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Hotels pivot to serve a new audience during COVID-19 pandemic

By Amanda Brennan

Many local hotels in the Champaign community were forced to shut down when University events were canceled and students were sent home in March 2020. Although it presented many challenges, it also opened up new opportunities for hotels. The Illini Union Hotel started to serve COVID-19 positive students and the I Hotel and Conference Center opened its doors as a vaccine clinic.

In August 2020, the University of Illinois decided to use the Illini Union Hotel as an isolation quarantine space. Susanna Sanchez, the hotel supervisor was forced to call many guests to tell them about their now-canceled reservation just days before they were supposed to arrive.

“It was very very difficult because people were so mad. At the beginning of the school year because it is move-in time, people are looking for places to stay while their students are moving in and international students are looking for a place to stay until they can get their apartments,” Sanchez said.

Zac Carrera, a sophomore studying psychology at the University of Illinois, was quarantined at the hotel in January 2022, just days after returning from winter break. In fact, between January and February 2022, the Union Hotel was completely full of isolating students. It was more full then than ever before.

Although Carrera said he wasn’t the biggest fan of having the Altgeld chimes at his personal alarm clock every morning, he did enjoy having two meals dropped off a day as well as a box of snacks and water.

“My room was really nice. I had my own personal bathroom, the room was pretty big. I was able to move around and work out a bit when I wasn’t out of breath,” he said.

The I Hotel and Conference Center, located just 10 minutes south of the Illini Union, hosts many weddings and conferences a year. With “I dos” being exchanged over Zoom and meetings over a variety of online platforms, this allowed the I Hotel to pivot and use its space in a different way.

When vaccines became more widespread in the spring of 2021, the I Hotel served as one of the main vaccine clinics for Champaign County. Sam Santhanam, the I Hotel general manager and president, said they were able to do about 2,000 vaccines a day with the help of the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH).

“It built the confidence of the guests to come out and see the area. Instead of doing everything online and just in one room, they all came out and slowly we built it up and people came back to be where we are today,” said Santhanam.

Anne Olmstead, the I Hotel sales manager, said that the vaccine clinic acted like an “open house” for them as bookings began to increase after more people got vaccinated and as more students began to return to campus for move-in week in August 2021.

“We also started getting lots of international students coming in because they were not able to travel before. As the travel restrictions and everything were removed, we saw the movement of numbers,” said Santhanam.

As travel continues to pick up, both hotels are now functioning as normal. Attached restaurants are open, amenities are being used and conference rooms are filled with busy employees.

“People are very excited about getting out and doing things again. Departments have not had their recruiting for the last couple of years and they are now really ramping that up so we have had a lot of guests the last couple of weeks,” said Sanchez.

Despite still working through some short-staffing struggles, hotel staff members said they are eager to welcome guests and visitors once again, especially with graduation right around the corner.

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