As COVID-19 swept across the nation, those on the frontline were separated from their families for months and even years. Grocery store workers and restaurant servers became essential, and some empty hotel rooms were turned into shelters, housing for nurses, and vaccine administration locations.
Such was the case for Ashford Hospitality Trust, whose portfolio consists of 101 hotel properties in 26 states. In March 2020, the company saw revenue drop by 95% overnight.
But there was one positive: “Given the nature of the emergency where people are dying and getting sick, there is obviously a great need for places to quarantine people and to get people off the street,” Hays said. “We undoubtedly had a resource that we thought could be helpful to the various communities we operate in.”
Stepping up for the community is an instinct for Ashford and its partner, Remington Hotels, the latter of whom manages the hotels’ workforce.
Both companies rank service highly, not only for their hotel guests and staff but also for the communities they serve — something both Hays and Remington Hotels CEO Sloan Dean would like to see implemented within other significantly larger companies.
“I think a lot of communities and urban areas around the country that are really struggling, whether dealing with issues of homelessness, drug abuse, or crime, I think a lot of those cities have been failed by the businesses that live in their communities, particularly the bigger corporations that have more access to money and resources,” said Hays.
Hays pointed out what that service looks like as he detailed how an Ashford owned, Remington managed Marriott Hotel in North Carolina was converted into a homeless shelter at the height of the pandemic. The city wanted a place to quarantine its COVID-19-infected homeless population to keep them safe and deter the spread.
In the beginning, Dean explained there was some hesitation by some partners, but Ashford and Remington were able to find a solution. “Marriott was obviously sensitive about their brand, but we worked through that, and it did a lot of good for the community, [being able to] house people there.”
In Los Angeles, Ashford and Remington came together with the Marriott Beverly Hills to convert the hotel into a quarantine and staging area for nurses.
Remington replicated the model used by Atlanta’s Hotel Indigo and Hilton Boston for the Massachusetts College of Arts, which sheltered traveling nurses and university students who were COVID-19-positive.
In most cases, Ashford and Remington could offer low rates to guests, just enough to cover costs. At their Beverly Hills, Dallas Market Center, Tampa, and Anchorage Marriotts, nurses and medical personnel were sheltered for weeks, and in the case of Beverly Hills, more than a year.
“They couldn’t go home, they were working multi-day shifts, or they didn’t want to expose their families. So, we basically gave them a comfortable place to sleep and stay. Because obviously, they were the tip of the spear during the crisis,” said Dean.
The companies later turned many hotel properties into vaccine distribution centers. As the National Guard was deployed to help distribute the vaccine, Ashford and Remington pivoted their properties to offer large spaces to get the vaccine out.
Naturally, offering this kind of assistance to the community, while very much needed, was taxing on a staff that was already pared down and spread thin.
“On March 1, 2020, we had 6,850 active associates, with a large majority of those working at hotels that are owned by Rob’s company, Ashford Hospitality Trust. On April 1, 2020, we had 485 active employees,” said Dean.
At most hotels sheltering medical staff and students, eight staff members worked 14-15 hour shifts alongside general managers to clean rooms and service guests; the general managers lived at the hotels for months to avoid exposing their families to COVID-19.
“It was all hands on deck,” added Hays. “I don’t think it’s something we wanted to be patted on the back for. That’s not the point.”
Hays continued on to say that concerns regarding a potential recession have arisen recently, prompting many companies to lay people off.
“Still, I think as business people, we need to make sure that, [while we] focus on our bottom lines and run a profitable business, that doesn’t necessarily have to be at the cost of those around us and those in need,” he noted.
With service being top of mind for Hays and Dean, they are calling on the national business community to shoulder the responsibility of helping those in need, but not just by writing a check.
The Dallas Express asked Hays what serving a community using a hands-on approach would look like for companies with large workforces.
“Foster a culture within your whole company that is aimed towards [service] in the long run,” replied Hays, adding, “if you can build a healthy culture, it will pour over into your community and those around you.”
Hays continued, “For Amazon, Walmart, and the others who have hundreds of thousands of employees, it is challenging to build a culture [that makes people] feel and experience ‘This is who we are’ and not feel like a cog in the wheel, but I still think it’s worth fighting for.”
Ashford Hospitality Trust and Remington Hotels set aside two days a year strictly for service. Employees volunteer with the Special Olympics, the S.M Wright Foundation, and other nonprofits, encouraging employees to serve in personal ways.
“We’ve got to have a longer-term vision of what we want the Metroplex in the Dallas area to be,” said Hays.
As for Dean and Remington Hotels, he keeps it simple, remarking, “If you want to come work for a group of companies that cares about the community. We’re hiring!”
Disclosure: Monty Bennett, the publisher of The Dallas Express, is also chairman of the board of directors and founder of Ashford Hospitality Trust, and a co-founder of Remington Hotels.