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The Scarlet & Black

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What Hotel Grinnell can tell us about business during the pandemic

Owner Angela Harrington takes pride in her hotel’s ability to follow safety protocols. By Kaya Matsuura.

Hope is on the horizon for Hotel Grinnell now that all of its rooms have been reserved ahead of Grinnell College’s upcoming graduation, potentially signaling an end to a year that has been defined by anxiety, waiting and empty rooms.  

In a normal year, Hotel Grinnell owner Angela Harrington would be counting on graduation to make up for slow business during the winter months. Demand for graduation has been so high in the past that some parents have asked to book their rooms two, three and even four years in advance.   

When Hotel Grinnell opened reservations for graduation this year on Jan. 25, they sold out that same day – as usual – even though it was still unclear if parents would be allowed to attend 2021’s ceremony. 

Last week the College announced that it will be limiting participation in this year’s commencement ceremony due to the pandemic, part of which includes not inviting graduates’ family members or College faculty 

Despite the College’s announcement, Harrington says that nobody has cancelled their reservations. She believes that some parents may have already had trips planned to drive their students home or help them move out, as has been the case in previous years. 

Graduation will mark only the second time since the onset of the pandemic that Hotel Grinnell has welcomed any sizeable group of people. In late January, when first-years moved on campus, the hotel also sold out. 

“But you wouldn’t know if you were around the hotel,” said Harrington, “because everyone was very safe and kept to themselves.” 

While Iowa didn’t introduce a mask-mandate until November, and then repealed it in February, the College has maintained strict measures to combat the spread of COVID-19. The halt in many campus activities has opened Harrington’s eyes to the importance of the College to Hotel Grinnell’s business. 

“I’ve always said the College was about half of our business,” she said, “but now that the pandemic has been here, I’d say it’s closer to 80 percent.” 

With graduation perhaps signaling the return to some level of normal function, and with fall move-in the next major event on the calendar, Harrington is hopeful that the hotel will be able to rebound after taking in just 10 percent of its projected annual revenue. 

I’ve always said the College was about half of our business, but now that the pandemic has been here, I’d say it’s closer to 80 percent. – Angela Harrington 

Financial matters were also complicated as Hotel Grinnell faced challenges in securing small-business loans from sources like the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) because of the unique nature of the hospitality industry. With property taxes accounting for a major portion of the hotel’s expenditures, not payroll expenditures, its access to many relief programs was limited.  

“There have been four times in the year when I’ve been 45 days from running out of cash,” said Harrington. “I feel like I haven’t slept through the night since Mar. 12.” 

While many businesses have tried to pivot and reorganize their services, Hotel Grinnell has largely been unable to do so.  

In addition to rooms, the hotel also hosts a restaurant and bar, but demand for those services has also been dented by the pandemic. Hotels are often used as event spaces, but few large-scale social gatherings are happening anywhere. And while in the past some hotels have converted their rooms into office buildings or apartments, the demand for physical office space has declined significantly in recent months as well, and the hotel’s rooms don’t feature the kitchens necessary to be marketed as single-unit apartments.  

One of the main reasons Harrington has been able to keep Hotel Grinnell open is because she owns another hotel in Iowa City, The Highlabder Hotel.  

“I would call Iowa City an extreme slowdown,” she said. “And Grinnell would be the zombie apocalypse.”  

I would call Iowa City an extreme slowdown. And Grinnell would be the zombie apocalypse. – Angela Harrington

Hotel Grinnell can go days at a time without welcoming a new guest, but customers are starting to return in Iowa City. Harrington said she believes Iowa City’s size and the lower statewide case count since the spike in October have contributed to the reemergence of customers. She also said she thinks the added dimension of leisure travel has helped. While business travel still remains low, many of Iowa City’s cultural and tourist attractions have begun to re-open.  

“When I looked at my February numbers for Iowa City,” said Harrington, “for the first time since Mar. 12, last year, I thought, ‘You know what, it is gonna come back, and it is gonna work.’” 

 While the situation in Grinnell remains largely bleak, it could all change after graduation and in the months to follow. Harrington said she believes that the worst days of the pandemic are behind Hotel Grinnell, and that despite all the stress and sleepless nights the decline in business has caused her, the hotel could be back to operating at normal capacity by the time fall rolls around. 

 “We’re gonna live to see another day, but there were many, many, many moments in the last 362 days when I was doubtful of that.”

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