California hotels are turning rooms into office space, classrooms

Noble Horvath

Facing a prolonged collapse of travel, hotels across California accustomed to putting up vacationers and hosting corporate clients are now instead serving office-less office workers, remote-learning students and locals looking to escape their homes for a day. California hotels are turning rooms into office space, classrooms San Francisco’s Hotel Zetta […]

Facing a prolonged collapse of travel, hotels across California accustomed to putting up vacationers and hosting corporate clients are now instead serving office-less office workers, remote-learning students and locals looking to escape their homes for a day.

Guest rooms that might rent for nearly $1,000 during Dreamforce conference week in San Francisco are being converted to remote-work pods available between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Hotel ballrooms and conference centers, short on wedding parties and corporate conventions, are undergoing redesigns to cater to cohorts of socially distanced students.

“A lot of our hotels are seeing a rise in this trend of people wanting to get away from their small apartments,” said Jenn Iliff, marketing technology manager for the California Association of Boutique & Breakfast Inns, which counts about 200 members. “It’s become a new normal for hotels to provide these types of services.”

On a recent day, the 25-room Seven Gables Inn in Pacific Grove counted four guests renting rooms for office space.

“One was getting out of the Sacramento heat. One wanted a different view than their kitchen wall,” Iliff said.

Such developments come during a year of mounting losses for hotels across the state, more than 1,000 of which have had to close for all or part of the past five months, according to Visit California, the state’s tourism bureau. While hotel occupancy typically hovers around 85% during an average year, this year it has tanked, with some hotels reporting 15% occupancy so far. In San Francisco, for example, occupancy tumbled more than 42% between June 27 and Sept. 12 compared with last year, according to Visit California.

Lodging providers from Mendocino to San Diego and east to Yosemite (when the park is open) are throwing anything they can at the problem.

Wine Country hotels are folding wine tastings and remote work perks (like free Wi-Fi and enhanced food and beverage service) into stay packages. Lodging providers in the Sierra are incorporating guided hikes.

In San Francisco, which has not allowed office towers to reopen and where large employers like Salesforce, Google and Facebook have extended work-from-home policies through late summer 2021, some hotels are spinning guest rooms into work pods.

The chic 116-room Hotel Zetta, in downtown San Francisco, began offering a series of what it calls “Zen” rooms, with amenities to help computer jockeys relax during work breaks. One style of room, geared toward gamers, includes a Nintendo Switch; another comes with a Peloton bike and meditation headset.

“The entire city has gone through historic lows in occupancy over the last few months,” said Aaron Feeney, area director of sales and marketing for Viceroy Hotel Group, which operates Hotel Zetta. “We’re just thinking of new, creative ways to utilize our spaces while travel is down.”

With schools closed throughout the state, some hotels are stepping in to fill a void of remote learning spaces. The InterContinental in downtown San Francisco, for instance, has turned its ballroom into a makeshift socially distanced classroom available for weekly rental. A special at Little River Inn, near Mendocino, rolls a guided naturalist tour and stargazing supplies into an offer for parents tasked with homeschooling their young children.

“Some hotels and retreats and Airbnbs are rethinking their formulas,” said Cally Dym, owner of Little River Inn. “But some people are hoping everything goes back to the way it was. I’m not waiting for that.”

It’s been a grueling six months for hoteliers.

Apart from contending with travelers either scared off by the coronavirus pandemic or held back by shelter-in-place restrictions, hotels are facing an array of new health-related rules and standards. Touchless check-ins, plexiglass-partitioned concierge desks, single-person elevator rides and new guidelines on room cleanliness have complicated daily operations.

In San Francisco, hotel groups are suing the city over a law passed in July mandating daily, intensive room cleanings — the strictest regulation of its kind in the country — claiming the new rules are saddling the beleaguered industry with an unfair cost burden.

More broadly across the state, in places suffering the brunt of the recent spate of wildfires, hotels are offering steeply discounted rates to survivors and victims who may have lost their homes and possessions as well as to firefighters and first responders. In a dark twist of irony, the wildfires have provided a much-needed boost to those hotels.

Even when the coronavirus pandemic subsides and the travel industry bounces back, some hotels may continue offering a more diverse menu of stay options.

“There will continue to be workspace interest and needs in the future,” said Feeney of the Viceroy Hotel Group. “I don’t see hotels going completely away from this.”

Gregory Thomas is The Chronicle’s editor of lifestyle & outdoors. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @GregRThomas

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