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Local 5 - weareiowa.com | Des Moines Local News & Weather | Des Moines, Iowa

Iowa hotel industry suffers, with bleak projections for first half of 2021

The Surety Hotel had to lay off staff prior to their November opening to make sure they were able to open at all.

DES MOINES, Iowa — In 2020, 87% of hotels in the U.S. had to lay off or furlough employees, and Central Iowa was no exception.

The Surety Hotel hired most of their staff in 2019, ahead of the 2020 opening. However, the pandemic threw a wrench in it.

“Many of us were laid off,” said Tara McFarling, the director of sales and marketing for the hotel, which is part of the Aparium group. “During that time we all just hoped and prayed that we would come back.”

Thankfully, they were able to hire back staff in July and August of 2020, and they opened with limited staff November 11.

“Normally I would have a team of three or four people, and right now it’s just me,” said McFarling. “Most of our managers are working six or seven days a week, but we made a commitment to bring the hotel to Des Moines, and people are loving it.”

The hotel, which McFarling dubs “a restaurant that just happens to have guest rooms and event spaces,” is located on 206 6th Ave. Downtown Des Moines. But when you walk in, McFarling says the goal is to feel like you’re not in Des Moines anymore. 

It features an open "living room" when you walk in, instead of a typical front desk, and an adjacent restaurant, Mulberry Street Tavern, which features classic cocktails and a full menu.

Welcome to Surety Hotel where comfort & elegance are combined in every room with savory cuisine in an ideal boutique hotel in Des Moines. Now open!

The building, which historically been a financial institution, pays homage to its past with copper finishes, original ceiling molding, and even green exit signs and green tiles lining the guest room showers, which McFarling jokes are a nod to stacks of money.

However, it’s no secret that the hotel industry, nationally, is struggling when it comes to revenue.

"We don't anticipate really anything turning until June," said McFarling. "We're hoping for what they call this 'revenge travel', hopefully in Des Moines -- those peopole are craving to get out of town."

Greg Edwards, president and CEO of Catch Des Moines, says the travel industry plummeted in the metro in April 2020. It dropped to 20% occupancy, after what was set to be a great year of travel revenue, in big part due to the Iowa Caucus, at 65% occupancy.

“About 75 percent of hotels’ revenues are down from a year ago, and that’s a worldwide number,” said Edward. “Polk and Dallas county alone, over 21,000 people are employed in the travel industry. So about half of those people are still without jobs. So it’s a very sad time.”

However, Edwards says their industry runs on hope. 

“We’re very optimistic people,” he said. “I really do believe in the next several months we’re going to see an upturn in our industry.”

CRBE Hotels Research projects that hotels will return to 2019 occupancy during the third quarter of 2021, adding revenue won’t recover fully until 2024.

Meanwhile, McFarling and the staff at Surety are doing everything they can to keep guests safe and comfortable, including not fully opening all rooms.

"We keep our guest rooms unsold, so if somebody stays in it the night before, it's left empty for 24 hours before we bring our guests back in," she said.

In addition, they have the now all-too-familiar complimentary hand sanitizer throughout the lobby, masks, and furniture spread out enough to accommodate social distancing.

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