COVID-19 has ravaged the lodging industry across the country, and while the past few months have been painful in Durango, Kirk Komick and Diane Wildfang, co-owners of the Rochester Hotel and the Leland House are optimistic – both for their own properties and Durango.
“We’re excited about the demographic that is attracted to Durango,” Kirk Komick said. “Young professionals can move to our area and enjoy the natural attractions instead of being tied to an urban center. I think people will be looking to escape from urban areas.”
The most painful aspect of COVID-19, Komick said, has been laying off longtime staff members, some who have worked at the inns for more than 20 years.
Even when COVID-19 is contained, staffing levels will not return to pre-coronavirus levels, Komick said.
The inns have gone to a self-check-in operation with touchless contact between guests who can check-in online and enter their room through new digital door locks they can self-code.
“The check-in process was already changing with automation, and the virus just accelerated it,” Wildfang said.
Now, the check-in process is often focused on providing guests information about Durango, and that is often occurring in the Rochester’s garden, which can serve as a safer outdoor lobby in the warm weather months.
The Rochester’s registration office has been converted to a conference room as part of $30,000 in remodeling work at the inns since the arrival of the novel coronavirus.
Pre-COVID-19, the boutique inns had a core staff of 15 employees that would increase to 25 during the peak summer season.
Now, with the change in check-in, dropping breakfast and decreasing housekeeping to on-demand requests, Komick said the inns will be able to operate with about half their previous staffing levels.
Komick and Wildfang came to the conclusion that serving breakfast was too risky during a viral pandemic.
Like the previous trend toward self-check-in before COVID-19, Wildfang said a similar move, based on limiting environmental impacts, was underway as inns decreased cleaning services.
The Rochester, which has 15 rooms, has remained closed since the March outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
But strong inquiries from the inns’ loyal following – some guests have stayed at the Rochester and the Leland for more than 400 days – led the mother-son team in mid-April to reopen the Leland House, which has 11 rooms.
“We were getting calls for long-term rentals. We were helping the real estate industry,” Komick said. “People are having homes built in the area, and they are looking to get familiar with Durango and get to know people, and that has kept the Leland pretty full.”
The Rochester seems to remain “two weeks” from opening Komick said. A decision to reopen the Rochester will be based on an assessment after Labor Day – looking at the epidemiological situation in La Plata County and watching how smoothly schools reopen.
Komick anticipates stays in Durango will grow in duration as travelers change their leisure travel plans to decrease risk. Travelers who plan to stay only a night in Durango while making six or seven stops during a Southwest trip might chose to visit only one or two geographic areas and stay longer at each stop.
With more people working remotely and schools increasingly held online, Komick believes young professionals and young families will increasingly be freed to take extended visits throughout the year. He expects Durango will benefit from the trend.
“If your child is going to school online, you don’t have to be in Austin or Dallas or Chicago in October,” he said. “Our area is primed for a demographic shift with young people who are able to travel for long-term, extended visits.”
The ability of the Rochester and the Leland House to offer access to the R Space co-working facility also boosts the inns’ attraction to professionals looking to work remotely while the family enjoys down time.
“I think the changes we will see will be positive for Durango and for the Rochester. I’m looking forward to it,” Wildfang said.
Rod Barker, owner president and CEO of the Strater Hotel, said changes in the lodging industry are likely to persist.
“We haven’t even seen all the changes yet,” he said. “I mean things are going to be invented along the way that we aren’t even thinking of right now. Check-in and check-out already had changed even before COVID.”
A labor shortage remains a problem in the lodging industry, especially with specialty jobs like chefs. An inability to fully staff a kitchen crew remains a problem in getting th Mahogany Grille opened, he said.
Barker said in the future Durango should look at attracting workers from the Farmington area, where a decline in the natural gas industry has led to substantial job losses.
He suggested running a shuttle between Durango and Farmington could be one way to ease Durango’s labor crunch.
“We need to look at things creatively,” he said. “With the oil and gas situation down there, there are a lot of people who actually need jobs and they have homes. Perhaps we can facilitate them to come here and be a part of our solution to their problem and they’re a solution to our problem.”
Despite the challenges facing the lodging industry, Wildfang is confident innkeepers will navigate the new business landscape.
“We’ve come through an economic crisis, fires, a yellow river – we’ll come through this, too. Durango is hardy,” she said.