never go back to the pre-pandemic “normal.”
The air filtering, non-toxic cleaning products and focus on the outdoors are here to stay, says Freed, not just because of Covid, but because they make sense for the brand, although an emphasis on safety won’t be going away anytime soon. “Getting your word out to your guests at how safe your hotel is is probably the single most important thing.”
Evolution for the Argonaut Hotel, says Mühle, includes a change in business mix with less corporate travel, more hybrid meetings and conferences, and more touchless options. “No-touch is the new high-touch.”
The trick is balancing the evolution with the high standards and reputation, says White. “It’s finding out how to find the positive. We’re still the same Ka’anapali Beach Hotel you know and love, while at the same time we’ve had to move forward.”