Hotels are adapting to the post-COVID world with ways to avoid human contact. Courtesy photo.

Hotel occupancy in Santa Monica is down by 48% compared to occupancy in January through July last year, with an economic knock-on slamming hospitality workers, local businesses, and City tax revenues. Reeling in this wake, hotels are rapidly reorienting to implement stringent safety protocols and market to a new demographic of drive market customers and “staycationers”.

In 2019, 8.4 million visitors came to Santa Monica from outside of L.A. County and supported over 12,000 jobs, spent $1.8 billion at local businesses, and generated $72.1 million in transient occupancy and sales taxes, according to Santa Monica Travel & Tourism. Currently, an estimated 50 percent of Santa Monica’s hospitality workers are out of work and around 160 local businesses have permanently closed.

Despite these hardships, several hotels have been able to hit COVID-safe capacities on recent weekends through strict safety protocols, special offers and robust marketing campaigns. All but two hotels are now fully open and on Aug 22nd hotels hit a recent occupancy high of 67.8 percent.

“We closed the hotel in late March and we reopened in July and it’s been a complete moving target in that time period of what the expectations were, what restrictions were going to be in place, and what was actually in place,” said Sam Jagger, General Manager of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows.

This world famous property has sat on five acres of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean for over one hundred years, but has had to rethink all of its luxury operations from a contactless concierge service to training employees in conveying a welcoming attitude without being able to smile.

The property’s unique bungalows have proven to be one of their greatest assets as they offer an isolated living space that opens to an expansive garden and ocean breezes. The Fairmont’s 297 rooms can operate at a 60 percent capacity due to the 48 hour wait between bookings, which is mandated by the Accor Hotel Group’s ALLSAFE coronavirus protocols.

On the other end of the hospitality spectrum, the Sea Shore Motel located on Main Street has relied on its family run business model to keep its 25 rooms open during the pandemic.

“Half the motels in Santa Monica shut down. They had to because they had to lay off their staff, but by being family we stepped in and survived,” said Sonia Metz, Owner of the Sea Shore Motel. “My nephew, my son, my daughter—we got them involved and showed them how to run the business while they were off school this summer. My brothers and I took a pay cut of half our pay.”

Metz’s father bought the motel in 1972 and it has been run by Metz and her two brothers for the past 25 years. During the pandemic, the Metz family had to let almost all their staff go and work around the clock to compensate.

“The running joke in our neighborhood was that if the no vacancy sign was off that meant that our lightbulb blew out,” said Metz. In a typical summer the motel ran at full occupancy with a waitlist. They hit full occupancy during recent weekend heatwaves, but occupancy trickles down to a handful of visitors during the week.

In prior summers, the Sea Shore would accept bookings a year in advance for guests from countries like Germany, Canada, and Japan. This year the motel, alongside the rest of Santa Monica’s hospitality businesses, is seeing a shift in visitor demographic to almost exclusively drive-market customers who book short-term stays without much prior notice.

“Summer is normally our peak season when we run the highest occupancy. A significant number of our guests would normally include a higher mix of European travelers,” said Klaus Mennekes, the Vice President & Managing Director of Shutters on the Beach and Hotel Casa del Mar. “Currently the majority of guests are booking 10 days or less in advance and guests are staying an average of 3 to 4 days.”

Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar are two of Santa Monica’s higher end hotels and both boast panoramic ocean views. To help attract visitors they have opened three new outdoor dining spaces: The Terrazza Beachside Patio, The Courtyard at 1 Pico and Coast Café Promenade and Patio.

In order to encourage tourism from California, Arizona, and Nevada, hotels have also been participating in staycation advertising campaigns in partnership with tourism organizations.

Santa Monica Travel & Tourism launched the Santa Monica Shines campaign on Aug 3, with an assurance program listing businesses and hotels whose health and safety protocols have been reviewed and approved by a third party. The website features a list of hotels, discounts, and things to do in Santa Monica, which is part of a paid media campaign targeting Southern California residents that will continue through Dec 31.