AUSTIN, Texas - COVID-19 has had an effect on all industries and the hospitality industry has been one of the hardest hit due to stay-at-home orders and other restrictions. Now that most businesses have been allowed to reopen in Texas, those in hospitality have had to find ways to adapt and adjust to the "new normal."
For the East Austin Hotel in East Austin, that’s meant making a lot of changes. The 75 room, locally owned boutique hotel opened in May 2019.
General Manager Allison Josefowitz says the hotel's design aesthetic can be described as mid-century modern with a bit of a Palm Springs vibe. Pink is the hotel's signature color and it's got a retro, fun feel to it.
The hotel features four different layouts for rooms ranging from Cabin Rooms, which are private standard queen rooms with shared access to bathrooms, to the hotel's Waller Wing, which has kings and doubles, to the Poolside Wing, which has king and double suites with balconies overlooking the hotel's courtyard pool.
Sixth and Waller is the hotel's restaurant and features international flavors, vegan/vegetarian-friendly dishes, and more. Executive Chef Chris Aug made one of the dishes featured on the restaurant's Mezze Menu. Get details and make reservations here.
For drinks, you can go to the hotel's Pool Bar or The Upside where dinner and brunch is also served. Food and Beverage Manager Jackie Nation showed how to make one of the hotel's most popular and signature drinks, the passion fruit paloma. You can make a reservation and get details here.
Josefowitz says the hotel had hoped to open by South by Southwest last year but since they weren't able to they were excited to be able to participate in the busy spring season in 2020 and they had big plans. She says says she and her team were preparing for SXSW in March of this year and then things started “unfolding very quickly."
Before they knew it, non-essential businesses were shut down and stay-at-home orders were issued due to the coronavirus.
Josefowitz said it was "surreal" when everything started and they continued to operate for a short time at first but then realized that "the best shot at having a chance...continuing on and weathering through this storm was to shut down the entire operation."
While many hoped it would only be for a short time, Josefowitz says she had a feeling it would be June or July when they could reopen due to "the operations involved with closing down and operation...and what it takes to reopen...given all the restrictions and guidelines in place."
It was a tough time for everyone, Josefowitz says. She says she wanted to make sure staff stayed healthy and that they felt supported at a time when there were fewer hours to work and in a way less to do.
But that didn't mean there wasn't work that didn't need to be done. The hotel needed to be maintained and readied for when it was able to reopen. Josefowitz says she became an expert on determining what the correct social distance was.
"I've never been better at recognizing when something is six feet and what's not six feet," Josefowitz says. "I do see in certain areas where even just walkways or place where you're like, wow, six feet is quite a bit of space."
Furniture was moved around and certain entry and exit points were closed to alter the flow of traffic which was a bit harder because of the nature of the East Austin Hotel as a courtyard hotel and having multiple ways people can come and go.
Gates are all key access only so if you're not a hotel guest and haven't been briefed on guidelines you're not really able to move through the property freely.
"It does allow us to give that extra level of service and reassure our guests that we are taking their safety (and) security in the utmost importance that it deserves," Josefowitz says.
The hotel reopened in June and the changes weren't just to the building but there were a few made to the guest experience as well.
Face masks are required on property unless eating at a table, swimming in the pool, or if a guest is sitting on a pool lounge chair. The hotel is also doing contact tracing, cleaning and wiping down everything, and of course, there is lots of hand sanitizer everywhere.
Josefowitz says they've added some fun components as well, like putting up lyrics to songs that are 20 seconds so people know how long to wash their hands.
Guest rooms are also sealed off 24 hours prior to arrival so when a guest checks in, no one has been in that room for at least 24 hours before.
"All these small details are very, very important," Josefowitz says.
It's been an adjustment for staff as there are more things they need to do and be aware of but Josefowitz says she knows her team is capable and understands it's a constantly evolving situation. "We're still learning every day. Every day we get more insight."
How do guests feel? "They're just so happy that we're reopened again," Josefowitz says.
But Josefowitz admits it has been different and she says she knows that it'll be some time before things can get back to what it used to be if it ever will at all in an industry that thrives on interactions, connecting with people, and making memories in physical spaces.
"What’s hard for this industry right now is that it’s harder for us to do some of those components because of the social distancing and the other requirements," Josefowitz says. "The industry might be a little different right now but the sentiment is still there it always will be there."
For now, it's all about providing a sense of normalcy and trying to provide touches from before within the new restrictions.
"Everyone is trying to figure out how we can still do it because there are ways you can do it," Josefowitz says. "We want to be those places where people (go) to have such incredible experiences and memories."
"I absolutely know that will be the case again."
The East Austin Hotel has daily pool passes and is offering Saturday and Sunday brunch. You can get more details here.
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