Many Milwaukee-area hotels remain open amidst COVID-19 outbreak

Largest hotels likely to be hit hardest with decline in group business

The Cambria Hotel in downtown Milwaukee opened in late August.
The Cambria Hotel in downtown Milwaukee opened in late August.

Last updated on April 28th, 2020 at 02:44 pm

It’s no secret that tourism and hospitality are among the hardest hit industries of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. But even as travel restrictions and canceled events keep hotel occupancies frighteningly low, many hotels in Milwaukee remain open for business.

BizTimes Milwaukee this week reached out to a number of hotels and confirmed the following remain open: Hyatt Regency Milwaukee, Kimpton Journeyman Hotel, Drury Plaza Hotel Milwaukee Downtown, The Iron Horse Hotel, Hyatt Place Milwaukee Downtown, Courtyard by Marriott Milwaukee Airport, The Pfister Hotel, Cambria Hotel Milwaukee Downtown, The Westin Milwaukee, SpringHill Suites by Marriott Milwaukee Downtown, Milwaukee Marriott Downtown, and The Knickerbocker on the Lake. 

Meanwhile, The American Club and Destination Kohler, Brewhouse Inn & Suites, Courtyard Marriott Downtown, Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, Hilton Milwaukee City Center, Ingleside Hotel, Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, Radisson Hotel Milwaukee West and Saint Kate Arts Hotel have all temporarily closed, according to VIST Milwaukee, which updates its website daily with closures, cancellations and postponements related to COVID-19.

Occupancy at Hyatt Place Milwaukee Downtown currently sits at 4 to 5%, said Angel Rivera, its general manager. By comparison, the hotel at the former Pabst Brewery complex is about 60% full on a typical week.

“We’re trying to stay afloat and trying to find medical personnel, or whoever we can find out there looking for a place stay,” said Rivera.

As local hospitals become crowded and understaffed, Rivera anticipates traveling or private nurses could soon be coming into town from out of state.

Only five of the Hyatt Place’s 40 employees still have jobs, he said. The others have been temporarily laid off, with the option to return to their full-time positions once business is back up and running, he said.

Across town at the Courtyard by Marriott Milwaukee Airport, occupancy is also low. Its location near Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport helps bring in travelers deemed essential such as health care workers and law enforcement, but that doesn’t give the hotel much of an advantage at this point, said general manager Tony Beer. 

“It seems to be hitting every hotel evenly, whether you’re in Brookfield or downtown or at the airport,” said Beer.

He said the hotel is trying to give hours to as many employees as possible, but with its restaurant, pool and fitness center no longer available for use, its full 33-person staff has been reduced to a skeleton crew.

“Some employees have opted to take unemployment, which I certainly encourage them to do,” he said.

For The Iron Horse Hotel in Walker’s Point, the current lull in business means there’s finally time to complete projects that are long overdue.

“We’re sanding and cleaning the floors in the lobby,” said Tim Dixon, principal at Dixon Development and owner of The Iron Horse. “Do you know how impossible it is to do that when you have 24-hour business and you’re always busy?”

He said the hotel took a hiatus this week, but will reopen booking on Monday. Most of its staff has been furloughed, but rather than hiring outside contractors, a number of employees have been retained to complete the long list of maintenence and deep cleaning projects throughout the former warehouse building, said Dixon.

He’s told his staff to think of this period as The Iron Horse’s reopening– a time to gear up for the rush of guests booking rooms once the pandemic is over, and when the 2020 Democratic National Convention comes to Milwaukee in July.

Despite major event cancellations around the globe, DNC organizers have promised the convention will still take place as originally planned. Dixon is confident they will follow through.

“We have an opportunity to shine, and Milwaukee will shine,” he said.

Marcus Hotels & Resorts announced Tuesday that it is temporarily closing the 219-room Saint Kate Arts Hotel and the 729-room Hilton Milwaukee City Center, both in downtown Milwaukee, as well as the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa in Lake Geneva and two of its out-of-state hotels.

“Larger hotels like that are going to be impacted (by the COVID-19 pandemic) very severely,” said Greg Hanis, president of Hospitality Marketers International Inc.

That’s because large hotels rely heavily on group business, like weddings and conventions, which won’t see a comeback likely until a vaccine is available for COVID-19, Hanis said. Those properties take more time and resources to operate than smaller hotels, which he categorizes as having about 100 rooms.

“When you close a big hotel– to bring back everybody, to bring everything back up to speed– you don’t just flip a light switch and everything goes back on,” Hanis said.

Those hotels will have to replace laid-off workers, train staff, deep clean and reorganize the property before they’re ready to welcome guests back inside. That could put extra strain on local hotels preparing for the 2020 DNC, which could start bringing visitors to the city as many as 30 days beforehand, Hanis said.

On the bright side, the social-leisure market might not be hit as hard as group or corporate travel– once travel restrictions are lifted, of course, Hanis said. But the fate of all travel industry sectors will depend on airlines ramping back up.

“People will still come and they’ll want to vacation,” he said.

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Maredithe Meyer
Maredithe Meyer started as an intern reporter at BizTimes in summer 2015. She currently covers entertainment, sports, tourism and restaurants. In May 2017, she graduated with a journalism degree from Marquette University where she worked as an in-depth projects reporter for the Marquette Wire and Marquette Tribune.