COVID-19 vaccine marks 'major milestone' for reeling hotel industry

Industry leaders agree that recovery won't be the same within every market

The rollout of coronavirus vaccines marks “a major milestone” for the hotel industry, which has been reeling from various lockdown measures and travel restrictions meant to curb the virus' spread.

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Since March, the historic and unprecedented drop in travel demand has made it difficult for hotels to keep their doors open and rehire all of their staff. In September, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) underscored the industry's troubles by reporting that 68% of hotels still had less than half of their typical, pre-crisis staff working full time.

However, some of the country's largest hotel chains, as well as smaller boutique locations, told FOX Business that they have already seen signs of travel confidence, due in part because of the medical advancements made to mitigate the spread of the virus.

And while the recovery won't be quick, industry leaders agree that there is significant pent-up demand for leisure travel.

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"Since the beginning of the pandemic, we believed a widely available vaccine or therapeutics would be critical for the travel industry’s full recovery," Mark Vondrasek, Hyatt's chief commercial officer, told FOX Business. "The worldwide rollout of the vaccines for COVID-19 is extremely encouraging."

Officials at Hilton also see the vaccine as a glimmer of hope amid a tumultuous year.

"We fully expect that our customers will be ready and eager to travel when it is safe to do so, and the deployment of a vaccine is positive news for the travel and tourism industry’s path to recovery," a Hilton spokesperson told FOX Business.

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Aside from the vaccines, which are being rolled out in phases, Vondrasek said the "advances in accessibility of rapid, high-quality and low-cost testing" is also improving consumers' confidence in travel.

Those tests help "set us on an even clearer path to recovery," he added.

Likewise, officials also acknowledged that the pent-up demand for travel will also result in increased bookings for leisure travel.

"There is a strong pent-up demand for travel – we will continue to see leisure travelers act first and business travel will follow, once approved vaccines are more broadly available," Vondrasek said, adding that they have already seen "encouraging booking data for leisure destinations."

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Best Western noted that although it is seeing a roughly 35% decline in revenue throughout North America, the company has seen an increase in bookings for future months.

"There is a tremendous amount of pent-up demand for travel after so many important life events were postponed in 2020," a Best Western spokesperson told FOX Business. "Now with vaccines rolling out in communities around the world, travelers are gaining confidence in planning their getaways for the months ahead."

As a result of the growth in demand for the spring and summer months, Best Western said its average daily rate is also increasing.

"While rates are currently down 10% year-on-year, we are beginning to see rates inch up as bookings increase," the company said.

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Still, industry leaders agree that recovery won't be the same within every market.

Hilton said its occupancies in China reached nearly 70% as domestic travel returned to pre-pandemic levels during holiday travel while other markets, "particularly Europe, continue to be impacted by the virus and related lockdown measures."

Aparium Hotel Group, which currently operates eight hotel properties across the United States, projects a "rebound at varying levels depending on geography and specific market segments."

"Quarter one is a difficult way to measure recovery, but we know people are ready," said Kevin Robinson, co-founder of Aparium Hotel Group. "We see them engaging with us on social media and through web traffic which will result in a strong close to the year."

Robinson said they will continue to "evolve the experience at our hotels, restaurants and bars in an authentic way" in order to make sure guests feel comfortable, safe and confident during the ongoing pandemic.

It's a challenge facing the entire industry. However, some industry leaders say smaller boutique hotels are better positioned to do handle the headwinds.

The Rooms at Fitler Club, a 14-room boutique hotel in Philadelphia, projects smaller chains will see a faster recovery compared to larger chains because of their ability to pivot.

"Boutique and independent hotels don’t need layers of policy and approvals to create, adapt and innovate, which was critical to survive during unpredictable times." Fitler Club President Jeff David told FOX Business. "The faster the decision-making process, the faster the operation can get ahead of the trends before they become headlines."