SHIPSHEWANA — The economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus and COVID-19 is hitting businesses across the county hard, especially hotels, and LaGrange County hotels are not immune.
Hotels that were once booked to near capacity are now struggling with occupancy rates at record lows, some 90 to 98 percent below normal, said Phyllis Youga, executive director of the LaGrange County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
LaGrange County has just over 700 hotel, motel and bed and breakfast rooms available for rent on any given day. Noble County, by comparison, has just over 150 rooms.
In larger cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Indianapolis, and Boston, hotel occupancy rates have forced some hotel owners and operators to shut down their facilities, reported the American Hotel and Lodging Association, an industry trade group. It estimates that up to four million jobs in the hotel business have been or are on the verge of being lost in the next few weeks.
In Indiana alone, the AHLA estimated that as many as 44,000 people who worked at a hotel or worked for suppliers to the hotel industry have lost their jobs.
Chip Rogers, AHLA president, and CEO said the burgeoning COVID-19 health crisis is unprecedented in its size and scope, and it represents the single largest decline in travel in modern times.
“The impact to our industry is already more severe than anything we’ve seen before, including September 11th and the great recession of 2008 combined,” said Rogers.
Those same effects are being felt here.
Ryan Riegsecker, president of Blue Gate Hospitality, the owners of Shipshewana’s famed Blue Gate Restaurant, the Blue Gate Performing Arts Center and the Blue Gate Garden Inn and Conference Center said he and his staff are living in a nightmare.
“We’re just lucky enough to be in every business that’s been destroyed by this thing,” he said. “It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it, as quick as I’ve ever seen it.”
Riegsecker said this time of year, the area’s hotel rooms should be filled with visitors as people start coming back to visit and shop in Shipshewana after the traditional winter slowdown. Instead, most hotels are struggling to stay open with only one or two guests.
Other LaGrange County hotel owners report they are seeing thousand of reservations being canceled, many of those cancellations for rooms guests reserved in June and July, including dozens of large group tours.
Most hotel workers in LaGrange have either been laid off or had their work hours drastically cut.
“We’re running on a skeleton crew,” Riegsecker explained. “We’re running as close to on fumes as you can get. Business travel, leisure travel, group travel – across the board – it all been decimated.”
It’s an effect being seen all over, as the manager of the Hampton Inn in Auburn reports that the usually booked-full hotel is basically empty.
In the past week, as people react to the coronavirus pandemic, room occupancy dropped to single digits. Now, over the next three nights, the hotel has zero arrival reservations and no stay-overs, hotel general manager Karen Helfgott said Thursday.
“It’s taking a great toll on us,” she said.
Helfgott said the hotel remains open, even though travel is restricted. She said the hotel has reduced its rates and is ready to house people who cannot stay home due to a family member being quarantined, as well as truckers who may need just a few hours sleep or an overnight stay.
“We’re trying to boost our business,” she said. “We are housing.”
The hotel has had to lay off two employees who worked in the breakfast area, and housekeeping staff hours have been reduced, with staff coming in on demand, she added.
“Like everybody, we want to survive this when it’s over,” Helfgott said. “We want to be here many more years.”
U.S. Travel Association President and CEO, Roger Dow, made a dire prediction about the state of the industry moving forward.
“This unprecedented public health crisis has quickly become a catastrophic economic crisis as well,” he said. “The losses for the travel industry alone are projected to double the unemployment rate over the next two months and plunge the country into recession.”
The Star reporter Kathryn Bassett contributed to this report.