Eben House Provincetown

Provincetown hotel shows how safe and fun can coexist

Like many big cities, Boston was a tough place to spend the months of quarantine and social isolation that COVID-19 wrought upon us. Most city dwellers live without outdoor space, the winter seems to last longer every year than the year before, and people were just generally miserable about the whole thing. So when the weather forecast turned warm and bright, and hotels reopened across Massachusetts in early June, my partner and I thought the best location for our first venture out of home life would be the physically-close but spiritually-far gay mecca of Provincetown.

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Looking for a bit more glamour than our usual choices when we travel to P-Town, we chose Eben House, which boasted a saltwater pool (a rarity and logistical headache in Massachusetts weather) and headed out in surprisingly heavy traffic from Boston

In Provincetown, I was lucky to catch David Bowd, the CEO of Salt Hotels (the group of four hotels that runs the Eben House), and we sat down for a quick interview about his experience of operating hotels in this environment. 

It seems that guests and hoteliers are working through this all together, and the best thing to be while travelling now is flexible. And, like David from Salt Hotels, to maintain a good sense of humour. 

What are the most challenging or surprising aspects of operating your property in this environment?

I’ve been in the industry for 35 years, including opening hotels in London for Ian Schrager, and across the world. But in all the recessions and changes in that time, I’ve never seen anything like this. It feels like this pandemic is personally attacking the travel industry.

I think the most challenging thing we are dealing with now is how to bring hospitality into a COVID world. We want everyone to be safe and enjoy themselves, but people still want people to feel like they’re having a hotel experience.

So we’re being practical, but trying to keep a sense of humour. Yes, we’ve removed seating in public areas like the pool deck, but we’ve also made sure to add touches like masks to the faces in our online and printed material to lighten the mood.

 

David Bowd Salt Hotels

David Bowd | Photo: Colin Miller

Eben House Provincetown

Eben House | Photo: Read McKendree

What’s surprised me the most is that everyone is so grateful to be coming somewhere else. There are people who haven’t gone outside in months from Boston and New York, cities where people often don’t have outdoor space. They’ve gone stir crazy, and they’re so happy to just be able to be here.

As for most challenging, it’s doubly tough for us because we operate in Massachusetts and New Jersey, with two different sets of state regulations. Sometimes the hardest thing is to remember which state requires what while trying to keep everything as consistent as possible across our hotel group.

We’ve also invested a lot of time into making sure our team members at the hotels have been supported throughout this crisis. We provided food and essential items where we could, and also worked to help our people find other jobs in nearby towns while we were closed. Food and essential items, etc. to every employee. It’s been hard to have so many good people not working, and we wanted to make sure they would come back the minute we could reopen. Communication was really important, and we wrote every week to every employee about what they could expect and when they could expect it during the reopening.

“We’re being practical, but trying to keep a sense of humour. “

What are the things that will change about the experience of staying in a property like yours? How do you set expectations for guests?

If there’s one thing we’re doing it’s over-communicating. Whether it’s here or at our properties in Asbury Park, NJ, we’re trying to set everyone’s expectations, not just about the hotel, but also the town. For people coming from places where the situation hasn’t been the way it has been here in the Northeast, we’re reminding them early and often that you need to wear a mask (it’s mandatory to wear masks in Provincetown outside on the main streets between 9 am and 9 pm).

It’s tough to offer the same experience of place when you can’t count on all the usual things to be open. Some of our job has been explaining to guests what will be open and ready to welcome them while they’re here and being more involved in their experience outside the hotel as well. And, of course, being available for questions.

It’s okay to say I don’t know the answer and I’m doing my best to figure it out. If you lead with kindness, good things follow.

Eben House Provincetown

Eben House | Photo: Read McKendree

What about the town? How are locals reacting to the reactivation in tourism?

In the beginning, there was a lot of talk from a few vocal people that guests shouldn’t come, and that outsiders should stay away. We have a very fragile health service here on Cape Cod, and it can’t handle a wave of severe cases from its summer population (Cape Cod’s year-round population is about 250,000, but can surge to a million people over July 4th weekend). But in a way, this situation has brought out the best in people.

From a business point of view, it’s not a great time for the town, but the flip side it isn’t the chaos that Provincetown normally is in the summertime. There’s more beach than you could ever need, and the level of visitors feels sometimes like the old-time Provincetown that everyone dreams about.

What are guests looking for in hotel stays that they may not have been looking for before? How are you adjusting to meet those expectations?

What we’ve noticed is that guests are making bookings at the very last minute. For instance, the phone hasn’t stopped today for guests looking to stay tonight. This late booking tendency is a trend that has grown over the past few years, but this situation is even more so than normal. Still, I think guests will realize that they have to book further in advance as things start to stabilize.

We had very flexible booking conditions early on but have actually started to return to more strict cancellation policies as things have gotten busier. Still, we try to work on a case-by-case basis with people who may have to cancel at the last minute for emergencies.

More than anything, this situation makes reputation and running a reputable business more important than ever. For instance, it’s fascinating to me that some hotels are still using eiderdowns (bedspreads for Americans) that can’t be washed between guests. Guests want rooms that are clean from top to bottom. We clean linens, but we also are spraying and disinfecting rooms between guests from top to bottom.

We aren’t offering daily housekeeping as normal to protect both guests and our staff. The vast majority of our guests understand and, although we have the odd person who says they would prefer service every day, we just can’t take that risk.

Eben House Provincetown

Eben House | Photo: Read McKendree

Eben House Provincetown

Eben House | Photo: Read McKendree

What would you say to someone nervous to travel right now that would make them feel more reassured?

The good thing about being in markets with lots of gay travellers is that they’re less nervous about travelling in general. There’s income there, there’s a desire to get out, and travel is just something that many of us feel a need to do.

I wouldn’t necessarily want to be in the family market or road warrior market right now or be a faceless big hotel, because it is true that people really aren’t going back to those properties right now. We’re very fortunate that our market is much more resilient and much less nervous about travelling right now.

For someone who is nervous or on the fence, I’d say this: I just rode my bike here from the office, and on a normal 80-degree (27 degrees Celsius) Saturday, the centre of town would be an absolute nightmare. People are being very respectful of each other and keeping their distance. No, you can’t expect the crowded afternoon tea dance scene you’re used to, but it’s still open, and it’s still very much welcoming everyone from every background, and you’ll have a magnificent time.

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