How The Pandemic Recession Has Affected The Hospitality Industry
NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with hotel owner Bhavesh Patel to understand the effects the pandemic recession has had on the hospitality industry, for the new series American Indicators.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Bhavish Patel has been working in hotels since he was about 8 years old.
BHAVISH PATEL: We helped clean rooms. I used to be a lifeguard at our property. We did maintenance. I did lawn care. You name it, I did it - front desk, all aspects of the industry.
SHAPIRO: It's his family's business.
PATEL: So my father started out with three small properties, migrated over from England. And then we moved here, and then he bought a property in 1976, small 25-room property by McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. And it was a family-run business primarily. We lived on the property because such a small property had living quarters, and that's basically how we grew up.
SHAPIRO: So you literally grew up in a hotel?
PATEL: Grew up in a hotel, exactly.
SHAPIRO: By the time he went to college, he had a different career path in mind. But fate intervened.
PATEL: I wanted to do business - financing. So my last year in college, had a job lined up in New York City all ready to go, and my dad had a brain aneurysm. It was my mom basically saying, hey, finish school, and then we'll see what we want to do about these properties. And then I just fell into taking care of these properties, and then we just added from there.
SHAPIRO: Today, he has seven hotel properties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois. They're franchises, like Hampton Inn and Comfort Inn. And so we are going to follow Bhavish Patel as one of our American Indicators. These are people whose path through the pandemic recession will help us understand the arc of the recovery. Since he started running hotels in the 1980s, Patel has seen a lot of upheaval, from 9/11 to the Great Recession. He told me those were nothing compared to what's happened to his industry during this pandemic.
PATEL: I think the past year is the worst we've ever seen it. With COVID, most of our properties are running, like, between a 10 or a 15% occupancy. So...
SHAPIRO: In a normal year, I know a 100% occupancy is not normal. What is typical for you?
PATEL: So for us, we can range anywhere from 60 to about 75, 80% occupancy, sometimes higher.
SHAPIRO: And now you're looking at 10 to 15%.
PATEL: Now we're looking at 10 to 15%.
SHAPIRO: What does that mean for your employees?
PATEL: So we were able to stay open. And at that time, most of our employees said, we don't want to come to work, or we're afraid to come to work. And so those that didn't want to come to work, we said, that's fine. We understand. When you're ready, we're here. And then some, because of occupancy, we just had to furlough or lay off.
SHAPIRO: Having run these hotels for so many years, you must know the employees really well. Was it difficult to have to make the choice to furlough or lay people off?
PATEL: It really hurt me 'cause you get to know these employees. They're like family to you, and you know some of the kids. Yeah, it was hard. Luckily, we didn't close. But we were, like, right there. So we just had one person running the property. And then at night, we would either shut down or very limited service because there was no one traveling, no one coming in.
SHAPIRO: Do you think this experience says anything more broadly about the American dream and a person's ability to build something lasting in this country?
PATEL: It depends on how you believe in your American dream. And if you really, really want to fulfill your dream, there's always ways. There is always - there's a lot of different ways, a lot of different avenues that you can pursue, and you can fulfill those dreams. Yeah, I think to some maybe - they might give up and say, this is just - it's not going to work for me anymore; I give up, just going to go in a different direction.
But I think those that came here for a dream, I think they can fulfill that dream. You just got to be a little bit persistent. You've got to find the ways. You got to find the avenues, got to network. But I think there's - it's still a possibility to me.
SHAPIRO: What I hear you saying is that despite the devastation of this last year, despite all of the hurdles and the challenges, you're still confident. You're still optimistic. You're still hopeful.
PATEL: I am. I am. I have a dream. I - again, my father started this small company. I want to expand upon the company. I don't want to see it go down. And I'm not going to go - I'm not going to let it go down without a fight. I'm going to put every ounce of energy I have - between myself - my wife is here to stand by me all the time, and so we'll do what we need to do to keep it afloat.
SHAPIRO: Well, Bhavish Patel, it's been great talking with you. Thank you very much.
PATEL: No problem. Thank you again for having me.
SHAPIRO: And tomorrow, we'll meet a woman who runs a manufacturing plant in Georgia, where business over the last year has actually been good.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Manufacturers across the country are having trouble filling positions. A large number of manufacturers just went into overdrive. And it's not uncommon that they've gone to mandatory overtime and that they've really had to scale up.
SHAPIRO: She's our next American Indicator. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.