Westchester Hotels Face Uphill Battle as COVID Restrictions Continue
Mary Prenon | October 2020
It’s been more than six months since the onslaught of COVID, and many Westchester businesses have closed or are still floundering. But perhaps one of the industries hit hardest by the pandemic has been tourism.
After 47 years in operation, the renowned Westchester Hilton in Rye closed its doors in July. With 445 guest rooms, 19 meeting rooms and 33,000 square feet of event space, the hotel had played host to celebrities and even former U.S. presidents over the years.
Earlier this year, the Doral Arrowood in Rye Brook ceased operations after 37 years in business. The 114-acre campus offered 400 rooms, three restaurants, plus golf and tennis courts. Tarrytown’s Castle Hotel & Spa, along with the Ritz-Carlton in White Plains, closed temporarily for renovations and are planning re-openings in 2021.
“All of our hotels have been affected by the pandemic,” acknowledged Natasha Caputo, director, Westchester County Tourism & Film. “Here in Westchester, business travelers represent the biggest market, and with so many states still listed on New York’s COVID travel advisory list, there’s been a huge decline in this market.”
Social events and weddings have also seen a marked decrease. “Westchester is a destination for so many weddings because of all that we have to offer here, but hotels must adhere to New York State guidelines for maximum capacities,” Caputo added.
In the pre-pandemic era, Westchester’s tourism industry was booming. A recent report from the Westchester County Tourism & Film office indicated the county’s $2-billion tourism industry reached record levels in 2018. Hotel activity was up by 8%, with occupancy rising to 73.8%. The report also showed that travel and tourism continued to be a significant driver of the county’s economy. Local and state taxes generated by the industry came in at $233 million at the end of 2018.
This January, Westchester County launched a new tourism campaign called “Beyond,” aimed at attracting new visitors for a destination getaway. Just two months later, though, the pandemic put a temporary halt to those plans.
Still, there has been some unexpected good news on the horizon, even during these challenging times. The 153-room SpringHill Suites by Marriott opened this summer in Tuckahoe. Earlier this year, the much-anticipated Abbey Inn & Spa opened in Peekskill, sitting on 65 acres overlooking the Hudson River. The luxury hotel offers 42 rooms, a farm-to-table restaurant and a spa. Constructed in 1872, it originally served as a convent and chapel for the Episcopal Sisters of Saint Mary.
“We actually opened in mid-March, just as the pandemic was hitting our region,” said Gilbert Baeriswil, General Manager. “I guess the timing wasn’t great, but who could have predicted anything like this.”
Some of the facility’s first guests were first responders serving the area, who were offered discounted rooms. However, by mid-May, when the weather began to change, the Inn started to see an in influx of people from New York City, looking for a quick and easy getaway. “Given the situation, business has far exceeded our expectations,” said Baeriswil.
The Inn’s courtyard was quickly adapted for outdoor dining to supplement the 50% occupancy requirements for their restaurant. “We’re going to stretch the outdoor dining for as long as we can,” added Baeriswil.
While there were employee layoffs shortly after opening, most of them are now back. The spa recently opened, with all employees wearing face shields and all treatment rooms sanitized with ultraviolet light following each treatment. Spa customers are also required to have their temperatures taken prior to their massage or facial.
“We are very fortunate in that we are a smaller, boutique hotel located on a large piece of property with walking trails,” said Baeriswil. “It’s a big attraction for people from New York City, the lower Hudson Valley and Connecticut—especially because we are so close to Bear Mountain and other Hudson Valley attractions.”
The Inn’s largest ballroom can accommodate up to 120 people for weddings or other events, but is now limited to the maximum number of 50 people. A smaller meeting room, which is the former chapel, normally holds up to 50 people, but now only 25.
Meanwhile, Terry McAneney, General Manager of the Westchester Marriott in Tarrytown, has been working with the County Office of Tourism & Film to re-purpose the hotel during the pandemic as a filming venue for movies, television shows or commercials. Producers of the popular NBC series, “The Blacklist,” recently used the hotel’s lobby, guest rooms and pool for various scenes.
“The hotel is in a great location—right off I-287, and we have over 900 parking spaces, which is perfect for production companies,” said McAneney. “We want to make it easy for people to do busines with us, and our ballroom has its own entrance so people and equipment can move in and out without having to go through the lobby.”
Last year, the hotel took on the task of modernizing its 10,000-square-foot ballroom, adding new carpeting, painting, wallpaper and lighting. While it can now seat up to 1,000 people, the ballroom is limited to only 50, due to COVID social distancing restrictions. “Yes, this has hurt us,” admitted McAneney. “People are not traveling for business and most have postponed weddings or other social events. And now with the list of quarantined states growing, it could be quite some time before things start to get back to normal.”
Some of their employees have been furloughed and the hotel’s restaurant and pool remain closed. The fitness center is open at one-third capacity and Ruth’s Chris Steak House, attached to the hotel, is open every day. “We’re working hard to keep our doors open, and we have seen an uptick in weekend visits from local residents who just want to get out of the house for a change,” added McAneney.
Kevin Johnson, general manger of the DoubleTree by Hilton in Tarrytown, echoes McAneney’s concerns. The DoubleTree’s Grand Ballroom also offers 10,000 square feet of space, most of which has remained empty since the pandemic began. “Very few people want to have a wedding with just 50 guests, so a lot of people have just cancelled their plans,” he said. “Some have opted for simple weddings with a Justice of the Peace, and others have reserved venues in states that allow larger gatherings.”
Like so many other area hotels, the DoubleTree has been forced to lay off employees, but Johnson hoped that he’ll be able to bring them back soon. “We’ve been doing some smaller corporate events and we’re just working with what we have for now,” he said. The hotel’s leisure travel market has picked up slightly with people in the New York metro area looking for a quick weekend getaway.
Normally during October, the hotel is completely booked with travelers from out-of-state visiting the Hudson Valley and all of the Halloween events in Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow.
“However, this year, even the special events have been forced to limit the number of people attending, and none of the tour buses are operating now,” he said.
The hotel’s restaurant, Bistro Z, remains open and its spacious outdoor patio is helping to keep business going. They plan to invest in heat lamps for the cooler weather ahead. Inside, the 75-seat restaurant now offers only 30 socially-distanced seats.
On the whole, though, Westchester may be faring a bit better than hotels on a national level. A recent survey of American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) members shows that the hotel industry remains on the brink of collapse due to the pandemic. Results indicate 68% of hotels have less than half of their typical, pre-crisis staff working full time.
Almost half of those surveyed also fear they are in danger of foreclosure by their commercial real estate lenders, and more than two-thirds report they may be able to last only another six months at the current projected revenue and occupancy levels.
Meanwhile, the AHLA has initiated “Save Hotel Jobs,” a grassroots program for hoteliers across the country, urging lawmakers to pass additional stimulus relief. “Every Member of Congress needs to hear from us about the urgent need for additional support so that we can keep our doors open and bring back our employees,” said Chip Rogers, AHLA President and CEO. Rogers said the hotel and lodging industry contributes nearly $660 billion to the U.S. GDP.
Early this month, another ALHA survey found that nine in 10 American voters support Congress passing another COVID relief bill to help distressed businesses. In fact, 50% selected travel and tourism as the top two most affected industries.
Beginning this Fall, the Tourism & Film office initiated “Westchester With Care,” a program enlisting area businesses and non-profits to help fight COVID-19 and safeguard the health and well-being of all who live, work and visit in Westchester County.
Participating businesses are asked to take an online pledge to follow CDC and New York State Department of Health guidelines for cleaning, providing employees with training in sanitizing best practices, monitoring employees for COVID, using protective equipment and face coverings, reducing capacities and maintaining social distancing.
“The rebound process for the tourism will be slow and steady,” acknowledged Caputo. “When full travel is ready again, we have the space here in Westchester, and our hotels will be able to accommodate social distancing in comfortable and appealing settings.”