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'It's frightened people away': Downtown Portland hotels slow to recover due to pandemic, reputation

Central City is taking the biggest hit: Hotels were only around 25% full in February, down by around 63% compared to last year.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Walk around downtown Portland and you'll likely see why tourists are slow to come back and visit.

Because of the pandemic and destruction from protests, downtown hotels took a huge hit this past year. While hotel occupancy is still really low, there's some hope for the months ahead.

Swanky downtown Portland hotels lure visitors from near and far. But not last year, when travel came to a screeching halt due to the pandemic and subsequent closures and restrictions.

"When the pandemic hit, occupancies dropped dramatically across the nation, it was not just Portland, it was everywhere," said Benson Hotel Managing Director George Schweitzer.

Data from Travel Portland shows the city's hotel occupancy stayed low last year, as it did in half of other similar sized cities.

The Benson laid off most of its employees and closed temporarily this winter.

"It's hard to cover all your expenses and be able to stay afloat," Schweitzer said. "With restaurants closed, it made it even all the more difficult."

While Travel Oregon data shows the Oregon Coast and southern part of the state have really bounced back recently, Portland's story is different.

Jeff Miller, CEO of Travel Portland, which promotes the city, said it's mostly because people aren't coming for business.

"Right now we don't have conventions and not a lot of business travel. That is a mainstay for our downtown hotels," Miller told KGW.  

But hoteliers say trash, tents, boarded up windows and last summer's unrest are keeping visitors away. Schweitzer said guests tell him so. 

"You could go to any hotel general managers and they can give you multiple examples of guests that have voiced disappointment," Schweitzer said. "It's frightened people away. And that has had a huge impact on our industry. People are of the opinion that Portland's not safe."

Travel Portland data shows hotels across the city, including downtown, the Lloyd District, Airport, Eastside and Jantzen Beach, were only about 35% occupied in February. That amounted to about half the business they did that same time last year.

Downtown and the Lloyd District, which together make up Central City, are taking the biggest hit: Hotels were only around 25% full in February, down by around 63% compared to last year.

They have to charge less for rooms as well, which significantly impacts their bottom line. It's been unsustainable for many to stay open and a few have closed permanently or temporarily over the past year.

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Hotels in other parts of the city fared much better last year and continue to do so. Hotels in the Eastside have more guests than they did in January and February of last year.

"The Eastside, Jantzen Beach and airport have a lot more transient demand or those visitors driving up the I-5 corridor or 205," Miller said.

The first glimmer of hope: Hotel room demand and occupancy slowly ticked up recently.

"We are, in the last two months, seeing business come back, even downtown, which is great to see," Miller added.

As more people travel for work and play again, people are booking rooms for summer. That led Schweitzer to begin hiring back more employees.

"We just need to get our occupancy up and get people back to work," Schweitzer said. "I would love to get all our employees back to work."

"I'm incredibly hopeful as I look at the pent-up demand of people wanting to travel, myself included," Miller said, "We know this won't last forever."

But to really get tourists back, Schweitzer said elected officials need to do more to clean up the city's streets and reputation.

"We're all hopeful they'll be successful in really changing the narrative and our image," he added.

Schweitzer said the hotel community is trying to take action. Many hoteliers and staff teamed up and are working with SOLVE to pick up trash and clean downtown. They've been doing that for over a year now.

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