Can you stay in a hotel? That’s a perfectly acceptable question. With vaccination rates rising, it almost feels like we’re getting back to some semblance of normalcy after this insane past year.
But, should you stay in a hotel? That’s a different question. The answer, of course, is “it depends.” Does the hotel have health and safety protocols? Are they keeping their staff safe as well as their customers? Are they abiding by state laws, national guidance, or CDC recommendations? Are these changes temporary or permanent? What happens if there’s a resurgence of the virus?
Wanting to find out how hotels are looking at these issues, I interviewed the president of Omni Hotels & Resorts, Peter Strebel, to see what their massive chain is doing and how they’re adjusting to this ever-changing climate. Some answers you’re going to like, others, not as much.
Can you just talk a little about yourself and your role at Omni and how you’re thinking about things during COVID.
The overall role of my job, I think, is to completely and constantly motivate our employees. As a leader of the company, we’re only as good as the people who service our customers. And I believe that I have a very simple formula in life where happy associates make happy customers. My goal is to keep our staff very motivated and very engaged in delivering customer service. The second most important thing I’ve had to deal with during COVID, is that, you know, we can save money, and we can cut costs, but we can’t cut to the point where you lose customers. So, maintaining our strategic vision that customers are the most important thing, and that our job is arming associates to create memorable experiences. And then, thirdly, I’m opportunistic. I look at opportunities to see how can we grow? How can we change for the better given this new world? And I do believe it really is a whole new world.
What is actually new at the company and what is it you’re looking to let people know?
Well, we just opened two hotels during COVID, which is very unique because most hotels were closing during COVID. But in the fall, we opened our hotel in Minneapolis. And it’s a lifestyle hotel…that not only serves business travelers, but it also has great amenities for leisure customers. Then we opened up…the Omni Oklahoma City hotel, which is attached to a convention center, but across the street from a park. And we’ve over-programmed that hotel. We have a gorgeous outdoor pool, an indoor/outdoor pool restaurant, we’ve got a steak house, we’ve got a spa, we’ve got a great high-velocity sports bar, we’ve got a lobby bar, we’ve got a walk-up burger bar. So, [it’s] really a fun place to go visit.
When you’re planning on opening a hotel, it’s years in the making, so what kind of audible did you have to run at the last minute in order to open a hotel in a pandemic? And what was that like?
We probably started planning Oklahoma City six to seven years ago. So, it’s been a long journey. But you know, we were fortunate because we’re privately held, and we’re well-capitalized. We own this hotel, and we didn’t really stop anything during COVID. We felt like COVID was going to be over at some point in time, and that we were committed to building the resort. So really, nothing changed. I would have to say we were worried about staffing, and we were worried about business volumes. But we didn’t really change anything from the structure, or even from the opening date. But, for example, another project that was about to kick-off was the whole renovation of the homestead resort in Virginia. And that we put on hold because it hadn’t started before COVID. So, we said, let’s just finish the projects that we have going, which is Oklahoma City [and Minneapolis]. We also kept construction on the Omni Boston hotel at the seaport. That’s opening up this summer. We kept construction on our golf courses at the new PGA Frisco resort as well. So, anything that was under construction, and on its way, we said, let’s continue it. But we did slow down some of the projects that had not started yet.
I guess I’m asking more about customer wants and needs. I assume they’re asking for things like better filtration systems. Is there anything you’re doing, as far as the bones of a project, even in these two hotels that just opened that are different? Especially concerning temporary vs. permanent changes in the world of COVID? Did you do anything with these new hotel openings on that front?
At this point, it was too late to make any structural changes. Both hotels, as of a year ago, were already topped off, plumbing was done, AC was done. Most of the COVID stuff we’re doing is temporary. We have a great program at Omni called safe and clean. And that’s basically what we’re doing. But all of our new builds have the latest filtration systems and air filters, and all the greatest technology that’s out there. So no, we didn’t make any structural changes. It was already too late in the game. And, I think personally, when COVID first started, I think we all believed it was going to be over in three to six months. I don’t think anyone would think it’s going to be this long. But I do believe that it is going to be over at some point. And there [are] going to be permanent changes to the business.
What are the temporary changes? And what are the permanent changes to the business that you alluded to?
Well, the temporary changes are that we have a whole Omni safe and clean protocol. And that’s basically staying six feet apart. All of our meeting rooms, we have adjusted for smaller audiences. Obviously, we require all our associates to wear masks, we have extra cleaning protocols in our spas and in our pools. So, anytime somebody leaves the chair, you know, we wipe down the chair. We’re also listening to all of the local ordinances as far as capacities. So, in some hotels, we still have restaurants closed, in others, we’re at 25% capacity, and some hotels we’re at 50% capacity. It really depends again on that jurisdiction of where the hotel is located.
Do you take more seriously the local jurisdiction? Or do you take more seriously CDC recommendations?
“We really balanced between what the CDC says, and what the local jurisdiction does.”
We probably take the CDC. So, for example, in the state of Texas right now, there’s no longer a mask mandate. We have decided that we still want our associates that serve our customers to wear masks.
And what about customers?
Customers, we’re leaving it up to their option. They have an option to wear a mask or not wear a mask.
How do you make a decision like that? Especially knowing that some of your staff will feel less safe.
It’s a hard decision to make. I mean, throughout this whole pandemic, we’ve sat around and we basically said, what do we do? So, we really balanced between what the CDC says, and what the local jurisdiction does. We’re encouraging vaccinations, but we really haven’t had any issues where our associates have been upset that they’re not being treated [safely] in our office environments. If people feel like they don’t want to come back to work, then we would enable them to work from home. Or we provided space in our building where it’s private and separate from everybody else. We’re really trying to accommodate as much as we can. Now we have had some customers who have called us and said that they see some people without masks. And when masks were mandatory, we did enforce them to the best of our ability. But in some cases, you know, besides asking the customer to leave, it’s very hard to enforce these policies on customers.
What are some of the permanent changes as a result of this pandemic that you’re baking into all standards and practices going forward?
I think hotels or resorts are looking at how to operate more efficiently. By efficiently I mean, since occupancies now are very irregular. Normally the industry ran about a 70% occupancy, which is basically almost full every night except Sunday. Now, we’re running occupancies, from 5% up to 100%. So, I would have to say customers should be aware of each individual hotel’s policy, and what access to what amenities they’re going to have when they’re there. Because they may find that all the restaurants are open on a day like a Friday when the hotel is busy. For Monday or Tuesday, there may be limited offerings. I think you’re going to see much more flex of amenities going forward, as opposed to everything being open seven days a week.
Will that be reflected in a customer’s resort fees and whatnot? Is the company also flexing those kinds of things for the customer?
I would probably say no, because we’re still offering a resort fee that includes access to the pool, the health clubs, all that stuff is still included. But what I’m referring to more is like, instead of having five restaurant offerings, it might just be three.
Ultimately, how is Omni making customers feel more comfortable about coming back?
Well, we’re actually adding activities to our resort hotels. We feel there’s such pent-up demand for travelers, especially leisure travelers, so for example, at the Omni Dallas downtown, we have this beautiful outdoor area that they use for groups and meetings, and we’re going to turn that into a mini-golf course this summer. We’re looking at ways to entertain. Our customers have been locked down for a year and they want to get out and they want to enjoy, and they want to have time with each other. So, we’re looking at how we can enhance things at our hotels and make it fun to travel.
Have guests been asking for different things in regard to the pandemic? And how are you addressing those asks?
Guests want the way it was. We were very shocked when we reopened our hotels in May. Memorial Day weekend was the first weekend where we really started doing business last year, and we were amazed and surprised at how many of our customers wanted valet parking, wanted the bellman to come to the room, wanted room service. And we’re obviously being very cautious and careful about that. So, we have suspended room service. But what the customers are asking for is amenities and service. They want to go back to the way it was. Keep in mind, the people that are traveling today are on the adventurous side, so, there’s some people that are still afraid of travel and haven’t come. But for the people that are traveling now, we’re seeing they want service, they want amenities they want to enjoy.
“[The guests] want to go back to the way it was…They want service, they want amenities they want to enjoy.
But in regard to safety and comfort with the backdrop of a pandemic, are customers asking for different things?
No, believe it or not, like I said, I think the customers that are traveling have less fear.
That will change, obviously. But do you foresee customers asking about your filtration system and how you’re wiping down surfaces and things of that nature?
No, we really haven’t seen that. I’ve gotten great compliments from customers that said to me, “I just came from Amelia Island, and love the fact that they’re wiping down the chairs.” We have not really seen anything. The only negative and the only thing they’ve asked for in some cases is when some of the customers are angry or upset when they see other customers not wearing masks and not obeying the rules. But again, that’s very few and far between.
Is Omni doing anything to support the industry broadly? Are there charities that you’re giving to and helping out workers who have pandemic struggles?
“For every guestroom sold, we buy one meal through Feeding America…We’re getting close to 20 million meals donated.”
We have one thing called the Omni Circle, which is basically funded by our employees, but also funded by our private ownership. And we have given out over $3 million in grants since COVID started to our associates that need help. We’re really proud of that. We have not denied anybody to this date at this point. Number two, we have been partners with the Feeding America organization. For every guestroom sold, we buy one meal through Feeding America. For example, let’s say we sell 100,000 rooms, then we buy 100,000 meals. We’re getting close to 20 million meals donated [since starting with Feeding America].
You said earlier that you only expected the pandemic to last three to six months. Looking forward three to six months, there are a lot of scientists that are predicting that these variants are going to create a new surge in the United States. Are you girding for that in any way? Or are you just thinking that things are back to normal in three to six months?
I don’t know if things will ever be normal. I think we still don’t know what the future holds. I think what I do know for sure is that Americans love to travel. And it’s their right to travel. And I think that through the worst of times, we still saw demand for travel. I think travel is part of our DNA as Americans. We love to travel, we love to explore, we love to relax, we love to visit our friends and relatives. I do think that meetings may change, the days of having 5,000-person rallies may be over. But I also think more people will be working from home in the future. I don’t think we know yet how this is going to all shake out, but I think the worst is behind us. I think that once these vaccines really [get going] we’re on the cusp of putting an end to this. But it’s never going to be an end. I mean, we’ve always had the flu season, we’ve always had people out sick with the flu. And I think this is just kind of a way of life. And I think we’ll be better prepared next time than we were this time.
Is there anything else you want Fodor’s Travel readers to know about Omni?
I just think travel is safe. So, have them experience America. Travel is one of the best things we can do in this country and it employs a lot of people. And a lot of people have been through a lot of stress and depression and I think travel is one of the best medicines you can have.