What’s it like to open a hotel in a pandemic? Downtown’s Canopy by Hilton is figuring it out

Corinne S Kennedy

| Memphis Commercial Appeal

Days before the new Canopy hotel opened Downtown, Jessica Billings, director of sales and marketing for the hotel, was literally running through the halls, delivering some of the final décor items to guest rooms.

The designers who would normally have put the finishing touches on the Canopy by Hilton Downtown Memphis couldn’t travel to the Bluff City due to the pandemic, so the hotel staff did it themselves — the lobby, the guest rooms, the lounge spaces.

“We’ve put a lot of love and labor into this hotel ourselves,” Billings said.

Since the hotel at 164 Union Ave., across B.B. King Boulevard from AutoZone Park, opened Sept. 8, there have been guests, though not what the hotel would expect or who they would expect.

Normally, Billings said, the clientele would be 50% individual business travelers, 20% group business and 30% leisure travelers. Over the past three weeks, it’s been 25% business and 75% leisure.

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“We’re getting some traction, which we weren’t quite sure we’d get,” she said. “Leisure right now is the only thing that’s keeping hospitality alive.”

The pitfalls of opening a new hotel right now are evident. But Memphis-based hotel consultant Chuck Pinkowski said there is at least one positive: Novelty.

“It’s new, it’s shiny, it’s different,” he said. “The floodlights are on the product. It’s a guerrilla brand. The people who are coming to Memphis are going to see it. It’s an absolutely killer location.”

The Memphis hospitality industry ended 2019 strong “and then all of this COVID-19 crap hit,” Pinkowski said. Hotel occupancy plummeted across the country and in April, nationally, hotels were at 21% occupancy. Things have rebounded a bit. The week the Canopy opened, Memphis was at 52% occupancy, slightly ahead of the national average.

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Downtown has seen the weakest hotel recovery locally, but there are still people coming Downtown, Pinkowski said. Many of the big attractions Memphis tourists would go to would bring them past the Canopy.

“When you walk out (of) the Peabody to go to Rendezvous, you have to go past the Canopy,” he said. “It’s a great location and I think it’s an iconic building the way they’ve designed it and it’s a killer brand.”

Unique to Memphis

Hotels in Hilton’s relatively new Canopy brand — the first opened in Iceland in 2014 — are unique to their locations and designed to reflect the culture and history of the city. The pattern on the carpet in the Memphis location is designed to evoke the lights of Beale Street and light fixtures in the 174-guest rooms have nods to Sun Studio and the Stax Museum.

“I think it stands out. You’re going to get a unique experience here you won’t get anywhere else,” Billings said. “When you come here, you’re getting a Memphis experience just by staying at the hotel.”

Memphis is the brand’s 24th location, joining Washington, D.C., Cancun and Dubai. The hotel has a common workspace in the lobby, a 438-square-foot conference room, lobby seating that extends into the restaurant and bar, which has a stage for live music, once that’s permissible again, and a travel lounge, which has storage lockers for guests to leave luggage before and after checkout and a shower.

The hotel also has a gym, offers complimentary bikes for those who want to pedal around town and allows free stays for pets, which are not only allowed but encouraged, Billings said.

The Canopy and the Tru by Hilton in West Memphis are the only hotels to open locally during the pandemic, though several more are slated to open in the near future.

The Home2 Suites and Hilton Garden Inn at the TraVure development in Germantown will open before the end of the year, the Memphian Hotel at Overton Square will open in the spring, the Centric will open in summer or fall of 2021 and two hotel projects in West Memphis are under construction, including the casino hotel.

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Hilton has the financial capabilities to weather a prolonged revenue dip, Pinkowski said, and he thinks the tourism economy will improve next year, but some things about the pandemic could change the hotel industry for good.

Permanent changes

While leisure travel is coming back, room rates remain low across the country, from the largest hotels to the smallest. National, the average room rate in September for a luxury hotel was $280 a night, compared to $315 last year. For midscale hotels, the average room rate in September was $80, compared to $88 last year, according to Pinkowski.

“The good thing is the financial institutions do have a lot of money, the industry will be propped up somehow. The demand is coming back, first in the leisure side of the business, we’ve already seen that,” Pinkowski said.

In the long term, there will likely be permanent changes to the hotel experience.

Automatic entry doors and apps instead of room keycards were already becoming the norm in many hotels, but the pandemic could intensify that trend, changing how lobbies are designed, what the front desk experience is like and removing many common-touch items.

“Business will come back and it’s not going to be business as usual,” Pinkowski said. “I think what we’ve all been going through is going to have some kind of… I don’t want to say scar… but it’s going to have some kind of effect on us in the way we do business.”

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Corinne Kennedy covers economic development, soccer and COVID-19’s impact on hospitals for the Commercial Appeal. She can be reached via email at [email protected]

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