As countries around the globe close borders, suspend international flights, and enact mandatory quarantines in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, most travellers are hunkering down at home. Some are scrambling to return home.
And then there are a few outliers. These are people who are sheltering in place, exactly where they were when the news started to ripple around the world – in intimate, remote, five-star hotels.
“Many of our guests have chosen to extend their stays by one week, two weeks, or until further notice, ” says Kevin Wendle, owner of Hotel Esencia in Riviera Maya, Mexico.
That started even before the announcement on Friday, 20 March, that the US and Mexican governments would limit border travel.
Now, he explains, travellers who were wary of navigating crowded airports on their way home have been practically forced into staying on vacation.
With just 43 rooms spread across 50 acres, Hotel Esencia has a reputation for being a favourite hideaway of Hollywood A-listers. As of Friday, 30 of the 35 guests currently staying at Hotel Esencia were planning to remain indefinitely, according to Wendle.
The hotel, which normally goes for upward of $1,000 (R17,720)a night, is offering a 30% discount to those who extend and 40% off if they extend beyond a week.
Adriana Ching, a 34-year-old lawyer from New York, extended her stay after hearing about the US State Department’s recent Level 4 travel advisory.
“I’d rather be here than my home in New York City,” she says. “I feel safer and more secure in this natural paradise, away from it all.” (Mexico has thus far logged 316 confirmed cases of coronavirus; the country has yet to establish concrete testing or containment strategies.)
Toronto resident and return guest Ryan Cook has decided to stay indefinitely with his wife and three children aged 11, 14, and 16, noting that school has been cancelled and he is able to do his job, in artificially intelligent health care, remotely.
“A statement from a world leader saying, ‘Come home now or you might not get home,’ incites hysteria in people,” he says. “Rushing to a jam-packed airport when we’re being told to practice social distancing seems like an irrational and emotional decision. It feels more responsible to not travel right now.”
Esencia isn’t the only hotel that’s doubling as a coronavirus hideaway. Jumby Bay, a 40-room, all-inclusive luxury property on a private island two miles off the coast of Antigua, where beachside suites start at $1,895 (R33,576) per night, has seen confirmation of long stays of up to 30 days, according to Julie Debas, head of sales and marketing. “Clients want to hide from all that is going on in the world,” she says.
And Steppes Travel, a travel agency currently working to bring clients home from destinations as varied as South America and Southeast Asia, has had numerous clients decide they’d rather not bother; instead, they aim to stay put in such places as Cape Grace in Cape Town.
The team at Coastline Travel Advisors, a boutique travel agency in Southern California, meanwhile, has clients hunkered down at the One and Only Palmilla, in Los Cabos at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California.
For Will Oakley, the general manager of Cobblers Cove, a 40-suite property in Barbados, the idea made sense—until recently.
“Going home means quarantine,” he rationalizes, “and if guests can sit it out here longer, even if it’s a couple of months, they will.” (With nightly rates in the $450 range, that could cost upward of $13,500 before counting food and other expenses.)
The idea that warmer temperatures might suppress the spread of the virus was another arrow in Oakley’s quiver as he prepared to harbor guests for the long term. But the Government of Barbados decided on Friday to mandate a 14-day quarantine for new arrivals from the US, the UK, and Europe, and the hotel experienced a wave of cancellations. Now it’s working to get guests home so it can shut down.
The fact that such hoteliers as Esencia’s Wendle are holding on is both a dodged bullet and a huge responsibility.
While the US hotel industry is taking a hit of $1.4 billion a week, the lucky few still operating are running at standard low-season levels. But it’s on their shoulders to safeguard both guests and staff.
To protect everyone on the property, Wendle has instituted several rules. All high-touch areas, from doorknobs to luggage, are disinfected hourly; when guests arrive at the main restaurant for dinner, a server squirts their hands with Purell. (Wendle has hoarded 1,000 bottles of the hand sanitizer, he was so fearful of running out.)
To help with social distancing, he’s cut staffing, from 250 to 175, by asking employees to take a voluntary vacation week each month, rather than resorting to layoffs.
Whether that sufficiently heeds the call of the moment is questionable. Though Wendle says he’s reduced the five-to-one staff-to-guest ratio, the cuts he’s made preserve those numbers, given that there are fewer guests.
And though he’s instituted daily health inspections for staff—those who fail are sent home with pay—that doesn’t account for the fact that they need to commute to work or that the Covid-19 coronavirus can be spread asymptomatically. It’s a risk that protects 200-or-so jobs, he says. And he’s not alone in taking it.
At the Island House, a 30-room luxury hotel in Nassau, the Bahamas, the general manager is also trying to navigate a new era of five-star service.
“Guests normally want to walk into a room and smell bamboo or bergamot, but yesterday one person told me the smell of Clorox brought him peace of mind,” says James Wyndham.
Of 15 travellers staying indefinitely, most are declining turndown service, abiding by a no-handshake policy, and shouting their dinner orders to waitstaff, who stand no less than six feet away.
His argument? “Nearly half of our [gross domestic product] is tourism-related. If we can keep guests safe while also helping the economy, it’s a win-win.”