Hotels in the Time of Covid

Khabar Magazine. Nov 2020.

The hotel industry, like restaurants, has been battered during the pandemic. How are South Asian-owned hotels dealing with the crisis? What changes have they made to reassure guests and employees? As travel slowly picks up, what’s the new normal going to be like at your next stay in a hotel?

Like most people, I started this new year with a list of resolutions and aspirations. One of them was to visit my hundredth country and all seven continents. For the past several years, I have been traveling internationally at least once or twice a month, crisscrossing the globe, and was scheduled to enter the travel centurion club by mid-2020. I traveled to Antarctica and Europe in the first couple of months of the year, but by mid-March, the future of travel started to look uncertain. Countries were closing borders, visas were getting suspended, and conferences and festivals started cancelling.

As with everyone in the travel industry, my life too has been greatly impacted by the pandemic. The stay-at-home order left me grounded for over two months, and virtual travel was just not satisfying, personally and professionally.

As soon as Georgia reopened businesses, I took my first overnight trip to Lookout Mountain, a small hilltop destination located at the border of Georgia and Tennessee. Staying at a hotel, with a looming infectious virus, was daunting at first. I debated whether it was safer to continue to stay at home or to go out and support the economy. Cabin fever had left me restless and after considerable research, I decided to venture out. What I learned was that the hospitality industry had quickly set new standards in cleanliness after consulting with CDC and other organizations.

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At the River View Inn in Chattanooga, I had to wear a mask when entering the reception area, where  a plexiglass divider separated me from the attendant. There were arrows on the sidewalks, and signage throughout the property, reminding guests to keep six feet distance from each other and to wear masks in public areas. The rooms had been sanitized and inn capacity was capped to about 60 percent. Sit-down breakfast service was suspended and replaced with fruit and granola bars to take away in the morning. The new experience was a bit strange, but it felt good to get away from the usual routine of cooking meals every day and attending back-to-back Zoom calls.

Since May, I have stayed at a number of bed-and-breakfasts inns, boutique hotels, and resorts around the U.S. All of them seem to be cleaner than ever, holding heightened standards to ensure safety of guests and employees. In Duck, a beach town on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, Sanderling Resort enforced touchless check-in and check-out with online forms and keys handed out in parking lots. A reassuring note hung on the door knob stating that no one had entered my room since it was sanitized. Remote controls and door knobs had been wiped down. Enough towels and toiletries were left in the room for the duration of my stay to avoid interaction with housekeepers. Other places, like the Marble Distillery Hotel in Colorado, did not utilize keys at all. They simply emailed me a door code to enter my room. I never had to speak to a staff member during my two-night stay. And at Home in The Tropics B&B in St. Thomas, a QR code guided me to neighborhood attractions and restaurants, instead of maps and brochures.

The impact of Covid-19 on the travel industry has been surmountable, despite the heavy blow. Hotels in particular have had to adjust their businesses overnight. Approximately 40-50 percent of the hotels in the United States are owned by South Asians, according to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), a trade association that represents hotel owners. Hotels are categorized by ownership (chain, single owner), target markets (airport, extended stay, resorts), and by level of service and number of rooms.

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Budget and value or economy hotels such as Motel 6, Comfort Inn, and Americas Best have the lowest room rates and offer good value for money. Mid-range and business hotels such as Marriott and Holiday Inns cater to families, business travelers, and affluent travelers. Brands such as Mandarin Oriental, Langham, and Ritz-Carlton fall into the category of Luxury Hotels. Generally, Asian Americans dominate the motel ownership in small towns.

 Adapting to new standards

Because hotels are termed as an essential business, they did not close during the lockdown, yet maintained operations even without any guests.

Navid Kapadi, a partner at Atlanta-based Peach State Hospitality, owns three Choice Hotels franchises located near Atlanta airport. The mid-grade hotel brand caters to leisure travelers who are on road trips through the Southeast and are looking for a night to break their journey. When the shutdown was announced, he panicked. “It was very concerning as we didn’t know what to expect. We had never expected anything like this and didn’t have any guidance on how to deal with it. All of a sudden, cancellations started pouring in.

The first week was extremely tough!” says Kapadi who has been in the hotel business for about five years. His staff immediately sprang into action, partnering with Eco Lab to make sure all their cleaning products were up to date, deeply sanitizing every room, and cleaning the facilities more often. They rearranged the lobby to allow for social distancing, spaced breakfast tables six feet apart, installed plexiglass barriers and sanitizing stations, and put up signs stating only two people could enter the elevator at a time. Further, they implemented daily temperature checks and retrained all their employees.

Not all hotel segments experienced the same level of concern. “Our properties play in the monthly and weekly, long-term, affordable housing segment. Our occupancy has actually gone up during this time. During recession, people are looking for housing where rents are lower and utilities are included,” says Ali Jamal, author of the upcoming book Can-Do Real Estate and CEO of Stablegold Hospitality, which owns and operates seven locations in the Atlanta metro area and two in North Dakota. Jamal claims his top-line revenues during the crisis have been better than he had expected.

Like everyone else in the industry, Jamal did not know how much of an impact Covid-19 would have on the economy and the hotel business. But there’s always a segment of the population that depends on affordable housing, in a flexible format that hotels offer. This has led to a steady and consistent business for him, as well as for other hoteliers in this space. Still, Jamal felt the economic challenge of his customer base and worked with each one of them to offer discounted rates up to 50 percent and flexible payment options to ensure they had a roof over their heads.

Managing financial crisis

New safety measures are now required to reinforce confidence, but put a strain on the hotel’s resources even as revenues dwindle. “We have had to cut back expenses on planned upgrades and other investments, and redo our budgets for the next year,” says Kapadi. Not serving breakfast has reduced costs but hardly enough to offset the added expenses, while occupancy still remains low.

Sam Patel, who owns a Travelodge in Forsyth County, Georgia, and a Red Roof Inn in Richmond Hill, Georgia, also saw considerable impact on his business, but decided to take advantage of the Small Business Administration Economy Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). “It allowed us to retain our staff, pay our mortgage, and keep operations going,” he says. Being a smaller hotel, Patel was able to reduce operation costs in the interim. He shrank employee hours, scaled back on ground maintenance, and turned off the lights and refrigerators in unused rooms to save on utilities. Patel also consulted with other hoteliers in the area and concluded, “We are sustaining with the help of government loans but are uncertain about the future. Perhaps we would need another stimulus package, or many of us will need to shut down permanently.”

Prioritizing people

Another major issue that hoteliers are facing during the pandemic is having enough staff return to work. Employees face the same health risks as the customers do, if not more. Being on the frontline of cleaning rooms after each customer, they have more chances of being exposed to the virus. Kapadi adds, “We still have a lot of work, but it’s been challenging, getting staff to return to work. Many of them prefer to receive unemployment, and are afraid for their health.”

Meanwhile, Jamal has not only been able to avoid furloughs, but has hired additional staff to meet demand at his extended stay properties. He also gave out full bonuses to all his managers regardless of their hitting targets.

The new normal

Travel has slowly resumed and many people are resorting to road trips and choosing destinations close to home. “This time of the year, we are typically at 80-100 percent capacity, but now we are at 40-45 percent,” says Kapadi, who has seen increased traffic on the highways in the past few weeks. He can’t predict when his business will return to normal, but is hoping to see more guidelines for the hotel industry.
Patel feels more skeptical. “Though road traffic has increased, people are choosing to skip staying overnight in Georgia, due to our recent spike in cases.” He believes that the state has earned a bad reputation for the way it is handling the virus, which is resulting in guests driving further to stay in neighboring Tennessee and South Carolina.

Across the nation, as vacationers book accommodations, they are not just price sensitive anymore. They are asking questions about what the hotels are doing to ensure health and safety. Hotels need to assure clients that their room is perfect. Each one is expected to observe the new norms that may include touchless check-ins, temperature checks of guests and employees, health screening, reduced room capacities, and extended cleaning procedures. Staff and guests are required to wear masks and limit interactions. Housekeeping, happy hours, and buffet breakfast have also been put on hold.

An uncertain future

There is much uncertainty in the travel space right now, and usual business travel is not likely to return for many months. Lack of a vaccine, increasing unemployment, and fluctuating virus cases are not good news for hoteliers. They believe that big chains that have larger operating costs are more exposed and are going to continue to face challenges, while smaller economy hotels may be able to sustain themselves longer. Major hotel operators Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., Hyatt Hotels Corp., and Marriott International Inc. have already laid off thousands of employees and have not seen a major uptick in bookings.

Dos and don’ts for your next hotel stay

If you decide to stay at a hotel during these times, make sure to check the city/state travel website to get latest updates on travel restrictions and safety measures. Call the hotel or check their website to see what procedures they have in place and how prepared their staff is. Ask basic questions about cleaning, social distancing, wearing masks, etc.

If you see something that you are not comfortable with, make sure to point it out to the manager so they can rectify it. Also, carry your own PPE (personal protection equipment) such as masks, hand sanitizers, and disinfecting wipes with you when you travel. It is a good idea to wipe down high-touch surfaces such as remote controls, air-conditioning switches, and door handles yourself. Lastly, don’t expect the same level of services and amenities as before. Many hotels have closed access to pools, spas and gyms, and are limiting room service, turndown service, late checkouts, or sit-down breakfasts. They too are anxious and worried while trying to survive, not knowing how bad it can get.

~ Written for and published by Khabar Magazine. All rights reserved. Pick up a copy of the November 2020 issue to read more.

Rock Star Chef Cheetie Kumar Riffs on Southern Ingredients with Asian Spices

Chowhound. May 2020.

Cheetie Kumar is a chef, musician, and restaurateur. She was recently named a James Beard Award finalist for Best Chef Southeast for her work at Garland, an Indian- and Asian-inspired restaurant in downtown Raleigh. She toured the country as a guitarist in her band, Birds of Avalon, before settling down to open popular indie music venue KINGS and a cocktail bar Neptunes Parlour. She’s also an ambassador for Raleigh, N.C., to an international audience in a new video from Brand USA. Originally from India, Kumar has successfully created a name for herself in the world of food and music.

Continue reading on Chowhound

What is Your Travel Style?

Khabar Magazine. May 2019.

As I checked into a charming Italian villa converted into a boutique hotel, nestled on top of a hill on the Amalfi Coast, I wondered how I would spend two summer days in this romantic location by myself. I stood on the purple-bougainvillea-wrapped white balcony of my room, with a glass of champagne in my hand, staring at the blue waters and rocky beaches of Positano, feeling at peace with myself. In that moment, I really didn’t want to talk to anyone or go anywhere. I just stayed at the hotel—reading, writing, eating, and soaking in the views for the rest of my trip.

Travel teaches you that being alone doesn’t make you “lonely” and you can enjoy your own company, as much as the company of others.

Until my late twenties, I had never been on a vacation without my parents or my spouse. One day I told my husband that I would be going to Dubai to visit my sister-in-law, and he was shocked. I had not even traveled to India by myself until that point.

The reason I started traveling without my family was mainly because of conflicting schedules. I wanted to travel more, but my husband’s corporate job only allotted a couple of weeks of vacation a year. I had a strong desire to see the world, a flexible schedule, and the resources to make it a reality.

Since then, I have traveled solo and also with friends, apprentices, and groups—to parts of the world I didn’t even know existed. On lone adventures, I hiked through the forests of Japan, slept in yurts in the Gobi Desert, and listened to lions roar from a camp in the Masai Mara.

On the other hand, I have also slept in a house with two dozen volunteer travelers in Morocco, and sailed in the Galapagos on a private yacht with 20 colleagues, who soon became friends.

When people ask me if they should take a trip alone or with a group, to book a package tour or go with the flow, my response is usually, “It depends!”

Depending on the destination, duration, budget, and your personality, you may prefer one travel style over the other. I personally feel all of them can be rewarding as long as you set expectations beforehand and have a flexible attitude.

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(Left) Samar Misra, the solo traveler.

Samar Misra, a graduate student at Alabama A&M University, frequently travels alone. His last trip spanned over two months, taking him to UAE, India, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Singapore. “It allows me more flexibility and freedom to travel alone. I am not chained to certain activities that my family and friends may like,” he says. On his last trip to Rishikesh, Misra, on an impulse, decided to join a group of extreme adventurers and jump off a rock into the river (with a life jacket on), something his family would not have done or approved of.

Mishra grew up in a household where most family vacations would involve visiting relatives in India and traveling around the country in large organized groups. “There is value in family vacations, too. I have vivid memories of my cousins, uncles, and aunts going to the Taj Mahal. We still reflect on and laugh at incidents from that trip!”

Mishra usually books his trips himself through various websites, apps, and with the assistance of friends. “I have a basic idea of where I am going, and may book some of the flights, but the rest I fill in as I go,” says Mishra. He enjoys wandering around neighborhoods and seeing how the locals live, something he wouldn’t be able to do with a restricted itinerary.

Travel also makes us more resourceful. As a vegan, Mumbai native Lakshmi Jagad prefers to rent a home through AirBnB so she has access to a kitchen. “It is sometimes difficult to find restaurants that cater to us, and we like to keep expenses low, so we cook at least a few meals while traveling,” says Jagad referring to vacations she took to Guatemala, Morocco, Greece, Peru, and Canada, with her husband.

While traveling with a tour group, it is more difficult to exercise dietary constraints, but more travel agents nowadays accommodate dairy free, gluten free, vegan, and vegetarian requests if you let them know ahead of time. “We went to the Isle of Skye in Scotland with a group and booked the trip through a local agency. We told them we are vegan and it wasn’t an issue at all!” Jagad assures.

Tour operators can also help with communicating cultural differences that you may not be able to deal with on your own. “For example, you may go to Vietnam and ask for a vegetarian dish but realize their version of vegetarian includes seafood and eggs,” Mishra adds.

Speaking for myself, when I was traveling through Japan for ten days, staying at ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) in the countryside, it would have been almost impossible to figure out cultural norms on my own. It was only through my tour guide (who spoke fluent Japanese and English), that I discovered you had to take your shoes off before entering the hotel, put on robes called yukata in the correct fashion, bathe in anonsen (community bath house), and follow certain dining etiquettes. Given that no one at the inns spoke a word of English, I wouldn’t have been able to check in to my room or order food without a hired guide.

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Gaurav Bhatia (right) likes to travel alone and connect with locals.

Atlanta-based ESL teacher, Gaurav Bhatia, has discovered another way to travel—he goes alone on self-planned trips where he’s always surrounded by locals. Bhatia communicates with native Spanish speakers he finds through italki.com (a video-chat language platform) to practice his language skills. “I remember the first night I was in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, I was treated to a Christmas dinner by my host and her family, and I instantly felt at home,” Bhatia recalls about his last trip.

The language exchange program allows travelers to meet locals, have one-on-one conversations and stay at people’s homes for little to no cost. Bhatia only books his flight and boarding, unless a local host offers a place to stay. Then it’s up to his new friends to show him around their city. These loosely planned vacations allow Bhatia to have chance encounters and deep conversations with strangers, learning about their country, beliefs, and way of life. He has been to Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala to visit his language partners and often spends his entire time with them.

When traveling alone, we are often forced to strike up conversations with strangers. I have found myself befriending people at airports, restaurants, hotels, tours, taxis, etc. whom I normally wouldn’t have noticed, had I been busy talking to a companion. It seems people also feel more comfortable talking to you when they see you are alone, and often go out of their way to help you.

While walking through the busy streets of Istanbul without a map or smart phone, I often got lost and asked strangers for direction. To my surprise, most people didn’t just tell me where to go, they would walk me to my destination, chatting along the way. On one such instance, I randomly met a newspaper publisher whom I keep in touch with till date. The next day, I joined my group for a ten-day tour of Turkey and did not experience any such random interactions with strangers, though I also didn’t lose my way again!

Tour companies and operators offer value and convenience for those who don’t want to spend a lot of time shopping for deals and booking each aspect of the trip individually. Although Divya Pahwa, travel agent at New Delhi-based Explorers Travel Boutique, who focuses exclusively on group travel, says, “Many South Asian clients will speak to one or more travel agents first to compare costs and then book directly online themselves.”

Many South Asians are using websites such as AirBnB, MakeMyTrip, Goibibo, and Yatra to book hotel, air, and sightseeing packages.

I knew Russia was not a place I wanted to visit on my own, because of logistics, language barriers, and safety, so I decided to book a group trip that focuses on volunteer vacationing. The company arranged to pick me up from the airport in Moscow and had made reservations for a comfortable stay at an apartment in Yaroslavl with four other women, where we had healthy and delicious home cooked Russian meals. During the day, we would be escorted by an English-speaking guide to meet other women, visit orthodox churches, tour the city, and never had to worry about the planning aspect. On the one evening that the five of us decided to go out for dinner on our own (without the tour company or guide), we struggled to find the right bus and order at the restaurant as the menus were only in Russian and the waitress didn’t speak a word of English!

Some people prefer package tours with a little flexibility. During our 2-week Mediterranean cruise, my husband and I declined all the shore tours offered by the cruise line. Instead, as soon as our megaship docked at the port, we leisurely walked for miles savoring the smells and sights of the city. As a couple with common interests, we decided to skip the long lines to enter historic sites and museums. Instead, we opted to stroll through gardens and markets, taking long afternoon breaks at outdoor cafes, as one does in Europe. Though all our meals were included onboard, we wanted to experience authentic local flavors. We would find a small neighborhood bakery in Marseille serving warm flaky croissants, the best gelato corner in Cinque Terre, and mouthwatering and cheap seafood paella with Spanish wine in Vigo.

In Morocco, I stayed at a house with 20 other travelers from around the world, who had signed up for an organized volunteer vacation. We had a set itinerary, home-cooked meals, and some sightseeing activities included in the package. Yet, they had also provided for free time to the volunteers over the weekend. Talking casually over breakfast, some of us decided to rent a van and travel from Rabat to Merzouga, a small town in the Sahara Desert near the Algerian border, where we camped under the star-studded African desert sky. It was a long exhausting drive into wilderness, not something I would have done alone. But my new companions gave me the confidence which led to one of the most memorable trips of my life!

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(Left) The author and her husband on a road trip in South Africa.

Most recently, we rented a car in South Africa for a 10-day vacation. My husband drove on the left side of the road, along the winding scenic roads of the Western Cape, as I navigated from the passenger seat. It allowed us to plan each day as it came, stopping at different cities, as and when we wished. Though we had a basic outline of what we wanted to see, our plans never worked out the way we thought. We took a detourto visit a wild cat sanctuary which pushed us back 3 hours, met up with a friend at the beach cancelling the rest of the evening, and turned a Sunday brunch into an all-day event at a vineyard.

Whether you are thinking about traveling alone or with family and friends, doing it yourself or hiring a travel agent, there are pros and cons to each. Traveling in a group is more affordable, structured and brings joy in sharing, while traveling solo offers more flexibility, honest interactions, and can be personally empowering. One needs to experience all forms of travel for they teach us something different about ourselves and our interactions with the world.

~ Written for & published by Khabar Magazine May 2019 print edition. All rights reserved.