Hotel managers are pulling out all the stops to make guests feel comfortable, and occupancy is creeping back up. However, some local hotels say corporate events and travelers could take longer to return. 

Hotel occupancy in Williamson County plummeted in March, hitting a low of about 15% in April. Since then, it has started to climb back up. Hotel occupancy was about 26% in May, and about 40% for the week of June 21. According to the research firm STR, hotel occupancy in the U.S. reached about 48% for the week of July 25.

Over the last several months, many large hotel brands have rolled out aggressive programs to stop the spread of the virus. Among a number of other measures, the Hilton Brentwood/Nashville Suites has adopted contactless check in and seals rooms closed after they are deep cleaned.

Like most other hotels, employees at the Harpeth Hotel in Franklin—also part of the Hilton brand—have been wearing masks for months, long before the county required it. Similarly, The Franklin Marriott Cool Springs has reduced the size of its corporate events and trained its employees in sanitizing protocols. 

Rosemary Wilson Short, the director of sales and marketing at the Brentwood/Nashville Hilton Suites, said those steps are bringing in some tourists, especially visitors within driving distance.

"We've seen quite a bit of a turn in our occupancy: more leisure,” she said. “Corporate and group is a lot softer, but we are seeing a lot of leisure travelers, especially on the weekends.”

Before the coronavirus outbreak, corporate events and travelers were an important part of many hotels’ success, especially full service hotels like the Brentwood/Nashville Hilton Suites. Wilson Short said the hotel is still hosting some events, but they look very different. The hotel has eliminated buffets and cut the capacity of its meetings spaces in half.

“In a board room where we would have 10 people, we spread them out and we might have three or four now," she said. "We're utilizing more space for less people.”

Matthew Lahiff, the general manager for the Franklin Marriott Cool Springs, said group events and bookings made up about half of the hotel’s business before the coronavirus pandemic.

"We live and die by group events,” he said. “We’re very different from the Hampton Inns, or the Courtyard hotels of the world. Those are more of a transient, business traveler. Those are more of a weekend leisure guest … We’re more of a corporate hotel." 

While hotel occupancy has been rising at some limited service hotels, he said full service locations like his that cater to business clients are seeing a slower recovery. The hotel didn’t have any big groups in April or May. The hotel hosted a few small groups in June, and a few bigger groups in July.

A survey conducted during early July from the the research firm MMGY found that while 40% of leisure travelers surveyed said they were planning a trip in the next six months, only about a third of businesses travelers surveyed said the same. Data from the research firm Adara also shows a slower recovery for business travel.  

"Corporate meetings will probably be the last to come back. We haven't seen a lot of activity there, but social events and weddings, we've seen a little bit of traction there," Harpeth Hotel general manager Justin Foster said.

The Harpeth Hotel opened its doors at the end of 2019. Foster said new hotels often take six months to a year to ramp up to normal occupancy. March was on track to be the hotel’s best month ever before the new coronavirus started spreading in Tennessee.

With fewer travelers flying to vacation destinations, Foster said the Harpeth is now putting its focus on guests who are within driving distance, which includes locals. 

“We've gotten a lot of people who are interested in staycations,” he said. “Just a change of scenery. We were all cooped up for several months. Even if they lived down the street, they were looking for something different.”

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