THURSDAY, MAY 28, 2020 --
Like a business traveler in days of yore, I stayed at a hotel this week.
Strange to take notice of a run-of-the-mill hotel stay, but travel in the time of Coronavirus is in its earliest moments. Getting on the road again is as novel as the Coronavirus, in fact.
Some numbers explain exactly how rare travel remains just now. Flying this week spiked up thanks to Memorial Day Weekend travel and yet it's still just 12 or so percent of 2019 levels. Hotels are little better. More than two of three hotel rooms are empty on an average night in America.
So, yeah, a hotel night really is unique in these confusing and peculiar times.
This is not to say I flew halfway across the country
like Roy Berger. And I certainly wasn't road-tripping from Carolina to the Iowa cornfields
like Will Allen.
My trip was just 100 miles up the Interstate to Saratoga Springs, New York, home to a once-famous spa, Skidmore College and some horse races that'll be run this year without crowds. All in all, lovely town in the good times and a regional draw for summer vacationers looking for a nice mix of sun, restaurants and a spread of chain hotels and quirky independents.
My usual Saratoga Springs haunt--the Saratoga Hilton--has been closed due to the Coronavirus that has run rampant in New York. I settled for the five-year-old, 149-room Embassy Suites, which is well-located, gets good reviews and has an on-site restaurant, an amenity you rarely find at Embassy Suites.
Given the fact that New York State has just started reopening, I knew the restaurant wouldn't offer sit-down dining, but otherwise I had no idea what to expect from my one-night stay.
The hotel didn't vary much on rate as I checked for a couple of days before and after my Tuesday night stay. Over the Memorial Day weekend, when the hotel would normally be sold out with guests paying $400 or more a night, one-bedroom suites were going for $107. Rooms were going for $107 all this week, too, when occupancy would normally be lower even in the good times.
I did something I rarely do: I departed without making a reservation. When I committed to staying, I pulled up the hotel on the Hilton app (hey, $107!) and booked about an hour before I arrived.
Travel's newest new normal hits you smack in the face as you approach the revolving front door: Signs warn you masks are required in public areas. No sweat, I got masks, you got masks, all god's children got masks.
Next up, the eerie check-in process. At least at this hotel, the front desk was barricaded by six-foot-long picnic tables. A dispenser of hand sanitizer was placed ostentatiously in a place of honor. The table also held stacks of newspapers and roughly printed guides purporting to list the local restaurants open for pick-up or delivery.
From across the empty lobby, a white-shirted clerk trotted to his desk--"Let me get my mask and I'll be right with you," he explained--and then took up a position behind the check-in desk. I awkwardly leaned over the picnic table and handled him my credit card and driver's license.
"Oh, here you are, right at the top of the list," the clerk said.
"It's okay to admit it. I am
the list, aren't I?" I said with a smile. (Of course, whether he could tell I was smiling with the mask covering my face is another matter.)
"No, really," the clerk said. "We have other guests tonight."
"What are you, about 30 percent?" I suggested.
"Not that high, probably 25," he responded. "But we were 60 percent over the weekend. It was pretty busy."
That's when it got really odd. For all the barricading, the clerk still had to leave his check-in position and lean across the picnic table to return my card and license. Then he handed over my Hilton Honors elite-status perk--two bottles of water and a bag of chips in a little shopping bag. Kinda destroyed the whole idea of social distancing by picnic tables and minimized touch points.
The clerk then tipped me to a couple of things. The evening cocktail reception--a bedrock Embassy Suites amenity--was off, of course. So was another Embassy Suites standard, the oft-advertised "free, made-to-order breakfast."
"We'll have grab-and-go breakfast bags right here on the table in the morning," he said. "It's got yogurt, fruit, a granola bar, orange juice."
Up the elevator I went and noticed a sign promoting live entertainment in the restaurant--in March. The restaurant closed completely in mid-March, hasn't reopened and no one removed the ghost of lounge acts past.
I trudged down the hallway, opened the door and dropped my bag on the desk. That's when I realized I left my personal bottle of hand sanitizer in the car. So I washed my hands, but it's not like I went around sanitizing touch points.
But I did notice the touch points, the possible surfaces and items that could be harboring the virus in the room. And there were plenty. A full array of bathroom amenities. Notepads and pens. TV remotes. Coffeemaker. Guest-services binder. Wet bar, microwave, mini-fridge and, of course, the countertops. Lamps and light switches. Doorknobs, drawer handles. Lions and tigers and bears!
I started making notes about how things could be adjusted to minimize places where the virus could be hiding. Could bathroom amenities, pads and stuff be packaged in a box that would minimize the touches from unknown housekeeping staff? Could the hotel have an app that controlled the lights and temperature? Shouldn't a guest-services directory be online now? Shouldn't Hilton have an app that controls the TV so you don't need a TV remote? Why aren't the glasses wrapped?
Or, you know, maybe just give up. Wash your hands and use a lot of hand sanitizer. Some things can certainly be eliminated, of course, but hotels, by definition, make you a stranger in a potentially germ-infested, high-touch land.
The restaurant list was outdated and didn't even show my favorite Saratoga Springs restaurant, a sweet Indian place that was doing both pick-up and delivery. I walked the mile or so to the restaurant, grabbed my order and started back to the hotel when I realized I had no plates. Thankfully, a chain store across the parking lot from the hotel had cheapie plastic plates and utensils.
Not that I'm a fan of Embassy Suites' cooked-to-order breakfast, but, boy, the grab-and-go bag (the same bag used for Hilton Honors Elite amenities) pretty much sucked. The photo captures all the magic.
Oh, by the way, the power went out for two hours during my stay. Which, thankfully, spared me from watching most of ESPN's repeat of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. But I explained life as an Indians fan
on Sunday. No need to repeat that here.
Besides, I'm almost positive that power failures are not part of the post-Coronavirus normal at hotels. Of course, you never know. This virus is doing strange things to our lives on the road. The days of yore are long gone.