With business travel lagging, urban hotels embrace leisure

In November 2020, Stephen Power took over as general manager at the Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco while it was still shuttered due to the pandemic. Temporarily living in the Presidential Suite, he got to know the hotel sans guests and started brainstorming new ideas for the April 2021 reopening. One of the first pivots was an embrace of leisure travelers, who were fueling travel’s comeback.

It was a logical move. Pre-pandemic the guest mix at the hotel was roughly 18% group, 26% business and 74% leisure. Since the reopening, the leisure market has made up 95% of the Ritz-Carlton’s business. 

“Because the guest mix has changed so much, the timing felt right to feature some unique programming,” Power said. “We have this wonderful private park that, pre-Covid, we would put a tent up and use for additional meetings space. We started doing morning coffee out there, and one day I realized it would be the perfect place for outside yoga.” 

And thus, Silent Disco Yoga was born.

A July STR blog post summed up the situation Power and other big city hotel managers are still facing: There’s little doubt that leisure travelers are driving the recovery, as a revival of business and group travel is likely to be “uneven.” 

And that uneven path got even more rough as summer went on and the delta variant spread, prompting more companies to delay their reopenings and tread cautiously with corporate travel requirements.

  • Related: Hotel survey casts shadow on prospect of autumn business travel recovery

In the meantime, luxury hotels in city centers have been busy with creative promotions and packages.

At the Ritz-Carlton, Power introduced Silent Disco Yoga, where participants practice their downward dogs and warrior poses while wearing Bluetooth headphones all tuned into the same tracks.

The property further leaned into the leisure market with a Respite Concierge focused on rest and relaxation amid the hustle and bustle of downtown San Francisco.

“The impact of this pandemic on tourism, and the hotel business in particular, cannot be overstated, but it also provides an opportunity to rethink old norms and reenergize our strategies,” Power said.

T1011THENINESROOM_C_HR [Credit: Courtesy of The Nines]

At the Nines in Portland, Ore., travel trends during the pandemic have completely flipped old patterns. Previously, Tuesdays and Wednesdays were big sell-out days for the property, with roughly a third of their occupancy coming from business travelers and a third from group travel. Now, leisure guests dominate bookings, and weekends are the busiest time.

“After Covid-19, experiences are the No. 1 priority,” said Kasey Conner, director of sales and marketing at the Nines. “Celebrations are very big right now — weddings, birthdays, social gatherings of all sorts. Our packages for anniversaries and honeymoons have been popular. And more and more people are looking for interesting experiences.”

The Nines is catering to the demand by offering special room decorations for celebrations and formulating unique packages. For Halloween, the hotel is offering a promotion that includes a Portland ghost walking tour and a visit to Pittock Mansion, which features views of the city skyline and was the setting for the 1982 slasher film “Unhinged” and 1989 horror film “The Haunting of Sarah Hardy.”

It also has a Roaring ’20s package that includes a stay in the Presidential Suite, a multicourse dinner for six and a Dom Perignon toast with custom Tiffany Champagne flutes.

At the Thompson Nashville, roughly 30% of guests came from group travel pre-pandemic, said director of sales and marketing Lisa Bush. Now, some of that market is returning, but the size of the groups is smaller than before.

“We have as many offers as we can — something for every type of traveler, so we get heads in beds,” Bush said. 

The Thompson Nashville is collaborating with local business Invigorate Health to offer a Boost Your Stay … in a Wellness Way package that includes an IV drip to ease dehydration with the option to add different vitamin boosts.

“During the pandemic, most people were very focused on health and wellbeing. So we thought the IV drip would be a good option with those things top of mind for guests. A lot of them have been blown away by how much better they felt afterward,” Bush said. 

The hotel managers who were contacted for this report said they expected transient leisure travel to dominate through the end of the year, and even with bookings for group and business travel looking up for 2022, much of their creative programming is likely to stick around. 

“A lot of group bookings we’re getting now, they’ll see the new packages on our website and they are asking if we can set them as a fun activity for their group,” Connor said. “They’ve also been a great way to showcase Portland and the region as a whole.” 

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