- The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way most businesses operate, and hotels are no exception.
- A recent stay at small luxury boutique property Diamond Mills Hotel & Tavern in Saugerties, New York, when Ulster County was still in Phase 2 of reopening, started with a virtual check-in.
- The experience included face masks, hand sanitizer and glorious views — but no turn-down or throw pillows.
Like most components of travel in the Covid-19 era, hotel check-in has changed — perhaps, in many ways, for good.
As accommodations in states with declining infection and hospitalization rates start to reopen their doors to guests once again, hotel and resort owners, managers and staff are getting rid of some longtime perks and props while adding new safety measures.
At Diamond Mills Resort & Tavern, in Saugerties, New York, for example, registration starts even before arrival, with form-filling and credit-card authorization completed online. The first things guests arriving at the 30-unit luxury boutique property in the Hudson Valley 100 miles north of New York City will see are signs informing them that masks are required in all public areas.
Face coverings firmly in place, guests need only stop at reception to pick up a waiting room key — a disposable one, passed under a large plexiglass sneeze guard separating them from front-desk staff. They're also given an information sheet explaining safety protocols enacted at the hotel, and there's plenty of sanitizer gel on tap, too.
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Key in hand, guests at Diamond Mills will more than likely head straight to their room, as the small but well-appointed hotel lobby no longer boasts — for the time being — complimentary coffee, tea and fruit-infused water, nor the usual free morning continental breakfast and evening wine-and-cheese spread, to linger over.
"We didn't close the lobby completely, but there's nothing really in there right now," said Gina Hornbeck, hotel manager at Diamond Mills. "We're a boutique hotel; you go in your room and lock your door.
"Still, we're taking precautions [and] we do everything for guests' protection," she added. Thus, the gym is closed. The Tavern restaurant was open, however, during a recent Phase 2 stay for al fresco service by masked wait staff at socially distanced tables on the restaurant deck. (Now that Ulster County has entered New York State's Phase 3, dining is also available inside — at 50% capacity.) On the menu: farm-to-table fare by chef Marcos Castro.
Size matters when it comes to guest comfort levels with possible exposure to pathogens in public places, observed Brian Kelly, founder and CEO of travel website ThePointsGuy.com. Thus, smaller properties like Diamond Mills may be better situated than large hotel and resort chain outlets, at least in the short term.
"While Covid-19 certainly can live on surfaces, it's more about being on the same elevator with other people and getting sneezed on than it is about the virus lurking on a TV remote control," he said. "Who wants to stay on the 50th floor of a big hotel if you can't ride in the elevator with anyone else?
"What are you going to do, wait an hour to go down for dinner?" Kelly added. "That would drive me crazy."
Diamond Mills — a short two-hour drive from Manhattan, as road trips increase in popularity this summer — had eight bookings the weekend of June 20-21, which Hornbeck described as "a good amount," given the property was shuttered for all of April and practically empty most of May.
The hotel normally does a bustling business with not only road trippers but skiers and attendees at special events such as weddings and the annual HITS Saugerties Series horse show. While it was closed, Diamond Mills focused on property cleaning and upgrades, as well as preparing and donating up to 5,000 meals a week to local charities and hospitals.
With occupancy still low, guests are placed in every other room and, when possible, spaced out between floors. "We could do 100% occupancy right now, but we won't at this time," Hornbeck said. "We want guests to feel safe and comfortable."
Diamond Mills is targeting mid-July for full occupancy, and the end of August — when it's thought Ulster County might achieve Phase 4 of reopening — for the return of all guest services and amenities.
Owner Tom Struzzieri, a local entrepreneur, restaurateur and HITS horse-show operator who opened Diamond Mills in 2011, is looking forward. "We get to [fully] open in July and we're excited about that," he said. "We lost May and June, and that was sad, but in the grand scheme of things, we're all healthy and doing just fine."
In the meantime, management is recommending what it calls the "New Way to Stay" to arriving guests.
"You still have comfort and luxury but have also things to do that are Covid-19-friendly, such as visiting the town beach or hiking on local paths, or just sitting on your private balcony with a glass of wine," said Hornbeck.
All 30 rooms at Diamond Mills, designed and built by Struzzieri on the site of a riverside 19th century paper mill, boast large balconies with views of the scenic Cantine Dam waterfall. Premium features like those verandas may matter more as guests opt to spend extra time in their rooms and less in public areas of hotels.
Pandemic-era tweaks to unit furnishings and in-room amenities include bathrobes sealed in plastic, toilet paper rolls left wrapped and removal of all decorative pillows from beds. Room service and evening turn-down with fresh flowers and handmade chocolates, meanwhile, have both been suspended.
Telephones, alarm clocks, coffee makers and TV remotes remain in rooms but are sanitized prior to customer arrival using biohazard cleaning standards, according to Hornbeck. "All of our housekeepers have always been trained in biohazard cleaning," she said. "They suit up and go in, in masks and gloves, to clean up."
Housekeeping during guest stays, however, is also suspended, unless requested. "We want to be as sanitary as possible," Hornbeck explained. "The less contact, the better."
One increasingly common precaution Diamond Mills is eschewing, however, is guest temperature checks. Although hotel staff do have their temperature taken prior to each shift, guests are not asked their health status upon arrival.
"We discussed it, but it felt too invasive, especially since guests are not interacting much with anyone else," Hornbeck explained. "There aren't hundreds of people here, and we're keeping everyone separated." Struzzieri noted that New York State does not mandate guest temperature checks as part of its pandemic guidelines for businesses.
Rates have been discounted by 30% to 35%, as well, ranging from $275 to $575 per room, double occupancy, this weekend. That jibes with the sensibilities of Kelly at The Points Guy. "Paying for a full-service hotel but getting the bare bones doesn't really make sense," he said. "Guests at hotels need to recognize that, as with flying, they're not going to be getting the full experience" at many hotels and resorts.
But in the end, Kelly noted, "it's all about safety, safety, safety."
Struzzieri, meanwhile, is confident his staff can get Diamond Mills back up and running at full steam as soon as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gives the all-clear. "We've spent exhaustive amounts of time with county and state [officials] and downloaded every possible piece of information you could ever wanted to read about it," he said. "I think that we are sophisticated and smart enough to get reopening done as safely as possible."