Portland sights take a hit as hotel rooms sit empty during the coronavirus pandemic

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Portland’s hotel rooms have all but emptied out this spring, drying up downstream businesses as the coronavirus crisis continues to wreak havoc on the local tourism industry.

Hotel occupancy in Portland fell to 14% in April, according to data released Wednesday by Travel Portland, following an 85% drop in demand. Those numbers rebounded slightly in the first part of May, with occupancy rising to 17% from May 10-16.

The impact on Portland’s tourism industry has already been severe. The city’s biggest tourist attractions and smaller ones have been affected alike, as hotel rooms sit empty, restaurants remain closed and local tourism organizations continue to struggle.

Travel Portland and Travel Oregon, separate travel agencies funded by taxes on hotel rooms and short-term rentals, both responded with layoffs. In April, Travel Portland laid off 40% of its staff and cut the salaries of the remaining employees. Travel Oregon has laid off or furloughed a third of its employees and cut pay for the rest, including executives and managers whose high salaries were called out in an audit earlier this year.

“We’re clearly in some kind of devastating time,” said Jeff Miller, CEO of Travel Portland. “Our opportunity for the future will depend on how we support all of these kinds of jobs.”

This includes jobs at hotels, museums, tourist attractions and restaurants in Portland, all of which have been closed during the coronavirus pandemic.

This struggle has been particularly acute for smaller attractions like the Freakybuttrue Peculiarium. One of the few remaining landmarks of Portland’s “strange” era, the small tourist attraction was expanding into a new storefront when the coronavirus pandemic hit, throwing the business into turmoil.

“We died in the water,” said Mike Wellins, co-owner of the Peculiarium with Lisa Freeman. “We’re already out of money and on credit, so it’s an unfortunate game of attrition.”

In December, Wellins and Freeman announced that they were moving from their location on Northwest Thurman Street to a new storefront on Southeast Stark Street. They opened a gift shop in the new space in January and planned to open the new Peculiarium there on March 31.

On March 23, Oregon Governor Kate Brown issued her stay-at-home order that banned public gatherings and closed all non-essential businesses across the state, in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Both Peculiarum sites were closed to the public and all staff were laid off, Wellins said. They asked for help from the Small Business Association’s Paycheck Protection Program, but heard nothing in return.

At this point, it will be impossible to open their new location in Southeast Portland, Wellins said. They may be able to keep the old location, if things get back to normal as soon as possible, but honestly, he says, they don’t know how long they can afford to keep the business.

“The financial hit was complete,” Wellins said. “No revenue, no customers.”

The Jupiter Hotel will donate all of its 81 rooms to its original East Burnside location to house homeless people who were in shelters but have respiratory infections or other symptoms of COVID-19 but not a positive test.Molly Harbarger / The Oregonian

It’s a bitter pill to swallow for an industry that has grown substantially over the past decade. In 2019, visitors to Portland generated $5.6 billion in spending, according to Travel Portland, supporting nearly 37,000 jobs and generating $277.8 million in tax revenue.

This growth has supported a vibrant small business community and fostered the creative innovation for which the city has become known.

Caravan, a small hotel in northeast Portland, opened in 2013, following both small house and boutique hotel trends to create what owners say is the first of its kind in the world. It has become popular for its concept of small housing and shared community spaces, aspects that made it particularly vulnerable when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“Within two weeks, all of our reservations were toast,” said Deb Delman, co-owner of Caravan with her husband, Kol Peterson. “We tried to be innovative and thoughtful about how we can change our model, how we operate to keep our doors open and serve our community.”

After losing their reservations, Delman and Peterson decided to turn Caravan’s small hotel rooms into short-term rentals for healthcare workers and those in need of emergency housing. Instead of charging $145 to $185 per night like they did for tourists, they only charge around $40 per night for their new customers.

Portland Tourism

Caravan, a small hotel in northeast Portland, has transitioned to short-term rentals for healthcare workers and those in need of emergency housing during the coronavirus pandemic.Michael Lloyd/staff/file

The Jupiter Hotel on East Burnside Street has made a similar move. In March, the boutique hotel opened 81 rooms to people who are already in state-funded shelters and have respiratory problems or other underlying conditions that put them in a high-risk category but who have not tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Delman said it feels good to help support the community, even if it doesn’t help the hotel in the long run. Some cancellations this spring and summer accepted credit for future stays instead of refunds, which helps Caravan stay afloat but doesn’t necessarily bode well for the future.

“Although people are willing to take credit, a very small handful of people have booked a date in the fall,” she said. “We’ll see what happens, but it’s so hard to imagine people are going to come to Portland.”

The economic struggle has also spread to what are arguably Portland’s most popular tourist spots: Powell’s Books and Voodoo Donut.

Voodoo Donut, one of Portland’s most iconic tourist attractions, has transitioned to a take-out model during the coronavirus pandemic. LC – The Oregonian

Powell’s – recently billed as the Eiffel Tower of Portland – laid off more than 300 employees after closing its five Portland-area bookstores. The company has remained active with online sales, but on Wednesday CEO Emily Powell said it could be some time before stores reopen and business resumes as it once did.

Voodoo Donut, which has expanded in recent years to Eugene, Texas, Denver and Universal Studios in Hollywood and Orlando, laid off an undisclosed number of workers in March, according to a Portland Mercury report, prompting an effort to unionization by some employees. Since then, four of the company’s stores have offered take-out orders, including its original location in Old Town Portland.

Portland’s biggest landmarks might be able to weather the storm, but the city’s smaller attractions are most at risk, Travel Portland said. The tourism agency is already considering ways to help support small businesses in Portland, including a strategy that shifts its focus from tourists to locals.

“We made a concerted effort to rotate locals first,” Miller said. “That will resonate for a while, because for at least a year people will hopefully feel the need to support local businesses.”

Although 33 counties in Oregon have been granted approval to enter Phase 1 of the reopening, Multnomah County has yet to apply to reopen. Clackamas County officials are awaiting approval of the reopening plan they submitted on Wednesday, and Washington County plans to apply on Friday.

As local businesses begin to reopen, Travel Portland said it will encourage Portlanders to get out and support them. Until then, the agency is encouraging support through its #PortlandTogether campaign, with listings of restaurants offering takeout and delivery, and stores selling gift cards during the pandemic.

For local businesses that have relied on tourism to stay alive, a sense of security may seem a long way off. It makes it more important to support them now, Travel Portland said, as everyone gets closer to home.

“I think we’re all as a community trying to figure out how we’re supporting small businesses,” Miller said. “We certainly hope they can survive this and that there is a path for all of us to follow to get back to these small businesses and find ways to help them stay open.”

–Jamie Hale; [email protected]; 503-294-4077; @HaleJamesB

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