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What Does It Take To Reopen A Hotel During The Pandemic?

At the beginning of March, Palm Springs’ newest hotel, Les Cactus, was enjoying a nice run. It had scored good write-ups, Instagram stars were posting pics, and the user-based reviews were glowing. Best of all, the buzz was converting to real revenue. The property entered the month with 70% occupancy after being open for less than thirty days.

For a brand new hotel/AirBnB hybrid in a hyper-competitive industry, that number is certainly eyebrow-raising. Corporations started calling for buyouts. More cool kids rushed to visit (without the actual kids — the property is 21+). Models posted to Instagram from every rattan chair, retro-tiled shower, and sunbaked slab of pink stucco they could find. Les Cactus was as hot as a Palm Springs sidewalk.

Then COVID hit. The property shut down completely — a week before that move was mandated by California Governor Gavin Newsom. From the first week of March to mid-June, they were 100% closed. As cash flow evaporated, first-time hotel-owner Matt Kurtz, 33, came to a crossroads: open back up (as soon as it was legal) or risk shutting down forever.

He chose to open while taking stringent actions to make sure that the potential for contact was at its absolute minimum. Things wouldn’t be quite the same, of course. The public shared kitchen was shuttered. Guests would be asked to wear masks in the lobby and walking across the pool deck. But, in general, the vibe was classic P.S. — people basking in the sun, paging through paperbacks, snapping photos, and taking dips in the pool.

The property surged again, thanks to its Instagram-friendly midcentury maximalist design and Kurtz’s own accomodating manner when managing guest concerns. As of this writing, Les Cactus has had no COVID cases reported and, having visited, I can say that the precations they claim to be taking are real. The night of my stay, I spoke with Kurtz about his entire opening-closing-opening saga. He proved refreshingly frank about the steps he’s taken, the risk of spreading the virus, and the challenges of running a hotel in the COVID-era.

Les Cactus

When did you shut down the property during the initial wave?

We shut down a week before the actual required shutdown.

So that was… March 7th?

Just about. At that time, it was really scary. No one knew what was happening. As an employer, I was like, “I need to look out for my staff and guests. How might we be potentially promoting or spreading this virus? We don’t know what it is.” So we shut down a week before the actual California governor said that we had to close down businesses. We stayed empty until we reopened on June, 19th.

It was that or potentially closing forever, which was a possibility. So when we opened we wanted to make sure we were doing everything that we could to A) make guests feel comfortable with the visit, but also B) make sure our staff was safe. Guests may be here for one or two nights. It’s our staff that’s here for five to seven days a week. So we’re the ones that are really more at risk than the guests are. We did a lot of research and followed any guidelines that were provided.

Yeah, there are the CDC guidelines for hotels, of course, but there is also a lot of industry-specific information out that really drills down in how to pull a re-opening off.

The California Hotel and Lodging Association has pretty strict guidelines that we follow. We use Ecolab, which is a commercial cleaning company that provides us all our chemicals, which are hospital-grade and CDC-rated to kill viruses. We’re just following any sort of guideline and practice that we can just make sure our staff and the guests are safe.

There was a time where when people re-opened there was a fear of, “Okay, what is our protocol where we would have to close right back down again?” Is that conversation you’ve had?

When a guest checks out, we completely sanitize and disinfect the hotel using the Ecolab products, these disinfectants and cleaning solutions that are ready to kill viruses. We purchased a hypoallergenic, completely safe disinfecting fogging machine, so we go in there and drop a little gift bag, which has snacks and hand sanitizer and stuff, then we go in, we fog the entire thing down. The floor, the furniture, the high touch areas… everything.

Then the guest room is closed. The room code is programmed. We work it down and then we don’t go in there. If someone was to call and say that they were COVID-positive, we have all the guests’ information, we would call and say, “Hey, we want to let you know that while you were here, there was a guest that was positive.” Then we would be shutting down the hotel to make sure that the entire property was sanitized in such a way that we felt comfortable to reopen the property to our staff and guests again.

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What have the guests’ attitudes generally been? It’s one of the things that’s been interesting about this: LA treats the pandemic differently than Orange County, where I live, which is different than here in Riverside County.

I would say 99% of our guests are very chill and open about it. What makes it really easy for us is that when you drive in there are signs that read, “facemasks required.” It’s Citywide. If there ever is any pushback, we say, “Hey guys, we’re so sorry. This is a city-mandated requirement. We can get shut down.”

If there was any pushback for that, then we would ask the guests to leave — kindly, respectfully, and with an offer to refund them. The last thing we want is one of those Walmart, Trader Joe, or Cosco social media situations. But luckily —

Those people who are obviously trying to create a scene?

Exactly. We ask guests when they’re indoors, in our lobby, to wear a mask. If they don’t have it, we have masks at the ready for you to put on. We ask guests to wear them while they’re walking around outdoors. When they’re sitting down in a pool chair or swimming or at some other outdoor dining table, then they’re welcome to take it off. It’s the same rules that you would see at a restaurant or anything like that. At the end of the day, we’re just trying to protect everyone who is here to make them feel comfortable.

To pivot the conversation a little bit. When did you guys originally open?

The first week of February?

Oh my God.

So we had about a month of operation until we had to shut down.

So talk to me about that because… you’re obviously quite young to be able a hotelier. This is your first project?

Yep. I was always was in the hotel industry, wanting to own hotels. Worked at the front desk for the Chateau Marmont. Moved to NYU to get my master’s in Hotel Finance. Worked at a bunch of restaurants and bars and hotels over there. Got a job in hotel consulting in appraisals and went into finance. But all with the idea of one day being able to open up a property or multiple properties.

Did you know from the very beginning that, the design was going to be so intrinsic to the property? The design is very Palm Springs — this kind-of mid-century Tiki design. It’s also really friendly to the Instagram world, where people come and stay and say to themselves, “Okay, stylistically, I can really tell a cool story through my images here.”

Well, I think that’s the world we’re living in. A social media world. That’s how word of mouth gets out nowadays. I can only speak of hotels or hospitality businesses. To open up a property that isn’t Instagrammable or something that people really get excited to take photos of would mean that you’re not very relevant and you’re not going to get that word of mouth free marketing that you might otherwise enjoy. When we were designing it, yes, we wanted it to be fun and funky and affordable. Those were kind of our mantras. Knowing that, if we build a place that has really good service, really good price point, and a great design, people are going to come.

When you’re opening up a brand new hotel in Palm Springs — where there are these other really cool properties that are very successful, that have been around for years — how do you get people in your property? It comes down to pictures, right? You’re going to put your pictures on Expedia, Hotel.com, Instagram and just by people seeing the photos and looking at the prices, they’re going to make a decision. “Okay, I can maybe go to a place that doesn’t have any reviews because it looks really cute and just hope for the best.”

Now, luckily, we’ve been getting a ton of really good reviews lately, which is helping us. Design was very important when we opened this property. We always knew service has to be top-notch. Who wants to go to a hotel where they’re treated poorly or are being met by someone who’s unhappy? You have to feel good and relaxed when you come to a hotel. The price point is important also because you want to make sure people can afford it, and you want to deliver on that design.

Of course, you have a beautiful pool and you have a nice deck, too. I think in Palm Springs — where it gets to 105-degrees pretty routinely through the spring, summer, and fall — that becomes asset number one, right?

When we came into this property, it was very dated. The colors were brown and red and orange. What we did feel when we came in was a really great vibe, a really central courtyard, a great pool, and a good hot tub. Really mature plants — bougainvillea and palm trees. It had really good bones. We were able to see, “Okay, if we give this thing, a facelift, it could be really special.”

Les Cactus

Then you finally get it open and… not to pour salt on the wound, but what was your feeling as a young hotel owner? When the pandemic hit, it sounded like you became employee-focused right away, which is very admirable. Was your brain just spinning at that point?

It was a real punch in the gut. When you open up a hotel, you hope for the best. You have projections that you hope you’re going to hit, but at the end of the day, they’re numbers on paper. When we opened, we got such fanfare and such positive reviews and word of mouth, that we became, within a month we were at probably 70% occupancy. Obviously in February, that’s the start of the busy season, but for a hotel that just opened to be 70% occupied — I think that’s really special. We were getting requests from cool companies to come and do buyouts and stuff like that.

Then, in early March, the world… We had about 50 or 60,000 thousand dollars worth of revenue already in March that was canceled, all within a couple of days because people were afraid to travel. So that was really upsetting and made us ask, “What’s going to happen? Are we going to weather the storm? Are we going to be able to stay open? When we do reopen, is it going to be as positive as when we just did in February? Or we’re going to have to jump through hoops now?” So it was really scary.

What are guests saying about being opened up again?

For many of them — actually, right now, we just had a guest check-in and she said, “This is the first time that we’ve left our home for the last four months.” We get a lot of calls and emails. “What are your procedures? What are your policies with COVID?” People call in, “I’m not comfortable. Can you tell me what’s going on?” I just take them through our process step-by-step and we still get cancellations today, and I say, “I completely understand, when you’re comfortable, we’re here for you.”

We used to have a 14-day cancellation policy. We cut that down to one to two days, officially. But even then, we’re really flexible. We’re here for guests, so we make sure guests feel comfortable. If they don’t, then we’re not going to charge them a penalty. We want to let them know that we’re here and we’re friendly. When you’re comfortable, you’ll come back. We’d love to have you. It’s all a matter of walking people through the policies and procedures, and just doing our best to make people feel comfortable. That’s cleaning and wiping things down throughout the day. Our housekeepers do it in the morning and afternoon. Then I do it again at night.

Were there any capacity changes?

We’re only talking about 27 rooms. As for the pool deck, we had more chairs and moved them around a little bit. In the summer heat, people are only at the pool for a certain number of hours. So we haven’t had an issue where people are like, “Hey, there’s no chairs!”

It’s really just about keeping people distanced. Trying to keep them wearing a mask, doing our part in cleaning and disinfecting, and taking the whole thing incredibly seriously for the sake of our guests and our team.

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