The damage may be universal, but the pain is uniquely local.
The novel coronavirus-inflicted tourism bust is reverberating throughout Santa Fe, with global hospitality benchmarking firm STR determining room occupancy at Santa Fe hotels in April was just 15.1 percent.
Contrast that figure with April 2019, when 63.8 percent of local hotel rooms were filled.
“We had a single night in April that was zero,” said Sam Gerberding, general manager at the Inn of the Governors. “We’re still open. We’re stubborn. We were having 6 percent occupancy. Most people were delighted and happy to be staying with us.”
Still, the damage done by the crash to Santa Fe’s hospitality industry has been so profound that Randy Randall, executive director of Tourism Santa Fe, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, ruefully mused, “Our surprise is that occupancy is that high.”
The hotel business around the country — which in normal times would be gearing up for a big Memorial Day weekend — has been mired in unprecedented doldrums as vacation and business travel came to a halt in the past two months. That was especially true in April as Santa Fe and New Mexico began grappling with the economic effects of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s stay-at-home orders and occupancy limits.
Santa Fe has become a drive-thru pit stop in the coronavirus era. Destination travel, at least as it was practiced through early spring, is still a long way off.
“As people are traveling across New Mexico, they are making one-night stops,” Randall said. “They stay at the first flag [national branded hotel] they see and spend the night and then get back on the freeway and move on.”
The U.S. Travel Association ranked New Mexico No. 45 in travel spending. Travel spending here plummeted nearly 60 percent, from $76 million the week ending March 21 to $31 million the week ending May 9. The only places with higher losses were Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts and West Virginia. The national average was a 53 percent loss in travel spending.
“That reflects on the lack of commercial traffic that occurs in New Mexico,” Randall said. “Californians do business with Californians. That doesn’t happen in New Mexico. The more reliant you are on vacation travel, the higher the losses.”
Some places improvised as best they could.
The popular El Rey Court on Cerrillos Road had about 12 percent occupancy in April — achieved almost entirely by a promotion the 86-room 1920s motor court ran to attract Santa Fe residents, co-owner Jeff Burns said. “People just needed a break from their home life,” Burns said.
Some guests even did their work-at-home routine at the El Rey, he added.
“This is a part of who we are,” Burns said of always working to have locals among El Rey’s guests. “The very first thing we did [when they bought the property] was draw a circle around the hotel and figure out how do we connect with the local community. That’s not just an economic downturn strategy.”
The U.S. Travel Association reported 51 percent of the 15.8 million travel-related jobs in the U.S. have disappeared during the pandemic. It defines travel-related jobs as air transportation, other transportation, lodging, recreation and amusement, retail, food services, and travel planning.
The state has 42,021 unemployment claimants for travel-related jobs, or 18.9 percent of all such jobs, covered by unemployment, according to statistics from the state Department of Workforce Solutions.
On the bright side, New Mexico and nearly all other states had already seen upticks in travel spending by early May. New Mexico bottomed out the week of April 25 at $24 million, a 68 percent drop over five weeks since March 21. “We have 14 percent occupancy tonight,” Gerberding said Thursday. “This weekend, we are matching the governor’s limit [of 25 percent occupancy].”
El Rey Court hit the 25 percent occupancy line last weekend and expects to do so again this weekend, Burns said.
“The demand for this weekend will be over 50 percent,” said Burns, who lives in Dallas, noting the restlessness of Texans. “People are just hankering to get out of the house: ‘Please, can I just go somewhere?’ ”