Published by Susan Glaser, cleveland.com
Published date: May, 2021
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Megan Harnar, the human resources manager at the Westin Cleveland Downtown, doesn’t mind occasionally cleaning toilets at the hotel. It’s a reminder that she’s still employed in an industry that has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.
This past weekend provided a glimpse of hope for the Cleveland hospitality industry, as tens of thousands of football fans descended on downtown for a few days of the NFL Draft.
Even so, it’s too soon to say that recovery is at hand, said Tim Meyer, the general manager at the Westin.
“I’m too cautious to be too optimistic,” said Meyer, who noted that no one thought the pandemic would last this long. “While things look positive today, we’re cautious. We never expected to see an impact this great.”
Meyer, a long-time Cleveland hotelier, started at the Westin in March 2020, just as the pandemic was starting to shut down travel across the U.S.
He recently sat down to reflect on the past year, the pandemic and what the future looks like. Several of his employees joined him, sharing their thoughts, as well.
“I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of people in the lobby,” said Harnar. “I loved it this weekend.”
The Westin, perhaps more than any other Cleveland hotel, had much at stake during the past year. The property was foreclosed on last fall, after its owner fell behind in mortgage and tax payments.
Meyer said the hotel is back on track financially, after a court-appointed receiver took control in March.
Despite his relatively cautious outlook, Meyer said there are signs of improvement on the horizon – wedding bookings are up, leisure travel is increasing and the draft gave Cleveland a much-needed boost.
Urban Farmer, the hotel’s highly-regarded steakhouse, closed for much of the past year, reopened for the draft, and will stay open Friday and Saturday evenings, with a limited menu at the bar. The restaurant will add back hours as demand picks up, said Meyer.
Rachael Montanari, hired last fall in the middle of the pandemic, said she’s looking forward to a return to normal – even though she’s not sure what that looks like.
“Everyone always talks about how it used to be,” said Montanari, a recent Baldwin Wallace University graduate, whose job title at the Westin is “strategic analyst” because she does a bit of everything.
This past weekend, she said, “gave me a taste of how it should be, and made me excited to keep going.”
With 484 rooms, the Westin is downtown Cleveland’s second largest hotel; only the nearby Hilton Cleveland Downtown is larger.
Meyer said the hotel was not quite fully booked over the weekend. Citywide, the 26 hotels in downtown and University Circle posted an occupancy rate of 85% on the first night of the draft, April 29, according to an analysis by travel research firm STR. Friday night’s occupancy rate was 78%.
Looking ahead, Meyer said he is hoping for occupancy in the 50-75% range this summer – which would be considerably better than the average over the past year, but significantly below a typical summer.
Last year, downtown Cleveland hotels posted a dismal 31% occupancy rate. In a normal summer – peak season for Cleveland tourism — the Westin would typically be about 80-85% full, he said.
While leisure travel is ramping up, and business travel is slowly inching back, the biggest industry lagger will be group travel, which may take a year or more to fully recover.
The Westin, along with the Hilton and the Marriott at Key Tower, are the city’s main convention-center oriented hotels, and may be somewhat slower to recover than hotels that typically see more leisure travel, including the Drury Plaza and Kimpton Schofield.
When Kim Lawson was laid off from her job at the Huntington Convention Center last spring, she thought about leaving the hospitality industry for good.
“As I was applying for jobs, I had no idea what I was going to do or where I was going to go,” said Lawson.
Many in the industry, she said, did some serious soul searching over the past year.
“People who have spent their whole careers in the hospitality industry were wondering, ‘Is the industry going to come back? Do I even want to stay in this industry?’ “
Eventually, Lawson reconnected with Meyer, whom she worked with years ago at the Hyatt Regency at the Arcade. He hired her as the hotel’s new sales manager last fall.
Meyer said he understands the hesitancy of hospitality employees to return to the industry. “We’ve been on hold for 14 months now. It hasn’t stabilized yet. We’re still in this pandemic.,” he said. “People are cautious and I can’t say that I blame them.”
Before the pandemic, the Westin employed as many as 275 workers, according to Meyer. During the darkest months of the pandemic, the hotel had about 60 on its staff. It’s back up to about 100 now.
Statewide, more than one-third of Ohio’s 43,000 hotel workers lost their jobs in 2020, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association. And although some have been hired back, the industry workforce is still expected to be down about 25% this year from 2019 levels.
Harnar, the human resources manager, said the worst days from the past year were telling colleagues that they were out of a job.
Those difficult days, she said, gave her plenty of perspective when she and other managers were asked to pitch in to help the housekeeping staff, cleaning toilets and stripping beds.
“We all came in on weekends, just to help out the room attendants,” she said.
One of the benefits of working so hard: She hit the goals on her fitness tracker after just a few hours of cleaning. And another: She and her colleagues bonded over the mutual experience.
“We all got so close so fast,” said Harnar, who joked that they should create a reality show about the experience and call it “Survivors.”
“It would get great ratings,” she said.
Great ratings or not, she’s ready for the next episode.
“I can’t wait for the day when people feel more comfortable meeting and gathering,” said Lawson. “I can’t wait for the hospitality and event industry to get back where it was.”