By Monique M. Messier, Executive Director, Discover Central Massachusetts

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the state in March, no one predicted it would take this long to recover. In fact, many events were rescheduled to the fall. Those are now postponed again or canceled altogether.

The tourism industry, the third largest sector in the state, has suffered greatly and continues to teeter on the brink of collapse. Tourism reaches farther and wider than most realize employing thousands of hard-working people. I do not know anyone who doesn’t see the plethora of negative effects associated with the pandemic. But, let me switch it up and take a look at the albeit unlikely positive outcomes, in certain contexts, for the city and the region.

Most associated with tourism are area hotels and the September numbers are in. Much like the rest of the summer, the occupancy rate for the City of Worcester came in the low 40’s, 41.5 to be exact according to Smith Travel Research (STR).

There are 25 cities across the state of Massachusetts running from Boston and the Cape and the Islands all the way to the tip of the Berkshires that have hotels reporting their occupancy numbers into the STR report each month. Of those 25 cities, 48% have occupancy levels for the month of September at 41% and higher while the remaining 52% fell below that benchmark. Of the 48% three towns or 25%, Worcester, Auburn, and Sturbridge all located in Central Mass. had occupancy rates of 41.5%, 50.7% and 41.8% respectively for the reporting period.

Central Massachusetts’ year-to-date occupancy levels came in at 39 percent while the state of Massachusetts’ occupancy for the same time period landed at 37.2 percent.

So, what do those numbers mean? In the industry, Central Mass is outpacing the rest of the state by almost 1 percent and are neck and neck with New England which is showing an overall year-to-date occupancy rate of 39.3 percent. While these numbers are not by any means “crushing it,” they do tell a positive story.

The hotel community has worked diligently to ensure guests feel comfortable, safe and confident when traveling to Central Mass to stay overnight for business, personal, or leisure travel reasons. And, they have a message they want travelers and the community to hear.

“We are open, we are clean, we are safe” stated by Mary Simone, general manager of the AC Marriott.

Onicia Mends, the director of sales at the Residence Inn  puts it this way, “We are ensuring that everyone feels safe and taken care of when they walk through our doors. We  implemented new protocols developed with guidelines from the CDC, our brand partners and public health guidelines.”

Some of their protocols include the addition of hand sanitation stations added throughout the hotel,  deep cleaning of the rooms between stays, consistently and frequently disinfecting all high-touch items like elevator buttons, and providing surface wipes in every room.

The Hilton Garden Inn located in downtown Worcester is also fighting back against COVID-19 with the recent announcement of the installation of bipolar ionization system technology to neutralize coronavirus air particulates by 99.92% as outlined by their general manager, KC Jones in a press release this October. The hotel’s director of sales, Emily Mulhane explained, “Our goal with installing AtmosAir is to ensure that we are doing everything possible to create a safe and comfortable environment for our guests and employees. We feel that taking this extra step is necessary to ensuring all of our guests have peace of mind when staying with us.”

The region’s hotels are not only implementing safety protocols but have come up with many new and creative ways to stay relevant in the local community.

The Publick House in Sturbridge recently released a “Zoom package” that can be purchased in advance of a meeting consisting of a box with fresh made goods shipped to attendees’ homes. Known for their decadent baked goods, the include freshly made sweet treats, a coffee mug, and a pen and note pad – just what you would get onsite in one of their meeting rooms. Connie Pion, director of hotel sales, shared that you can also send  this Zoom box to your child’s teacher, favorite health care provider, essential worker, or anyone needing a little lift in their day.

For those looking for a change of scenery, especially if you’re working from home, most hotels are offering packages for individuals such as the daily use of a business hotel with complimentary wi-fi and many other amenities. More information on these specials can be found on the individual hotel websites.

Tourism plays a major role in the health of the Massachusetts economy and the majority of those serving travelers are small businesses and the goods and services they provide are large and varied. Discover Central MA encourages the community to buy local as often as possible. And remember, the hotels are open, they are safe,  they are clean and they are ready to welcome you.