Every night for nearly a decade, The Standard, East Village hotel would swell with crowds who likely lived just a subway hop away. The wood-paneled Cafe Standard, known for its wicker chairs and low-key food but on-point cocktails, gave the place a New York-meets-Paris vibe. In winter, an on-site Christmas Tree market funneled profits into the Lower East Side Girls Club which mentors local kids. And throughout the hotel’s near-10 year existence on the corner of 5th and Bowery, community-minded programming—including a Chefs Stand Up dinner series which raised funds to support the ACLU—kept purpose-minded locals out of their living rooms and inside the hotel’s restaurants and penthouse event space. “Our hotels have always been anchors of the community, and a place where travelers can find the locals,” says Amar Lalvani, CEO of Standard International which owns both the Standard and Bunkhouse portfolios. But on March 20 the hotel closed as part of a state-wide lockdown, placing the community crucial to the hotel’s ethos out of reach.
The travel industry responded fast as COVID-19 swiftly pummeled its airlines, hotels, and cruise lines—mostly with a focus on health, hygiene, and guest-to-staff interaction. Yet the virus has also forced the hot and growing sector of the hotel industry that focuses on local revenue and engagement, which includes trendy city brands like The Standard, Hoxton, and Ace, to pivot on how they bring people in during a time when it is nearly impossible to do so, and continue to support communities deeply affected by the crisis.
For Aparium, a Chicago-based leisure brand whose properties, like the classic Pontchartrain in New Orleans, showcase the produce, art, and creativity of its destination, that meant creating the Food and Beverage and Lifestyle Innovation Group (FBI) to develop new concepts to specifically support local business displaced by COVID-19. “Our approach has always been centered around an intense relationship with the community,” says co-founder Mario Tricoci. “When we see a need, we deliver.”
Since launching two months ago, FBI has worked with regional partners to offer up solutions to food and retail outlets whose own ways of reaching customers had dried up. Meal kit boxes sold via their central Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis give local farmers such as Dragsmith and Twins Organic, as well as butchers and creameries, the chance to turn a profit on produce usually intended for restaurant use. At Crossroads, inside a former brewery in Kansas City, the art-filled lobby is being transformed into pop-up flower shops occupied by local florists who lost their brick and mortar locations in the crisis. “We have the space and they have a need,” says Tricoci. “Our partnerships are even more meaningful now. These people would not survive otherwise.” Turning over hotel space for local use, he added, would be a long-term solution for the brand and not just a band aid reaction in the short term.
The intent is similar back at The Standard, East Village. “We are in the perfect position to bring hurting local business into our space,” says Lalvani. Since the crisis blitzed New York City, the property, which estimates that 90 percent of its food and beverage revenue comes from locals, worked “hard and fast” to bring in a beloved East Village chef who’d lost their restaurant (names could not be disclosed) though the deal fell through due to sloppy guidelines about how food outlets could reopen. “The role for community hotels is even more important than in the past. Many independent restaurants will have a tough time. My fear is that chains will survive. This is where we can help,” says Lalvani. The hotel is also in discussions with fashion and retail brands in the area, some of whom, like Maria Cornejo, they have collaborated with in the past, to help revamp the hotel’s own retail and provide additional revenue streams for the designers. Space, says Lalvani, will be given over for a nominal fee. “We are not looking to profit from this,” he says.
But adapting the hotel-as-platform model is a different needle to thread. As social gatherings stay limited, ways to reach an audience for causes such as the ACLU need developing beyond face masks and social distancing. Lalvani, hesitant to adapt a virtual model, believes that socializing, when safe to do so, will return and with it, his hotel’s programming that has included Women in Fashion dinners where proceeds went to Christy Turlington’s Every Mother Counts charity. It’s a different approach at activist-minded Eaton, a Washington D.C. spot that has rolled out robust daily programming spanning gun violence seminars, racial justice talks, and co-sponsoring the Women’s March, since it opened in 2018.
“When the pandemic struck, we knew we had to start to take our online platforms more seriously,” says Sebi Medina-Tayac, the hotel’s Director of Impact. He and his colleagues acted fast, scheduling a project called Beautiful Trouble, which focused on revolutionary impact, on the brand’s Instagram Live. Eighty or so people tuned in, slightly more than would have attended in person, and the team were encouraged. “Digital is a smart platform for us because people are looking for meaningful experiences without having to physically show up somewhere,” he says. (During shutdown, Eaton turned over their common spaces to a local high schooler who had pioneered a way to 3D-print PPE, and for blood drives in partnership with the Red Cross.)
Virtual platforms align with Eaton’s dedication to accessibility. Since opening, all events have been free to any member of the public and complimentary memberships were offered to groups in the area, including Black Lives Matter D.C. “We know we encounter issues reaching people with disabilities and limited access,” says Medina-Tayac. “Moving to digital means our content reaches more people than it could in person.” Currently, the hotel is only pursuing virtual programming and plans to continue to do so in conjunction with in-house events once lockdown is lifted. “This is a radical moment to not only rethink programming and content but also physical space,” says Medina-Tayac. “And to make your legacy something worthwhile.”