The Darling in Visalia, which opened in July 2020, has seen steady demand as the town’s only boutique hotel. While Central Valley hotels have seen steady business, issues remain that keep the industry from full pandemic recovery. File Photo

published on October 20, 2021 - 2:11 PM
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The Central Valley’s future as a tourist destination is promising thanks to a diversifying economy and proximity to national parks

Lisa Oliveira, president and CEO of Fresno/Clovis Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that area hotels are hanging tough after a huge dip in April 2020. Oliveira described the area as busy and booming with a hotel occupancy rate of 77.7% — a record that even beats 2019 numbers.

“We’ve seen occupancy continue to rise in all of 2020, and continue to stay steady in 2021,” she said.

The average daily hotel rate is about $10 more than pre-pandemic and it could go higher. But many hotels are dealing with staffing shortages, which is the last problem to solve on the way to full recovery, Oliveira said.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association says that hotels support additional jobs in the community, including restaurants, retail and hotel supply companies. Putting hotel jobs at risk also puts hotel-supported jobs at risk, the association said.

In addition to being short staffed, there are added inconveniences — delayed parts for washing machines or shipping for new bedding.

Corporate travel is also back in Fresno area, she said. Though nationally, the numbers don’t reflect that.

The hotel industry as a whole is projected to end 2021 down more than $59 billion in business travel revenue compared to 2019, according to a report by the American Hotel & Lodging Association and Kalibri Labs. The report details that business travel revenue is not expected to reach pre-pandemic levels until 2024.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association also analyzed survey data, which found that business travelers are canceling, reducing and postponing trips especially as Covid-19 cases rise.

That hasn’t been the case for every property. Mike Seaward, general manager at The Darling Hotel, said it’s been record occupancy in Visalia. The Darling Hotel opened during the pandemic in July 2020, so it doesn’t have a gauge on what its “normal” operating level is yet.

“We’re also the only boutique hotel in Visalia, so it’s not really going to be the same as everybody else,” Seaward said.

The first operating year has been more of an art rather than a science, he said.

Staffing hasn’t been a huge issue either, since the boutique hotel is smaller than standard hotels.

Fresno and Clovis have weathered the pandemic particularly well because of the diverse economy, said Oliveira. Corporate travelers keep the hotels busy during the weekdays and tourism is strong on the weekends due to Yosemite National Park, she said.

Travelers felt safer picking a national park, she said, especially because of the reduced spread of Covid-19 outdoors. Travel to these places surrounding Fresno are easier for families to plan, as opposed to theme parks that have faced cancellations over the past year and a half.

Part of the rising occupancy rate is due to increased wildfires, as Cal Fire personnel and the National Guard stay in the hotels while fighting fires.

Tony McDaniel, director of communication for the Yosemite/Mariposa County Tourism Bureau said that lodging inside the parks is looking good, but outside the parks is a different story.

The tourism bureau is not affiliated with Yosemite National Park directly, although it generates a lot of traffic related to people flocking to both Yosemite National Park and Mariposa County.

“We’re supported by tourism, this entire county is. We really rely on Yosemite to have access for people to get in and recreate. And if they don’t have access, we’re seeing that they’re not coming,” McDaniel said.

After a survey that went out to the county’s lodging owners, some outside the park have said their occupancy rates have been as low as 20 or 30%, where it would normally be closer to 70 or 80%.

“We’re entering what is our low season now, so we expect to see lower occupancy rates — but not that low. That is alarmingly low for outside of the park lodging,” McDaniel said.

Yosemite’s reservation system for visitors ended Sept. 30, allowing more people to come to the park without planning weeks in advance.

“I think people are choosing other options because of the reservation system if they can’t get lodging inside the park,” he said.

McDaniel expects tourism to pick back up after the reservation system ends and when the international travel borders open again for tourists.

“It’s kind of a bright light for us,” he said.

About a quarter of visitors to Yosemite are international travelers, so the tourism bureau hopes it will help lift occupancy rates as well. The effects of the openings might trickle down to Oakhurst as well.

Jonathan Rosenson is co-owner of luxury boutique hotels Chateau du Sureau in Oakhurst, Mirabelle Inn in Solvang and Mansion on Sutter in San Francisco. He said that travel in Oakhurst has been steady, though tapering off a bit.

“We’ve had years with better occupancy, but it’s not far off,” Rosenson said.

But in Solvang, he’s only seen strong occupancy, hovering around 80%.

“After Labor Day weekend, we’ll often see some dips here and there, but everything’s been pretty steady. I think the demand, especially the demand for luxury travel, is still pretty high and the guests that can afford the luxury segment — they’re going out and they’re patronizing the countryside if they live in the city,” he said.

San Francisco, however, is a different animal, he said. While it’s the most highly vaccinated location of one of his hotels, he said, “San Francisco relies a lot on business travel, and business travel is not back. It’s all leisure, it’s all vacations.”

It’s getting better, though. The weekdays would typically be busier than weekends in a pre-Covid world due to business travel, but it has switched to busier weekends because of leisure travel.

Oakhurst draws travelers to Yosemite any day of the week.

Rates have risen due to inflation. The cost of gas, goods and labor have skyrocketed, and the supply chains are unstable. Rosenson said he sees it reflecting in the room rates.

“Everything’s just gone up in price, so I think we’re also seeing a big increase in the price of travel, too,” he said. “The people that are traveling right now — they’re okay paying more to go travel.”

Some hotels are trying a la carte pricing for guests who don’t want to pay for a full list of amenities. If guests don’t use the gym, spa or housekeeping services, they have the option to upgrade to use those services in exchange for lower room rates.

Rosenson said the pricing option is similar to when airlines started charging for baggage.

“It’s very interesting. It’s your Marriotts and your cookie-cutter hotels that are kind of following suit in what the airline industry did many years ago by charging you for how many bags you bring on board and for drinks and things that you used to get for free,” Rosenson said.

The cost of the room per night might include 30 to 40% in labor, so it might benefit travelers to only pay for housekeeping when they check out.

“It might work for some hotels, but it’s definitely not something that we would consider doing,” Rosenson said.

The hotels he runs are intimate with 12 to 14 rooms, so it’s about personalized service and care, and it would be hard to piece out the pricing and services. Offering segmented services would make it less personal, Rosenson said.

“I feel like we’re kind of hanging by a thread, but there is definitely some optimism. We’ve just got to keep moving forward, and hopefully things will continue to improve,” said McDaniel.

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