Local Hotel Bookings Recover, but Staffing Remains a Challenge

Photo courtesy GraduateHotels.com

COMMUNITY

By Jasmine Gallup

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit North Carolina, and travel ground to a halt, the hotel business took a nosedive. Now, however, Chapel Hill hotels are dealing with the opposite problem — as people get back out of the house and weekend bookings rise, many hotels are struggling to hire enough staff to deal with the increase in business. 

Fall is a historically busy time for hotels, with weddings, football games and other seasonal events bringing an increase in visitors. At the Graduate Chapel Hill hotel on Franklin Street, nearly every room is booked for football weekends and other high-traffic days, said spokeswoman Caroline Stephens.

“The property is nearly sold out for all key weekends and at high occupancy throughout the semester,” Stephens said. “People are excited to get back to Chapel Hill and celebrate all things Carolina.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the hotel had a staff of about 45. As of July, that number had shrunk to about 30, according to a report by the Triangle Business Journal. When bookings went down last fall, the Graduate hotel began renting rooms to college students to keep revenue up. 

Stephens said the hotel is now in “a strong place in terms of staffing.” Because it’s smaller than most, with only 70 rooms, the business was able to deal more readily with the ups and downs of the pandemic. 

“Our property is smaller than many in the market and opened in August 2020, so we’ve had the chance to steadily increase staffing based on demand over the past year,” Stephens said. 

Larger hotels, however, may have more trouble bouncing back. Like many other businesses, hotels had to lay off staff in order to keep their doors open. 

In February of last year, before the pandemic, Chapel Hill hotel occupancy was at 65% and revenues were at $3.9 million, according to the Orange County Visitors Bureau. When the pandemic hit in March, hotels started seeing a cascade of cancellations, in keeping with business and school shutdowns. In May of last year, occupancy had dropped by nearly half, hovering around 35%, and revenues totaled just $764,000, a decrease of 80%. 

Today, hotels are recovering, but they’re still ultimately dependent on a pandemic that is constantly changing. As property managers advertise open positions, many potential employees are hesitant to rejoin the hospitality industry, especially since the Delta variant has COVID-19 cases on the rise.

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