MONTPELIER — Three of the businesses hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic have been movie theaters, hotels and restaurants. The Bashara family owns all three.
“It was a triple hit,” said Frederick Bashara of Montpelier, president of the three companies that manage the Bashara businesses — Capitol Plaza Corporation (hotel and J. Morgan’s Steak House), FGB Corporation (movie theaters in Barre and Montpelier), and Bashara and Company (three laundromats and three car washes).
Compared to last year, Bashara’s hotel and restaurant business are down 70% with a 100% drop from conferences revenues. The movie theaters have been closed since March, with no reopening date in sight.
“We had a couple of decent weekends in the fall, but with the current travel restrictions we are losing money every day we are open,” Bashara said.
In September, Gov. Phil Scott allowed bars and restaurants to serve a limited number of customers and lodging facilities to operate at 100% capacity. Due to rising COVID-19 case counts across the Northeast, effective on Nov. 10, Vermont implemented a mandatory quarantine for anyone returning or traveling to Vermont.
“The drop-in business at the Capitol Plaza Hotel is being repeated throughout Vermont at all different levels of lodging establishments from resorts, to inns and B&Bs, to hotels and motels,” said Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. “As the pandemic drags into the new year, these businesses are increasingly concerned about their viability.”
Bishop noted the relief package finalized by Congress extends the Paycheck Protection Program and prioritizes hospitality businesses for more funding.
“That is good. We are also working toward additional business grants to supplement this effort which will help hotels and inns pay for ongoing expenses,” she said. “This is the only way to sustain them until we can return to a robust tourism economy.”
In response to the pandemic, Bashara said he was forced to layoff employees at the theater, hotel and restaurant.
“We did lay off a lot of employees in March, but since then have worked to schedule them. But unfortunately their work hours have been reduced,” he said.
According to a recent survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association, 68% of their members have less than half of their typical, pre-crisis staff working full time and half of the hotel owners surveyed said, due to COVID-19, they are in danger of foreclosure by their commercial real estate debt lenders. Without further governmental assistance, AHLA says 74% of respondents would be forced into further layoffs. In addition, more than two thirds of hotels (67%) reported that absent any further relief, they will only be able to last six more months at current projected revenue and occupancy levels.
To raise awareness for hotel industry priorities, AHLA has rallied its members to “Save Hotel Jobs,” a grassroots initiative for hoteliers across the country to urge lawmakers to provide stimulus money for the industry. The Vermont Chamber is the state affiliate for AHLA.
“It’s time for Congress to put politics aside and prioritize the many businesses and employees in the hardest-hit industries. Hotels are cornerstones of the communities they serve, building strong local economies and supporting millions of jobs,” said Chip Rogers, AHLA president and CEO.
Bashara also has made several operational changes including implementing pandemic safety guidelines; purchasing the parklet in front of the hotel, which provided additional seating in the warmer weather; converting the large banquet room for use by the restaurant; and adding online ordering for takeout meals.
The Capitol Plaza staff has become COVID experts, Bashara said, as they strictly adhere to the Hilton CleanStay Standards (Capitol Plaza is now affiliated with the Hilton Corporation).
Physical distancing is enforced, contact tracing completed, masks are required, all rooms and meeting rooms are sealed 30 minutes prior to event start, common touch points receive repeated disinfectant wipes, note pads and pens have been removed from event rooms and are available upon request, and there is no presetting of condiments, serveware and glassware.
“Our dedicated staff have been terrific in handling the new COVID restrictions,” he said.
The Montpelier-based company has received federal stimulus money, which has helped greatly but has not matched the losses, Bashara said.
“We are very grateful for the PPP and state grants that we received. Without them we would not have been able to bring our staff back to work and remain open or in business,” Bashara said.
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Bashara said he is hopeful his hotel and restaurant will not only survive but thrive once the pandemic restrictions are lifted.
“As we come to the end of this pandemic, we feel that the Capitol Plaza Tapestry Collection will position us for a very strong future because of our new branding and completed renovations. We have completed our conversion to the Hilton Tapestry Collection by fully upgrading our hotel to meet Hilton standards. The Hilton reservation system, which has over 100 million subscribers, should be extremely helpful when people start traveling again,” Bashara said.
The Tapestry Collection members are independently owned and operated boutique hotels that adhere to the Hilton standards.
Bashara purchased the downtown Montpelier hotel in 1993, and has operated the movie theaters since 1960. The pandemic has had no impact on the joint project with the city of Montpelier and the Bashara family to build an 81-room Hampton Inn hotel and parking garage on land it owns behind its Capitol Plaza Hotel on State Street. That project, which has been opposed by The Friends of Montpelier, a group that initially represented several city residents, remains in litigation, Bashara said.