Closed to guests for more than 18 weeks, the 630-room Hyatt Regency on the San Antonio River Walk plans to welcome guests again starting Wednesday. 

Hotel management says it has put new cleanliness protocols in place, set up a contactless check-in service, trained its staff, and introduced a reduced-price staycation rate, all in an effort to lure would-be travelers to the towering hotel. 

But will they come?

Millions make the trip to San Antonio every year. In 2017, 37 million people visited and 23 million stayed overnight. Hospitality is estimated to employ one in every seven area residents, with lodging contributing 21 percent of the $15 billion annual economic impact.

While travel spending nationwide is up since hitting rock-bottom in late April, it has yet to reach half of what it was a year ago at this time, according to the latest figures from Tourism Economics. At that rate of decline, the industry can expect losses amounting to $505 billion through the end of 2020, stated the report, with a full recovery not expected for another four years. 

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But STR, a firm that tracks the hospitality industry, reported July 24 that hotel profitability was trending up in June and some full-service properties broke even with occupancy at 50 percent.

In San Antonio, hotel occupancy was down 47 percent in June compared to last year, and room revenue decreased 66 percent, according to Visit San Antonio. Room demand fell to half of what it was during June 2019, and that course may continue. As tourists and vacationers have canceled plans, large groups also abandoned plans for conventions, meetings, and events in San Antonio. 

Since the start of the virus outbreak, 193 meetings organized through Visit San Antonio – which would have brought more than 350,000 visitors and their pocketbooks to the city – have been canceled. 

The downturn has had ripple effects throughout the industry and the city. 

In April, Visit San Antonio cut its budget, then laid off staff. More recently, the San Antonio River Walk Association officials canceled events, furloughed staff, and reduced the hours of the organization’s executive director Maggie Thompson. 

“Due to the cancellation of events and uncertainty of fall events, our revenue from sponsorships and ticket sales has been affected,” Thompson said in an email. “We are still able to respond to inquiries and promote the River Walk – but at a reduced capacity.”  

All that’s left of the San Antonio Visitor Alliance staff is a part-time CEO, Sharon Aguillen, who was full time when she started at the membership-based organization less than nine months ago. 

Aguillen estimated that local attractions are earning 65 to 80 percent less in income than they were a year ago. “There are some folks traveling, of course, but it is low, much lower than where it would be,” she said.

Nearly every attraction, from Sea World of San Antonio and Six Flags Fiesta Texas to City Sightseeing’s double-decker bus tours, have reduced operating days to match the low demand. “What’s happening to us right now in the hospitality and travel tourism industry is nine times greater than what happened after 9/11,” Aguillen said. 

The Hyatt’s general manager, Philip Stamm, would not reveal how many reservations the hotel has booked for its opening day or after, or whether any business meetings are scheduled, but stated via email that the hotel is “reopening in line with requirements and guidance imposed by local and national health authorities.”

A Visit San Antonio spokesman said there are 48 citywide conventions and meetings still on the books through the end of the year, which would result in over 75,000 room nights and have a total economic impact of $47.5 million. 

Those meetings include the Women of Joy Conference, to be held Sept. 24-27 at the Henry B. González Convention Center and featuring music artist, Big Daddy Weave. Of the dozen downtown hotels listed on the conference website, six are said to be sold out.

Another is the International Association of Fairs and Expositions‘ 2020 Conference & Trade Show, scheduled for Nov. 28-Dec. 3. That group’s website has a long list of canceled county and state fairs stretching across the nation in recent months.

In late March, the Hyatt furloughed its entire staff of hotel workers. Though Stamm declined to say how many workers will be returning to the hotel once it reopens, he said, “the hotel’s staffing percentages will vary based on several factors throughout the reopening process.”

The hotel is also promoting outdoor activities, such as the River Walk and Mission Trails, as well as special pricing for summer getaways and locals who want to vacation close to home. 

With travel restrictions still in place in many parts of the country, a staycation trend could fortify a struggling travel industry especially for a so-called “drive market” like San Antonio. 

The Arrivalist’s Daily Travel Index, which measures consumer road trips of 50 miles, shows that after months of decline, road travel began to recover somewhat in mid-July. But in Texas, travel activity was down 41 percent on July 26 compared to last year.

And yet downtown businesses and attractions across the city are open, with social distancing and other precautions in practice. “As long as folks are taking the precautions, wearing a mask, washing their hands, and physically distancing,” she said, “I think that there are opportunities for people to start to get back out and enjoy what we have to offer.”

The photo accompanying this article has been updated to show the Hyatt Regency Riverwalk. The photo caption initially identified another hotel as the Hyatt Regency Riverwalk.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.