Experts weigh in on what it'll take to get tourists back in San Francisco

ByKen Miguel and Phil Matier KGO logo
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
Experts weigh in on what it'll take to get tourists back in SF
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When San Francisco went into shelter-in-place over a year ago, the city looked like a ghost town. Hard hit - the areas that count on tourists to fill shops, restaurants, and hotel rooms.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- When San Francisco went into shelter-in-place over a year ago, the city looked like a ghost town. Hard hit - the areas that count on tourists to fill shops, restaurants, and hotel rooms.

The city's convention center has been converted into a vaccination hub and homeless shelter. There are no plans to open for large conventions yet.

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At the St. Francis Hotel on Union Square, hundreds of rooms have sat empty for months. This hotel, which was rebuilt after the 1906 quake, promises to come back from this disaster, too.

Jon Kimball is the General Manager of the Westin St. Francisco Hotel. He also oversees nine other Marriott branded hotels across the city, many San Francisco hotels have been completely shuttered for more than a year because there has been little demand for hotel rooms.

Kimball says getting people back isn't just a matter of vaccinating millions of tourists, people need a reason to come to San Francisco. And when they get here, things need to be open for them to visit.

"Attractions are opening now, which is exciting, as restaurants are opening now, which is exciting. Our retailers have been able to kind of weather although sadly, we've lost so many of them. Hopefully, as this kind of cycle begins, we'll see kind of the critical mass come together," Kimball says.

While some Marriott properties are still closed, Kimball says there are signs that things are starting to pick up...albeit, slowly.

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"Weekends, we're seeing that uptick. That's the natural place you'd see it right now. And then as the summer goes, we hope that extends into the week. And then hopefully small business," Kimball says.

Kimball estimates the hotel is at about 10% occupancy or about 20 rooms out of a 200 room hotel.

"So we have a long way to go," Kimball says.

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Just up the hill - the Fairmont Hotel closed for two months when COVID-19 cases surged. It reopened in February has less than 20 rooms of its 660 rooms booked on an average night.

"I live in the hotel and it's big here, and there is nobody in this building. A lot of times you look up on the tower, which is the only place where we will have guests and there are only 10 or 20 lights on. It's sad to see when you're used to being at near full capacity at all times. But those are the days that we are in. And I think for us, though, you know, sometimes, we when we reopened in February, it's also important for us to be open, though I think what it means to our neighborhood, I think what it means to our employees to be open, we feel that at the occupancy we are today which is still only 10% it's better for us to be open than to be closed. So I think we feel comfortable at this current level. It's still only 60 to 80 rooms a night, but that's better than being not open at all," said Fairmont Hotel General Manager Markus Treppenhauer.

"We will move to yellow hopefully before the end of April, exciting for the first time to hear there is a green tier coming and we certainly assume that the green team will have meetings and guideline expectations for us. We will need those desperately,".Treppenhauer says.

"I think the challenge for us, though, quite frankly, is that a lot of other states have guidelines that exist. And so they say, well, if I can't book in California, maybe I'll go to Arizona or I'll go you know somewhere else where the guidelines exist. So we're waiting for those guidelines.," Treppenhauer says.

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That recovery is projected to take a long time - and the hotel industry says it won't just be about the tourists that fill these hotel rooms and feed our local economy, it will be about saving the jobs of thousands of people who lost them in the pandemic when these hotels were forced to close.

Kevin Carrol is with the Hotel Council.

"It's really starting to get people back and get people comfortable traveling. I think with the vaccines now, being more and more of our world out there, people are more comfortable. So absolutely, we just want to get people back," Carrol said.

"They are starting to bring back workers now as we started as our business starts to come back, will start to bring back workers and it's a huge impact for our employees. We had before the pandemic we had almost 25,000 employees in San Francisco, just in hotels. And now the majority of them were in a furlough situation or have been laid off, and then we want to start bringing them back as soon as possible. Over half of our employees live in San Francisco, so perhaps bringing our employees back, also helps the local economy as well," Carrol said.

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