Coping with COVID
SC Biz News is speaking with small businesses and community leaders about the impact of the new coronavirus on business and industry, and how this is changing how they operate.
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The birthday party may not be exactly what Rita Patel envisioned, but she still plans to mark the momentous occasion.
Patel, co-owner of Hotel Trundle, and husband Marcus Munse opened the downtown Columbia boutique lodging establishment on April 9, 2018. Days before that anniversary this year, the hotel posted an Instagram picture announcing the pausing of hotel operations.
“It’s crazy because this week is our birthday week,” Patel said Monday. “I don’t know what we’re going to do yet, but we’re definitely going to celebrate. If it has to be at home, we’ll blow out a candle or something.”
Patel said Hotel Trundle began to see a “steady increase” in cancellations at the beginning of March across the business board, including leisure and corporate travel and group reservations for big events such as weddings. Staff hours had to be drastically sliced as the effects of the COVID-19 crisis mounted.
“We did some shifting around, and we were able to hold it together for a while,” Patel said. “We averaged about five or six rooms a night those first couple of weeks, and then it was just getting to where we didn’t need housekeeping staff at all.”
As Patel and Munse watched news reports of escalating cases of the new coronavirus, they decided to close their doors temporarily, even though hotels are considered essential services in a stay-at-home order issued by the city of Columbia and not listed as nonessential in an executive order from the governor.
“We could’ve probably broken even if we really wanted to, but the public health responsibility weighed in more than the financial,” Patel said. “We were really fortunate because we were in a good financial position to pause. Our team is getting paid leave and we’re providing the mental health benefits that we always did. We did that just to make sure that they’re safe and healthy and that they’re all ready to go when the time finally does arrive that we can reopen, which I’m really looking forward to.”
Patel said Munse went in to work on Monday morning “and kind of prepped for closure, set the away message and our voicemail and all that good stuff. I think it’s the right thing to do. I’m not afraid. I know that we will reopen. Columbia is really resilient, and the amount of support that we’ve received has been incredible.”
Patel said she and Munse have kept on top of small-business loan information, and “we’re just going to hunker down and wait it out,” she said. “We’re in constant contact with our team, making sure they’re OK, and checking in with our partners and the businesses that we work with. Everyone is just being that person or that business you can lean on, and that’s amazing, and that’s how I think that we’re all going to get through this.”
Patel is focusing on other positives in the situation, including catching up with friends via online hangout apps and an increased sense of community she’s noticed in her Cottontown neighborhood.
“Everybody is in this situation together, and it makes life the most important thing,” she said. “The earth as a whole is probably taking a very much-needed, giant deep breath.”
That said, deciding to pause Hotel Trundle operations took a toll.
“I cried and cried and cried,” Patel said. “It’s hard to make that decision, even the little things that you have to do to prep for something like that. It’s not like you can make the decision and then it’s done. You have to write messages and do videos and prepare the website.
“It’s really sad because I never felt like we would have to say the things that we’re having to say.”
Once Hotel Trundle reopens, Patel foresees changes aimed at instilling confidence in travelers, such as hand sanitizer provided along with other toiletries and masks available at the front desk.
“I think all hotels are going to have to prepare in some way for this type of practice for guests to feel safe in a very public area,” she said. “We’ve just got to think creatively.”
While their hotel is still relatively new, Patel and Munse have worked in larger, branded hotels for years. Patel takes comfort in knowing the industry has survived crises before.
“We’ve been through the recession. We’ve been through 9-11,” she said. “I know that Marcus and I created Hotel Trundle from scratch, and I know that if we have to do it again, then that’s what we’ll do.”