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Local hotels report occupancy uptick as Fairfax County opens COVID-19 relief program

Hotel bed (via Febrian Zakaria on Unsplash)

Hospitality workers looking to return to their jobs and hotels trying to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic are seeing signs of progress in an industry wrecked by shutdown orders and travel disruptions.

Fairfax County’s new PIVOT grant program is prioritizing grant money for hotels, while also assisting other hard-hit businesses with $25 million in federal COVID-19 relief money. The program received 581 fully completed applications — including 15 in the lodging category — on Wednesday (June 23), its first day accepting applications.

Applications will be accepted through July 9, and the order they are received has no bearing on priority. But if funds are limited, lodging businesses with at least 10 rooms will be addressed first before a lottery then determines which companies in need will get money.

Inns of Virginia Falls Church Manager Michael Riddlemoser said he was unaware of the PIVOT grant or whether his company is applying for the money but felt it could be useful to try. He said his 32-room hotel is around 50% full, down from 75 to 80% before March 2020.

While some travelers come specifically for Tysons or business in Virginia, declining travel to D.C. has been a blow to Riddlemoser’s lodging business. As hotels in Washington fill up, it brings a trickle-down effect that boosts locations like his.

“We just need more people coming into town,” he said. “D.C. [needs] to get full for us to start getting the D.C. business.”

Managers at nearby hotels also reported being around half capacity. One said many furloughed staff are inquiring about when they can return, and three wedding parties stayed there recently.

A study commissioned by the Tysons Partnership found that the region’s hotel business could rebound by 2025.

“The COVID-19 pandemic that has devastated the hospitality sector has not spared Tysons hotels, which have seen revenues drop by 64%,” the study said. “Still, this is a modest decline relative to major regional competitors.”

The study noted that Tysons is expected to add another 478 hotel rooms this year with the completion of The Archer in Scotts Run and the Watermark in Capital One Center. Those new hotels say they’ll open in late summer and October, respectively.

The leisure and hospitality sector has lost 3.1 million jobs during the pandemic, representing over a third of all unemployment in the U.S., according to an American Hotel & Lodging Association report from February.

The report said the industry lost over 17,000 jobs in Virginia last year and was projected to lose over 13,000 jobs this year.

UNITE HERE Local 25, which represents about 7,200 hospitality workers across the DC region, had only 2% of members working last July, but the employment rate has bounced back to 25% in Northern Virginia, according to Benjy Cannon, the union’s director of communications.

Cannon attributes recent gains over the last eight weeks to vaccinations and domestic travel.

But the union believes pre-pandemic occupancy levels won’t return until international travel and long-term business travel returns, Cannon said. With unemployment benefits set to expire in September, that could lead the group to press legislators for changes.

“By late 2023, 2024, the industry is slated to recover stronger than it was in 2019,” Cannon said. “So, while this is an unfortunate bump in the road and our members are certainly mourning over it, we do still think that this region, this market, can recover in a really robust fashion and expect it to, even if it’s still a few years away.”

Photo via Febrian Zakaria on Unsplash

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