Local hotels struggle amid pandemic, economic slowdown and reduced tourism

By Mary Alice Russell

COVID-19 hurt small businesses across the country, but lodging continues to take a hit in Lexington.

City Manager Jim Halasz said that the lodging tax collection for October, which comes from September sales, was about $41,000, down $16,000 from October 2019. And it was about $6,000 less than September collections.

In response the the civil unrest in our country, The Robert E Lee Hotel is now called The Gin. (Photo credit Mary Alice Russell)

“While we are disappointed to see this dip, we are still running ahead of our projected revenues for the lodging tax,” Halasz said in an email.

The drop reflects a slowdown in normal fall traffic when Lexington is usually bustling with tourists and parents visiting students who attend Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute. Hotels are usually booked months in advance for events like parents’ weekend and graduation, but this year none of those big weekends occurred.

“Parents come, but it’s hard to tell when they are going to come,” said Francesco Benincasa, an owner of Tonic, a newly-rebranded hotel at the former Sheridan Livery Inn and Restaurant on Main Street.

Benincasa, who also owns and runs Pronto Caffe and Gelateria, said that business for the hotel has been manageable, but he worries about what’s to come.

Students from both colleges will leave before Thanksgiving and not return until mid-January. Winter slows travel because of bad weather and flu season. Plus, European countries are returning to lockdown because of the uptick in COVID-19 cases.

The Tonic, which used to be The Sheridan Livery Inn, opened its doors in September. (Photo credit Mary Alice Russell)

There are three local hotels that line Lexington’s Main Street. Tonic has 12 rooms, the Georges has 18, and the Gin, formerly the Robert E. Lee, is the largest hotel with 39 rooms. All of the hotels also have restaurants connected to them.

Even if it is hard to get people to stay in the hotel, people are more willing to go to restaurants than they were when the pandemic started.

There are lots of small things that go into making sure that a restaurant and a hotel are safe that most do not even realize.

“In the restaurant, you have to ask if you want a salt shaker, and the same goes for hotel rooms. We don’t leave a pen and paper in the room.” Benincasa said.