COVID-19 puts damper on Michigan's lodging industry

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News
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The welcome mat is out at hotels and resorts across Michigan this holiday weekend, but the guest experience will be far different, just like everything else in this coronavirus world.

Signs will remind you to wear masks, practice social distancing and use hand sanitizer. Plexiglas will likely separate you from the mask-wearing staff at the registration desk. At major chain hotels, guests can use hotel apps to check in, unlock their rooms during their stay, and check out.

Fliers, brochures and other materials touting guest services and regional amenities are gone from rooms. Glassware and ceramic mugs have been replaced by disposable cups. The coffee maker might be in the room, but the components to make coffee will not. You’ll have to ask for them. Mini-bars? Ice machines? Likely not in use. And don’t expect breakfast buffets.

“Like any other industry dealing with the public, hotels are working to minimize personal contact. Making guests feel comfortable and safe are the driving forces in the changes in these practices,” said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. The state has about 1,400 hotel properties.

The association has compiled a step-by-step guide, “A Safe Welcome Back,” to help hotels and other lodging options safely reopen. Recommendations were culled from a host of federal and state agencies and industry groups, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Federal Drug Administration, American Hotel & Lodging Association and the Michigan Economic Recovery Council. The guidelines cover all aspects of hotel stays, cleaning and sanitation procedures, and employee safety, training and screening for COVID-19.

 “We in the hotel industry are taking extra efforts to ensure the room you’re using is properly sanitized and safe,” Winslow said.

Michigan’s hospitality industry, which includes lodging and restaurants, generates $40 billion a year. Although most hotels, deemed essential services, remained open during the state shutdown, the industry was hit hard by the pandemic and endured low occupancy rates. Even now, those rates, hovering around 40% to 50% statewide, are far below summer rates of 70% and above.

“We’re entering peak season. We’re seeing some positive trends but nothing that resembles normal,” Winslow said. “We’re looking at occupancy rates that are starting to rebound but they are less than half of where they were a year ago.”


Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville reopened rooms at its 1,500-acre resort in late May and has phased in the operation of its many indoor and outdoor amenities. The resort collaborated with Grand Traverse Resort and Spa and Boyne Mountain Resort about best practices for spas.

The number of guests in its 18,500-square-foot spa has been limited to half capacity. Crystal is using just eight of 12 treatment rooms and has temporarily reduced its selection of spa services. All spa guests are required to wear masks; those getting facials can remove them during the service; the aesthetician, however, will wear a mask in addition to a face shield (to accommodate the guest not wearing a mask).

The resort has 262 properties, including rooms, condos and homes, within its hotel management system. As part of its Crystal Clean initiative, the resort has implemented a host of safety measures. Stay-over housekeeping once a guest checks in has been suspended — so no one else will enter that room during the guest stay. Rooms will be taken out of service for 24 hours after check out. Social distancing and capacity reduction are being practiced at all resort activities, but major events, including July Fourth celebrations, have been canceled.

“We’re adapting as we go. We know there is going to be an end to this. We know we play a part in being a good neighbor to our community and to the people who come to Crystal Mountain,” said Sammie Lukaskiewicz, the resort’s director of public relations. “We take our responsibility seriously. We know we are going to come out of this and will host better events next year.”

At Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, outside Traverse City, the entrance doors are propped open or controlled by employees or automation.

“Guests don’t have to hit those touchpoints,” said Caroline Rizzo, public relations manager for the resort.

Guests will find Plexiglas between them and staff when they check in. Sanitation stations have been placed at every entry point, at elevators and doors throughout the property. Masks are available to guests who show up without one or lose them. Bellhop service remains available, with luggage carts being sanitized after every use. The resort has suspended valet service.

The 900-acre resort has centralized its food service to one restaurant, Aerie Restaurant and Lounge, which sits on the 16th floor of a 17-story tower, and one kitchen. The breakfast buffet at Sweetwater American Bistro remains closed. This week the resort opened its new entertainment spot, The Den, for food and beverage service. Room service is also available.

“We have multiple kitchens, but we’re keeping everyone working out of one kitchen, minimizing any possibility of contamination in work areas,” Rizzo said. “Our main focus is to bring people up to Aerie, and give them that special experience. It’s working out well.”

Grand Traverse has opened all available rooms — 550 of them — in its tower, hotel and resort properties. Coffee makers have been placed in sealed bags; if the bag has been opened, the coffee makers will be sanitized before next guest use. The three golf courses are open with food and beverage cart service. Its indoor pool is open at 25% capacity, and the outdoor pool at 50%. Lounge chairs have been spread out to maintain social distancing.

On Mackinac Island, the venerable Grand Hotel is open with all 397 rooms available and has made significant changes across the property, including at check-in. Its iconic white rocking chairs have been spread out and staggered on the front porch to ensure social distancing. Its restaurants are open at 50% capacity, with tables and seating reconfigured. The hotel is using disposable menus and has a QR code available for transactions. The hotel has suspended its carriages this season, but guests can use Mackinac Island Carriage Tours to travel to and from the docks.

“We always want Grand Hotel to feel like a home away from home for our guests, and we are fortunate to be in a position to still provide that experience in a safe manner,” said Ken Hayward, executive vice president and managing director of the hotel.

Splash parks

Great Wolf Lodge reopened its waterpark resorts in Traverse City and Sandusky, Ohio, late last month. Both destinations are popular with Michigan families.

The national chain introduced its new Paw Pledge program, a company-wide initiative focused on keeping families healthy and safe while they vacation at the indoor waterpark resort. The guidelines were developed based on guidance from health authorities and public officials.

The focus at Traverse CIty’s 280-room hotel — like in Sandusky — has been on disinfection and sanitization, physical distancing, personal protection and minimizing surface interactions in guest areas, including the 38,000-square-foot indoor water park, attractions, eateries, grand lobby and guest rooms. Both resorts are operating at 50% or less capacity.

Markers have been placed in lines for water slides, attractions, retail shops, food outlets and the front desk, measuring six feet of distance between guests. The resort will remove, reposition or place out-of-service, chairs and tables throughout the water park and resort to ensure family groups can properly social distance themselves from other guests.

Meanwhile, Zehnder’s Splash Village Hotel and Water Park in Frankenmuth opened its two water parks, both of which have retractable roofs and wall panels, this past week. The parks offer more than 50,000 square feet of aquatic fun, and cleaning measures have been intensified. Staff, for instance, will clean tubes (used on water slides) and life preservers after each use. The resort’s pools and water park, all UV-filtered, are operating at 50% capacity.

“Our unique design allows that with a few clicks of a switch our roofs fully retract and wall panels open letting the outdoors in. If it rains, it’s raining in our water parks. In the event of severe weather conditions, our guests will be evacuated from our parks,” said Al Zehnder, CEO of the venerable company.

Zehnder’s is adhering to extensive signage, cleaning and sanitizing measures throughout its 178-room hotel, water park and other properties. Plexiglas shields separate guests from staff at all check-in stations. Its restaurants are open, seating at 50% capacity. Buffets have been eliminated, replaced with expanded family-style meal options. The staff is sanitizing all touchpoints on tables after each guest leaves.

“We are in the business of safety, whether our cooks are preparing a meal or a lifeguard is keeping an eye on you,” Zehnder said. “It’s all about a safe experience for our employees and our guests. We’ve been earning the trust of our guests for generations. You can come to Frankenmuth and Zehnder’s with complete confidence.”

While some of the changes might surprise or inconvenience guests, Michigan’s lodging industry is taking its responsibility for the safety of guests and employees seriously, said Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan.

“They want to keep people safe and give people assurance that they can travel safely,” said Lorenz, who has been visiting destinations throughout the state to remind travelers to wear masks, practice social distancing and sanitize their hands. “There won’t be a travel industry or travel if we don’t take this seriously and allow for safe travel.”

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