Last November, Holiday Inn Express and Suites put operations on hold after experiencing an 80% reduction in revenue.

That drop was prompted both by a reduction in travelers to Verona throughout the COVID-19 pandemic — particularly the loss of corporate travelers from Epic — and a lack of federal assistance to make up for those financial losses, general manager Charlie Eggen said. Other losses included the personal relationships Eggen and staff have with hotel visitors, he said.

The 515 W. Verona Ave. hotel was set to remain closed through Feb. 1, if not further into 2021, pending “significant government support,” Eggen told the Press on November 2 last year. By November 2020, the hotel had lost 80% of its average revenue.

But, on April 26, the hotel held a soft reopening, and after some planning, services were back in place by May.

“We were in the depths of despair, but things are looking up.” Eggen told the Press on Friday, June 18.

While Eggen said he applied for “every type” of grant, disaster loan, relief and assistance program available to the hotel, the business has remained in survival mode since March 2020. The hotel has had millions of dollars in losses, so support like two rounds of the Paycheck Protection Program only covered its payroll, it wasn’t enough to cover expenses.

And while Eggen said Holiday Inn is still waiting for a COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan to arrive, the hotel was able to reopen in part due to its nearby neighbor seeing life return to its campus – Epic.

“Our bread and butter is Epic,” Eggen said. “Our primary driver is serving Epic customers. During the pandemic, that’s become even more clear – a bright light has been shown on the value of Epic in Dane County. The impact of when Epic closed off was devastating.”

Prior to the pandemic, corporate travel related to business at Epic kept the hotel afloat through winter months, Eggen said, which is a time of the year that leisure travel in this area of the state typically drops off after Halloween, before Thanksgiving.

After transitioning to a mostly virtual work environment last year, Epic is once again allowing customers to come to in-person trainings, something Eggen said he’s watching “very closely.” That includes Epic’s 2021 Users Group meeting to be held in August, which draws over 8,000 attendees in any given year.

He compared life returning to Epic to turning on a faucet.

“Everything turns on for everyone,” he said. “Rental cars, buses, airports, hotels, restaurants – it’s such an economic generator for our community – it’s just incredible, the impact.”

So Holiday Inn’s solvency this year in part depends on the pace of Epic ramping-up in-person events, particularly November this year through January 2022, when the leisure travel business drops off.

With the summer months, both business and leisure travel have picked up. But while the hotel is seeing a little bump now, Eggen anticipates it will dip back down severely in winter.

“Winter is coming, we’re not out of the woods yet,” Eggen added. “We need the disaster loan money to get through winter — winters are always difficult in general — but we have a little buffer zone until October. 2022 should see a more stable upward trend and be a more steady year, with us recovering fully.”

While Epic is “far and away” the largest piece of Holiday Inn’s business, Eggen said, the two other top economic drivers lost during the pandemic were weddings and reunions, and youth sports and little leagues.

Staffing shortages

When the hotel temporarily closed its doors last fall, it employed 100 people, some of which had been there for over a decade, Eggen said at the time.

But he said he was not able to bring back everybody back that he wanted to for various reasons – some people moved on to other jobs when unemployment no longer helped pay their bills, and they couldn’t wait any longer for Holiday Inn to reopen. He now has around 50 employees, he said, with many open positions.

Others were already semi-retired prior to the pandemic and decided to enter full retirement, and some people simply moved out of the area, Eggen said. As a result, the hotel is not back to full staff and there are shortages in every area of the hotel.

“Laundry, maintenance, housekeeping, cleaning, shuttle drivers, breakfast cooks, front desk staff – every position we have is available,” Eggen said. “We’re hiring for all positions and trying to bring back as many former staff as possible.”

But expectations for minimum wage have increased, so not a lot of people are applying right now compared to just 18 months to two years ago, Eggen said. Prior to the pandemic, Eggen said he could expect to see 20 people apply for a position, where now, prospective employees are hard to come by.

He anticipates it won’t be until sometime in 2022 that he’s back to a full staff again.

“I feel positive about our outlook and am excited for what’s to come next, but we’ve got to still get through winter,” he said.

Supportive socializing

For the staff who have returned, most have adopted a role beyond just their job description – they’ve become a social outlet for a clientele deprived of human contact over the past year.

The guests want to talk, connect and find out about things, Eggen said, and his team has been responding by being kind and supportive. For the most part, a feeling of normalcy is returning, he said.

“Guests are so happy to be anywhere right now, they want to chat, they want to talk about our community, they want to hear what there is to see,” Eggen said. “The spark is reignited in people to get out, explore, connect with family and friends, see things. It’s exciting to see that in people and have that energy back.”

Closing the Holiday Inn after 13 successful years was the hardest thing Eggen said he’s ever had to go through in his managerial career, but reopening the hotel, bringing people back to work and seeing guests return is energizing for him, he said, and he hopes to continue to see the upward trend in travel.

And Eggen said it’s fun to see people planning vacations to reconnect with family and friends and feel their excitement.

“There’s no replacing that experience, and I am inspired by all the people we have here,” he said. “The level of commitment, hard work, and positivity they bring to their work every day is inspiring and incredible.”

Neal Patten can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.

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