312 | Spring Breaks for Homebodies: Staycations are a growing trend amid the coronavirus pandemic

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SPACED OUT: Suzie Hall of The Cornerstone Collection, a consortium of hotel designers and programming experts, is seeing a lot of properties make more use of their outdoor spaces during the coronavirus crisis. The socially distanced outdoor dining concept is at The Residence Inn Scottsdale in Scottsdale, Arizona, which Hall designed. Rethinking how traveling guests as well as local or nearby residents on staycations can use hotels during and after the pandemic can position a property for a comeback, say experts.

Collaboration among hotels, nearby restaurants and entertainment venues can help attract guests in search of a local respite, say experts

Ashley Ewing Parrott’s life and career have changed a lot since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

She and her husband welcomed a daughter and moved from Chattanooga to Memphis while she launched a hospitality venture called AEP Consulting.

Ewing Parrott has a background in hotel sales and marketing, but came into her own when she directed Vision Hospitality Group’s emerging boutique and lifestyle division that included opening independent properties designed and crafted to serve traveling guests as well as residents of the hotels’ surrounding communities.

Ewing Parrott has seen growth in the staycation trend amid the pandemic as people seek getaways close to home.

“We’ve all spent so much time cooped up in our homes with our immediate family. And I know everyone, at least speaking for myself and most of my friends and family, are itching to get out, itching for a change in scenery. And hotels present a unique experience and that we can create a home away from home,” Ewing Parrott said.

SPRING BREAKS FOR HOMEBODIES: Staycations are a growing trend amid the coronavirus pandemic. Episode 312 of Lodging Leaders podcast explores the origin and evolution of the staycation and how hotels can capitalize on people’s desire to get away from it all, even if it’s just for one or two nights.

Merriam-Webster 12 years ago added the word “staycation” to its online dictionary. In doing so, the publisher said it traced the word to a 2005 article in the Huntsville Times in Alabama.

The publisher noted that modern society might mistakenly think because the word is relatively new, the concept of a staycation is also novel. But Merriam-Webster also found the word in a July 1944 full-page ad selling beer in The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Though many in the hospitality industry might have different opinions on when staycation became a component of travel, there’s no doubt the concept has evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Staycations present both a tremendous opportunity and also a challenge to hotels because you have to assume a level of familiarity with your property on behalf of the guest,” said Ewing Parrott.

“So if the guest is from the local market, they’re going to be fairly familiar with your property, with your offerings whether they visited you or not. Then you can always target that hour- or two-hour drive market that would technically be considered a staycation as well.

“The challenge for staycations, especially during the pandemic, is ensuring the safety of your guests and building confidence around that safety,” Ewing Parrott said, noting the message of clean and safe can be shared through design, programming and service.

“Implementing different elements of design to ensure and build guest confidence around safety and cleanliness is important,” she said. “But also, look at how can we rearrange spaces to make sure that guests feel comfortable – creating more distance in lobby seating, creating more distance between restaurant tables; all the kind of basics that most hoteliers with any experience have already embraced.

“That said, it’s also about how can we market ourselves to those spring breakers specifically or to our neighbors to encourage them to really get that kind of break.

“We have an opportunity to really lean into marketing the best of what you get at home with all of the unexpected and kind of luxuries of hotel stays.” Ewing Parrott advises hotels to add VIP turndown service, private dining options and wellness programs such as virtual fitness classes. For small groups, hotel can offer socially-distanced mixers. “I think there are opportunities to embrace programming in a new way.”

Spring Breaks Cut Short

Months before the phrase “spring break 2021” entered most people’s minds, Emory University in Atlanta in October announced it would not include the traditional vacation in this year’s school calendar.

The university is not alone in making the decision. Many public and private schools from elementary through secondary have cut back on seasonal breaks as the coronavirus pandemic forces schools to go remote or offer a hybrid teaching format. Instead of the traditional weeklong family or group trip, many travelers might opt for staycations.

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly given the staycation a new angle. Rather than spend a break at home, many Americans are escaping quarantine and road-tripping to a nearby destination.

PEDAL PUSHERS: Chattanooga offers bicycle trails to residents and visitors alike. The city’s hotels would do well to connect travelers from faraway as well as staycationers to opportunities that expand and enrich their visit.

Hotel owners and operators would be wise to integrate design and programming to appeal to 2021 staycationers.

Suzie Hall is founder of The Cornerstone Collective and a 30-year veteran of hospitality design and procurement. She restructured the company last year to make it more collaborative among industry providers and specialists – a sort of plug-and-play business model that can rally a team of experts to get a hotel built, renovated or designed.

Hall has seen investors and developers go back to their drawing boards over the past 12 months to rethink hotel layout and design with the pandemic in mind.

“One of my words throughout this pandemic from design and innovation is flexibility,” Hall said. “Knowing that the world isn’t always going to be as it is today, and then improvising with flexibility. And what I mean by that is offering a variety of options for different travelers, the different age groups, the different types of travelers.”

Hall advises destination hotels that want to attract visitors who live a short drive away to bring in a popular entertainer for a weekend and offer different performance times so people can gather in small groups.

When the pandemic struck the U.S. lodging industry in March 2020, Hall was working on hotel reconstruction projects. The dramatic shift in how hotels were to be used altered Hall’s design sensibilities and the renovation schematics.

She said a lot of her work lately has been around re-creating F&B concepts “and understanding all the different areas of a property that can be utilized for events and offering these with as much safety as possible.

“We were in the midst of designing five hotel renovations for branded hotels and the owner asked us to re-layout the FF&E so that they were more appropriate for social and physical distancing. We’ve been doing a lot of that.

“We’ve seen a lot of properties really rethink their outdoor spaces,” she said. “By taking a look at it they’re realizing they have more opportunity to put more seating out there, more tables, smaller groupings of seating than just the big sofas and settees and lounge chairs that we’ve seen in the past.”

Getting creative with large indoor spaces is important, too.

Recently, Hall helped a hotel set up an indoor bowling alley in a ballroom. The lanes and related fixtures are temporary and do not alter the room or the property in anyway. Small groups and families have taken advantage of the pay-as-you-play option and hotels have generated some extra revenue.

SET ‘EM UP: A portable bowling alley such as this one offered by AE&ES in Las Vegas is one way a hotel can generate extra revenue with its large meeting rooms, said Suzie Hall of The Cornerstone Collective. Creative programming and re-thinking how guests can use the hotel space will attract small groups and families in search of staycations. (Photo: AE&ES)

She’s seen hotels offer physically distanced outdoor games, indoor arcades or bring in outside gaming. Properties have also provided mobile apps that inform guests of events and entertainment or sporting opportunities nearby.

Though many resort destinations are known for being all-inclusive, Hall believes the pandemic has permanently altered how hotel teams go about designing food and beverage experiences and other types of programming and amenities.

“I think the spirit of collaboration that has emerged during this pandemic is just a beautiful thing in our communities and people being very open to collaborating and creating new opportunities. Maximizing the use of outdoor and semi-enclosed spaces, even interior spaces, offering classes up to a certain size, whether it’s yoga, fitness, dance movement, croquet, live music, tours through a property, language lessons, wine tastings, book readings, outdoor games. By collaborating with other local restaurants and service companies, I really think the sky’s the limit. And I do think travelers will respond to that.”

When Ewing Parrott was director of brand strategy boutique and lifestyle hotels for Vision Hospitality Group in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she focused mostly on developing and opening The Edwin, Vision Hospitality’s first luxury independent boutique hotel. She also helped launch the company’s new boutique brand called Kinley, which has opened in Cincinnati and is soon to open in Chattanooga. And she oversaw the development of The Grady, a luxury boutique in downtown Lexington, Kentucky.

The hotels are members of Marriott International’s soft brands. More importantly, they’re each distinctively designed to attract guests from faraway as well as provide their local communities unique dining and entertainment options, including staycations.

When Vision Hospitality’s hotels were in early planning, Ewing Parrott led a survey of community residents, asking them what they wanted in a neighboring hotel. The results helped Vision Hospitality design a property that the community would embrace, use and recommend.

“The beautiful thing about a staycation is not only introducing your neighbor to your property, but partnerships with area businesses will truly be key to a successful and fulfilling guest experience over the next six to 12 months and throughout the future,” Ewing Parrott said.

“Most hotels are still experiencing significantly lower demand, slower occupancy and the need for a reduced labor model. Full-service and select-service hotels should embrace the idea of pushing that guests out into the neighborhood to explore and have a kind of adventure.”

LANDMARK DECISIONS: Vision Hospitality Group in October opened Kinley Downtown Cincinnati in Cincinnati, Ohio. The 94-room property is the first of Vision Hospitality’s new brand, which is part of Marriott International’s Tribute Collection, a licensing agreement for independent hotels. The hotel is in a redeveloped landmark building and has collaborated with nearby restaurants and a co-working facility to expand options for guests as well as locals planning a staycation.

As many full-service hotels have either closed their restaurants or are open with limited hours and fewer tables, Ewing Parrott suggests hotel staff encourage guests to seek dining experiences outside the hotel. That goes for other things including fitness options such as bicycling, walking tours, entertainment.

“As hoteliers, we have to be ambassadors for our local community.”

Hotels aren’t the only businesses to be negatively impacted by the coronavirus crisis.

“These days, we really have to be willing to share our guests with our neighbors, because it will benefit everyone in the end, as far as the economic recovery.

Vision Hospitality opened the Kinley Downtown Cincinnati in October. The 94-room hotel is an adaptive reuse of a landmark building. It integrates art by local muralists and artists, which has attracted local business.

Ewing Parrott said using local creatives and artisans to build a brand will help hotels become embedded in community culture.

Another way is to meet a community need.

“I’m super excited to see that one come to life and find success. One of the main reasons they found success is that’s a hotel without meeting space, so they formed an early partnership with a coworking space to offer meeting space to guests when needed.

“I’m sure as the pandemic kind of starts to disappear from focus, their plan is to engage the community in Cincinnati-specific events, whether it’s the design school or the sports teams or the culinary community, and rally the neighborhood with a gathering place in their lobby or in their spaces.”

NEIGHBORHOOD BAR: Vision Hospitality Group this month opened its Kinley Chattanooga in the city’s Southside neighborhood. The soft-branded hotel, part of Marriott International’s Tribute Collection, is a full-service boutique property. The lobby features a bar that serves coffee in the morning and alcoholic beverages in the afternoons with small plates. The hotel’s F&B serves staying guests as well as residents of the Southside neighborhood.

Ewing Parrott this month also helped Vision Hospitality open its Kinley Chattanooga in the city’s southside neighborhood. The hotel adapted its programming from the same neighborhood-focused playbook.

“This was really a testament to providing a hotel to the Southside community that was what the community wanted. At the time we started development, I was a resident of the Southside neighborhood so I felt it was incredibly necessary to speak to the community, to talk to the local businesses and to provide within the footprint of the hotel what the area needed, but none of the things that didn’t, essentially.”

As a result, Kinley Chattanooga is a full-service hotel with a three-meal-a-day restaurant and a morning coffee bar that transitions into a cocktail lounge with small plates in the afternoon. In the back of the hotel is a speakeasy that’s accessible via a hidden bookcase door inside and a back-alley entrance outside.

“We wanted to blur the line between community and hotel, and really just kind of encourage our guys to get out and explore all the beautiful, exciting and entertaining things that Southside had to offer.”

Many hotels loath to rent rooms to local residents because of their sometimes blatant disregard for traveling guests’ comfort and privacy as well as the hotel’s property. Ewing Parrott said while that can be a challenge, hotels can spurn bad actors and attract good customers by managing their rates.

“There is a subset of staycation guests that feel they can come to a hotel and do all of the ridiculous things they would never do in their own home. Having been in sales for years for hotels, I know that when you are suffering in the way of low occupancy, any revenue manager’s first instinct is to drop rate.

“That said, I am a firm believer that there is a direct correlation between what a guest is willing to pay and how they are going to treat the associates, treat the property, the additional revenue that they may generate in food and beverage outlets or retail or things of that nature.

“Instead of tanking rate in response to decreased demand, hold strong. Know the value of your property. Know the value of what you’re offering. I’m not saying increased rates for locals by any means, but remain consistent in your value proposition because that will dissuade some of it.”

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