When Bailey Hedges requested where she wanted to live on campus this fall during her first semester at the University of Pittsburgh, staying in a hotel wasn't an option.
Until it was.
The university followed up with Hedges, 18, after she submitted her initial on-campus housing application to find out if she'd want to live at a hotel instead. She said yes – skeptically.
"I didn't know if other people were going to be in the hotel that weren't students," she told USA TODAY. But it turned out her hotel, the Wyndham University Center, located on campus, would be completely full of first-year students, so "it feels like I'm dorming anyway," she said. Her room includes traditional hotel room decor like a dresser and desk, but her One Direction shower curtain is a reminder the room belongs to a student.
Hotel chains, including Wyndham, Hilton and Graduate Hotels, are working with universities to house students during the coronavirus pandemic, matching the need of the hotel industry to make money and alleviate low occupancy numbers and universities' attempts to safely bring students back to campus. But time will tell if this experiment will help keep students as well as hotel guests and staff safe, or lead to continued complications that come with people congregating in larger groups.
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A win-win for colleges and hotels?
College students staying at hotels is nothing new. Universities have housed students there in the past to accommodate for overflow or unforeseen circumstances.
When Jan Jones, a hospitality and tourism professor at the University of New Haven, went to college some years ago, her dorm was condemned before move-in, and students had to stay in a hotel downtown.
Calling COVID-19 "unforeseen circumstances," however, is quite the understatement: There have been more than 5.2 million cases and more than 166,000 deaths in the U.S. alone as of Thursday morning, according to Johns Hopkins data.
Universities everywhere needed to adapt for the fall semester and potentially beyond given the pandemic's spread, and so did hotels. Hotel occupancy in the U.S. has been mostly on the upswing the past few months, though it is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. The occupancy rate for U.S. hotels was 49.9% for the week ending Aug. 8, according to data firm STR, down 32.6 percentage points from the comparable period last year.
Meanwhile, colleges around the country have made (and continue to update) reopening plans, with universities opting for a mix of online, hybrid and in-person learning. Dorms grew to be an area of concern: How could you have students congregating and sharing a communal bathroom when social distancing has been a proven solution to stopping COVID-19's spread?
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How do these college-university housing partnerships work?
The University of Pittsburgh and Xavier University of Louisiana are working with Wyndham and Hilton, respectively, to house hundreds of students.
Hotel chains began reaching out to universities in the spring as they assessed business needs for the coming months. Hilton has a dozen agreements that are either in place or are actively being finalized, Frank Passanante, senior vice president of Hilton Worldwide Sales – Americas, said.
"We really deployed almost our entire sales team to reaching out to colleges and universities across the country," Carol Lynch, senior vice president of sales at Wyndham, said. "And then we did find that (it) was a much bigger project and initiative for several of these universities and colleges that saw the need." She couldn't share a firm number of universities that the chain was working with, as they too finalize agreements.
The U.S. Air Force booked Wyndham's La Quinta Colorado Springs North for the fall and spring semesters this year, a $2 million booking, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts CEO Geoff Ballotti said on the company's recent second-quarter earnings call.
The University of Pittsburgh has used the Wyndham University Center to house students the past few years, though it hasn't needed to rent the whole property – until now. It was natural to expand that relationship in addition to securing other hotels within a 15-minute walk to campus to house students.
One-quarter of the university's first-year students (1,100 out of 4,400) are being housed in hotels, according to Matthew Sterne, vice chancellor for business services at the University of Pittsburgh. They made sure pricing was consistent with on-campus residence halls.
Xavier University of Louisiana, the only Catholic HBCU school in the U.S., decided that every student would live in a private room this year, as a means of risk reduction amid COVID-19, Curtis Wright, vice president of student affairs at Xavier, said. The New Orleans university has about 1,400 beds on campus, and needed about 600 extra rooms to accommodate everyone. They settled on the Hilton Riverside after visiting 15 local hotels; the university rented out two of the hotel's three towers.
Students are paying the same amount whether they are staying on campus or at the hotel, though the hotel rate is more expensive. "The university will just absorb the rest of that cost," Wright said.
Some hotels catering directly to students
Graduate Hotels, which has 23 boutique hotels near universities around the U.S., is working with universities, but also booking students directly and reaching out to parents.
"We're here really just to provide a very viable option to parents and students that are coming back this fall and trying to create as normal of an experience as possible during a very un-normal time," David Rochefort, president of Graduate Hotels, said.
Another hotel marketing to students is the Hotel at the University of Maryland.
The expectation is that students will be like every other hotel guest, Jeff Brainard, vice president of sales and marketing at Southern Management Corporation, which owns the hotel. The student population so far at the hotel is at a low number, and students won't be on special floors. The University of Maryland is not buying out rooms there, according to Brainard.
"It isn't 'a dorm experience,' Brainard said. "It really is a hotel experience that we're making affordable and trying to be creative to offer students something in a time of need, and it helps the hotel and allows us to keep team members employed, as well."
Startup The U Experience had been planning to buy out whole hotels to turn them into "resort campuses," creating COVID-safe "bubbles."
That plan has since hit a snag amid backlash from native Hawaiians angry about nonresidents arriving in the state during the pandemic as cases have risen there and on the mainland, reports Business Insider.
Are students and travelers going to be on the same floors? What about masks?
Travelers shouldn't worry about students causing a ruckus while they're trying get some shut-eye. Students housed through university partnerships will typically be housed in different sections of the hotel or on floors apart from other guests, in situations where universities haven't bought out hotels outright.
Other areas of potential headaches could come from enforcing both hotel and university regulations. If hotels and universities each have specific policies on masks, for example, which one will students have to abide by?
This could especially prove a problem if the hotel isn't entirely taken up by students. "If you have other customers in there, the hotels are going to want to make sure that their customers and the students all have the same regulations," hospitality and tourism professor Jones said. If the whole hotel is students, though, the situation could be more relaxed.
What happens if a student comes down with COVID-19?
COVID-19 plans vary by university.
If a student at the University of Pittsburgh comes down with COVID-19, they will stay in separate housing apart from its residence halls and the hotels. There are 179 beds available with the ability to add more as needed.
Xavier has reserved several rooms at the Hilton for students on campus to quarantine if they test positive for COVID-19 – but only if they don't have a private bathroom. Otherwise, students housed in both the hotel and on campus will quarantine in their rooms.
Hotels 'happy to have the occupancy'
While these arrangements seem to be a necessary go-to for now, it's unclear if it will be a permanent fixture for both hotels and universities.
"We're very happy to have the occupancy, so I don't know that we would say we would prefer (students over guests)," Lynch said. College towns will also have beds to fill if football games won't be played this fall.
The agreements may not necessarily be financially feasible for universities going forward, either. "One of the things that some of the smaller colleges have an issue with is if we go completely online, the revenue that you lose from residential life and having students on campus is actually quite a bit," Jones said.
Sterne conceded that "yes, it's an expense," to house students in hotels, but that "the primary objective is how can we serve the continued learning for the students in a safe environment."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hilton, Wyndham hotels house college students during COVID-19 pandemic