Hotel lobbies all around Lake City are normally flooded with out-of-town visitors right about now. But in what should be the hospitality industry’s prime time, occupancy rates — and revenue — are down by half and expected to drop even further over the next week, amounting to millions lost for the local economy, one business owner says.
Nick Patel owns six hotels in Lake City plus two in Gainesville. His portfolio includes the Hampton Inn off U.S. Highway 90 and a Home2 Suites by Hilton next door.
March and April are the busiest months of the year for the industry in North Florida, Patel said, typically filling up about 80 percent of the rooms at his hotels. In Columbia County alone, the hotel industry generates about $3 million in revenue for each of those months, he said. Annually, the county’s hospitality market totals about $30 million in revenue.
So far, this March has seen an occupancy rate of about 40 percent, signaling a drop of about $1.5 million, Patel said.
Patel said his businesses have enough reserve cash to weather the storm and bounce back once the COVID-19 pandemic eventually winds down, but the impact to workers and the overall economy is still troublesome.
“My biggest worry is my frontline employees, because they’re the ones who are going to suffer the most,” he said. “I’m not worried about whether I make money or not at this particular moment.”
Shift hours are being rationed, Patel said, but managers are giving staff cash advances to mitigate the disruption.
“In most of those cases, we probably won’t even collect that money back,” Patel said. “I’m not worried about repayment, to be frank with you.”
His hotels are also cutting amenities such as the continental breakfast, which has been replaced with a pre-packaged single-serve breakfast, Patel said.
One blessing has been the fact that traffic on Interstate 75 has remained steady as Florida’s remaining tourists and snowbirds flock home to bunker down for the pandemic. These transient guests — people who are traveling and just need a place to stay the night by the time they pass through Columbia County — are a significant source of business for Patel.
That stream of customers will probably dry up in the next week, he said, expecting to see three-quarters of his rooms empty.
“This is going to test my character,” Patel said. “But at the end of the day, I’m an optimist.”
Patel believes the crisis will be short-lived and normalcy will begin returning to American life within about two months.
“This country will come back,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
A lot of people and businesses, however, will likely need aid from the government to recover from the Pandemic, Patel said.
“Hopefully they’ll come through as quickly as possible, because this is moving very fast,” he said.