Leaders in the hotel and hospitality industry are lobbying California legislators to allow the state to reopen for meetings as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the state’s tourism sector.
California is the only state that has not reopened for meetings or conventions, which play a large part in bringing visitors and revenue to hotels.
Over 100 hospitality and tourism groups — including travel associations, visitors bureaus and labor unions — are pushing for meetings to reopen. One of these groups is the San Mateo County/Silicon Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, an organization that attracts meetings and travelers to the region. President and CEO John Hutar said that the state has lost 518,000 tourism jobs due to COVID-19, with an estimated 25,000 jobs lost in San Mateo County. Data comes from Visit California, the statewide organization that promotes travel and tourism.
During a presentation Tuesday to San Mateo supervisors, Hutar asked for the board’s support in encouraging the state to reopen.
“Each month we wait puts us in a more precarious position as we go forward,” Hutar said. With California closed for meetings and no concrete timeline for future reopening, event planners are turning to other states to rebook cancelled events.
Hutar said it’s not clear who at the state level is making decisions and when guidelines are going to issued regarding the meeting industry.
“We just want to know who, what, when, where, why,” Hutar said. “We want to be reasonable in what we’re asking for, and we want clarity and transparency on the process to get us guidelines so we stop losing business.”
The groups are seeking guidelines like those that apply to movie theaters, which can open at 50 percent capacity or 200 people in the orange tier of the state’s reopening framework. San Mateo County and three other Bay Area counties are currently in the orange tier.
“We don’t want to be deaf to health concerns,” Hutar said. “But if you can go to a movie and there can be up to 200 people, what’s the difference with a meeting?”
He said the groups began a letter writing campaign to the Governor’s Office last September to request guidelines and timelines for reopening meetings. The state has not yet issued any guidelines.
Meanwhile, hotel groups have developed their own safety guidelines that outline how meetings could take place with social distancing, sanitization and other health protocols.
For example, the California Hotel and Lodging Association — which represents about 6,000 hotels, motels and inns statewide — developed its “Clean + Safe” guidance for the hotel industry. Established last April, the guidelines were developed in partnership with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health.
“We’re already prepared and trained and have the equipment but we’re waiting for the state, which we hope will happen in the next week or couple weeks, to allow us to reopen for business meetings,” CHLA spokesperson Pete Hillan said.
Hillan said getting reopening guidance is important as hotels make a lot of their money from business meetings and conventions.
In its current guidance for hotels, lodging, and short-term rentals, the California Department of Public Health states that “operations with meeting venues, banquet halls, or convention centers must keep those establishments closed until allowed to resume.”
The Department’s Office of Communications said in an email that it is working on detailed guidance for meetings.
Meanwhile, some hotels have closed or been sold amid record job and revenue losses. Earlier in March, the Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Jose closed temporarily as its operators filed for bankruptcy.
Even when meetings are allowed, the industry may face long-term or permanent changes. People may continue working remotely post-pandemic, meaning fewer corporate clients for hotels.
Jamie Barber, owner of the Half Moon Bay Inn, said she’s lost visitors and corporate clients. While Barber has been able to keep up with mortgage payments for the inn, she had to lay most of her staff, leaving only herself and two housekeepers.
“No one’s traveling for business when they’re working from home. I don’t know if that will ever recover,” Barber said. “What saved me is I do have some long-term guests that lived here.”
Florian Riedel, general manager of the Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley at East Palo Alto, said that the hotel is holding on to its 85 employees — down from about 200 full-time employees pre-COVID — with the hopes that the state will open for meetings.
“Meetings for us, it’s really our bread and butter. It’s the backbone of our operation and we need to be able to move forward,” Riedel said to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
The board expressed interest in creating a committee to work with state officials and advocate for the tourism industry.
Though industry leaders forecast that occupancy may not return to pre-pandemic levels before 2024 or 2025, there is hope for a full recovery.
“There will be anticipated recovery in leisure. There’s strong pent-up demand. Folks have been in their homes now for a year and want to get out,” Hutar said.