The next presenter was Sarah Bissell, Area Director of Sales for Colwell Hotels. The company operates three hotels in Portsmouth and one in Lebanon.  The AC Hotel just opened in December 2019, the Residence Inn has been open 10 years and the Hampton Inn, five years.  So altogether, there are just over 400 rooms in the market. There are also large events spaces in the AC Hotel and the Residence Inn. 

 

 
Initially, when the pandemic started, staffers were optimistic that things would bounce back relatively soon.  Then in February large events started being cancelled or postponed. Business travelers cancelled hotel rooms. The wave of layoffs started as they soon realized that occupancy rates were falling.  It started with many of the hourly employees, then front-line lower level management.   Within 10 days, some upper level management staff were let go and then the corporate office in Portsmouth was impacted.
 
She praised management for making sure staff is safe. Extra cleaning products were procured, and plexiglass screens installed for the front desk.  All exterior doors were locked so that only registered guests could enter. 
 
When management realized that this situation was not going away soon, whole floors were shut down and space condensed.  Gyms and pools closed, along with the breakfast buffet and restaurants. Suddenly there was nothing extra to offer their guests.
 
The main booking staples are business and leisure travel and groups which include business meetings and social events like weddings, etc.  A smaller percentage include relocations and displacements. The Residence Inn is ideal for that business and this has fared the best. The Hampton Inn closed for a month as occupancy did not warrant them staying open.
 
The AC Hotel, while having very low occupancy rates, was able to provide meals and deliver them to local area shelters.  They found a purpose during this crisis, giving back to the community.  On June 5th, the AC could open at 50% occupancy and limited to New Hampshire residents.  Full occupancy was allowed at the end of June.
 
Since July 1, Sarah recalls selling out only one or two nights when usually in summer months, the hotel would sell out every night. The pandemic obviously is taking its toll.  Now that its reopened, management has initiated extensive cleaning procedures and require masks for all guests and staff.  There is also limited access to their fitness facilities and pools.
 
The challenge remains lost business travel since most companies have travel bans.  Group travelers which conduct business events and leisure travelers have also fallen off.  Many social events have been shifted from 2020 to 2021. A major business group are leisure travelers, people who come to Portsmouth as a restaurant destination with its 30,000 restaurant seats.  But with restaurants closed, foodies aren’t coming. Hotel management can’t predict the future, but it seems there will be a lot less business travel. 
 
The impact can be seen in comparisons from last year. Last July one of the hotels had 675 group nights booked.  July 2020 has 32 nights booked.  This impacts rates, which are down about 41%. There are fewer weddings, as brides don’t want to limit guests.  Many have rescheduled.  With 50 percent occupancy requirements, a ballroom that normally seats 500 now accommodates 130. 
 
While many deposits have been refunded, many people are rebooking. Sarah hopes that by February/March next year travel restrictions will be lifted on domestic and international travel. She is optimistic that 2021 will be a great year.  Sarah ended by saying that she misses her guests and looks forward to welcoming them back soon.
 
Jon thanked both Caitlyn and Sarah for their presentations and opened the floor for questions.
 
John Pappas mentioned that his daughter worked at the Residence Inn and said how much she loved working there. Sarah was full of praise for Rina and said how much she was missed.  In answer to a question from James Petersen, Sarah told the Club that 300-400 meals a day were prepared by AC Hotel chefs. They were delivered to local shelters, including Crossroads house. It was the brainchild of the executive chef and one of the hotels owners. The initiative helped keep staff on board and motivated.
 
Sara Treacy mentioned that Rotary served meals at the Salvation Army food truck. She was told by Major Donna that the AC Hotel had prepped their meals.  Sara thanked the organization for their help.
 
As a “thank you” to our two speakers, Jon will send Rotary face masks to Caitlyn and Sarah. He again thanked them for very informative presentations which made everyone realize how tough it has been for those in the hospitality industry.
 
 
Don Chick closed the meeting leading everyone in the 4-Way test and Jon rang the closing bell to end it.
 
Respectfully submitted, Francoise Meissner
Photos by Don Chick
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