GREAT FALLS — Although hotels are considered essential businesses, Great Falls hotel general managers said they are one of the industries hit hardest by business shutdowns and travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even on a national scale, occupancy rates were down to 21.6 percent the week of April 4th, approximately 69 percent less than last year's occupancy rate.
Robert Dompier, manager of the Heritage Inn, said the restrictions have directly hurt the hotel industry. “It’s not indirect, it is direct. Hotels have been hit hard. Occupancies in this town for the last couple of months probably would've been around 70-75 percent. Now we’re running less than 10 (percent),” Dompier said.
O’Haire Motor Inn manager Sandra Thares echoed Dompier’s frustrations, explaining that knowing what to do in this situation is challenging. “It’s hard. We can’t really formulate a plan because at this point a group is considered 10 people, and then as we move into phase 2 that’s going to be 50 people, and then we’ll move into phase 3 which we’re not sure what that number’s gonna be for an allowable crowd,” Thares said.
While the O’Haire Motor Inn and the Heritage Inn attract slightly different groups - bus tours and tourists for the O’Haire Motor Inn, and convention attendees and out-of-state residents for the Heritage Inn - both facilities rely on guests with travel capabilities.
Both Thares and Dompier agreed that travel restrictions will limit their bookings.
“The Canadian border is closed for another 30 days which is going to impact who we see through this phase 1 and phase 2 time. We may see a few more Montana in-state travelers but again travel is not being encouraged quite yet. So until we start seeing that steady decline of cases or not at all hopefully, we’re not gonna see a lot of people moving about,”Thares said.
Corporate and in-state travelers are essentially the only available prospects for guests.
“We have some in-state corporate travel, not a lot...we’re only renting 10 to 15, 18 rooms a night..We’ve got truckers...We’ve got nurses and we’ve got some doctors that are here for the hospital -medical staff -but it’s not much,” Dompier said.
Although businesses are set to start re-opening, there’s no word on when travel restrictions will be lifted. Therefore, hotel general managers have little choice but to wait for conditions to improve and COVID-19 cases to decline.
“It really is playing it by ear at this point. It’s all gonna depend on what we’re seeing for cases of covid in our community and our county. It’s whatever the health department’s gonna dictate to us are rules we have to follow. So everybody keep your masks on, keep your distance for a while until we can get the cases where it’s zero and then maybe they’ll give us the leeway to get back to whatever our normal is,” Thares said.
Despite struggling these past few months, both hotel officials remain hopeful that business will pick-up in the near future.
“I have hopes...I’m hoping that by the middle of June this virus is gonna be controlled and the nation opens up. Therefore, we’re gonna have travel,” Dompier said. “We’ll be back stronger than ever,” Thares agreed.
In the meantime, both hotels are open for bookings. The Sip ‘N Dip’s in-building restaurant, Clark & Lewie’s is open for takeout. If you’d like to support them, you can order from Clark & Lewie’s, purchase Sip ‘N Dip merchandise or rent a room. The O’Haire Motor Inn is located at 17 7th Street Sout in Great Falls.
The Heritage Inn is also still accepting guests. Their casino and lounge will open May 4th with additional room to practice social distancing. The Heritage Inn is located at 1700 Fox Farm Road.