The Aug. 19 opening of the JW Marriott Anaheim hotel has brought Orange County’s main tourist area its first four-diamond resort not on the grounds of the Disneyland Resort.
To say the long-awaited event didn’t go the way hotel developer Ajesh Patel expected is an understatement.
The 466-room Marriott, next to the Anaheim GardenWalk shopping center and a short walk to Disneyland and the Anaheim Convention Center, initially planned to open March 16.
The opening was expected to coincide with a rush of spring break travelers to the area, as well as a bevy of events at the convention center, including the Natural Products Expo West and WonderCon shows.
The pandemic quickly halted those plans. Disneyland’s two theme parks closed its doors indefinitely two days prior to the Marriott’s initial opening date. A reopening date for the park has yet to be announced. Most major events at the convention center have been postponed or canceled.
“It’s a challenging time in Anaheim to say the least,” said Patel, a longtime hotel owner and developer in the area. He is president and chief executive of Orange-based Prospera Hotels, which developed the JW Marriott along with Anaheim-based O’Connell Hotel Group.
The 12-story development’s estimated cost is roughly $300 million. When its collection of restaurants, bars, meeting rooms and other amenities are fully operating, it will employ north of 200 people; right now that figure is closer to 100 people.
Despite poor timing for a hotel debut, the decision to develop “the tallest rooftop bar in Anaheim, with great views,” proved to be a good one. The food and beverage site opened along with the hotel last month, with outdoor dining operations allowed under county reopening guidelines.
The hotel has adapted elsewhere when possible. Hotel managers have moved gym equipment to the pool deck for those who want to get a workout in, and have upped outside dining service.
The hotel saw occupancy levels approaching 50% over Labor Day weekend, and said it has maintained room rates, which start around $350 a night for a two-room suite.
The new Marriott issues aren’t unique. Area hotels have been especially hit during shelter-in-place orders as a result of the coronavirus, with numerous local properties remaining closed, or opened with a far-less-than-full occupancy rate.
“While no one can forecast just how long this pandemic will last, it is clear that the effects on the California hotel business will be felt for many years to come,” Atlas Hospitality Group founder Alan Reay said in a recent report.
Orange County hotel occupancy rates stood at around 45% at the end of August, according to the latest data from research firm STR Inc. That’s up 4% from month-ago levels and a drastic improvement over April, when occupancy rates were closer to 20%, but still down nearly 40% from year-ago levels.
Average daily rates for OC hotels stood at about $132 at the end of August, down 19% from a year ago, according to STR’s research.
There are signs of optimism for the area’s hospitality industry, according to Patel, whose firm owns other area properties like the Homewood Suites by Hilton, Hampton Inn & Suites and the Hyatt House Anaheim Resort, all on Anaheim Resort grounds.
Orange County is getting closer to reopening, just last week entering a less restrictive tier in the state monitoring system, but there is no clear sign of when theme parks and other attractions will have the green light to reopen.
That doesn’t mean the demand isn’t already there for local properties with the right amenities, Patel notes.
Prospera and O’Connell decided to open the JW Marriott last month as a result of this pent-up demand stemming from local residents looking for staycations and visitors traveling from elsewhere in the state.
“People have been kept home for months, and they are looking for a vacation, and things to do,” said Patel, noting that Anaheim residents are the main source of business for the hotel to date. Another big source of visitors is out-of-town guests driving down from Northern California.
Schooling on Vacation
Different sets of guests are being targeted in the new normal.
Among them: families looking to get away from home for a few days or even a week, while still having the ability and space to have their now-in-school children taught virtually.
For the JW Marriott, the “Work. Learn. Play” suite package includes an executive suite with a connecting bedroom and costs $379 per night, while the family package costs $349 per night and includes a king room with a connecting two-queen room.
It’s marketed to those “interested in changing up their work environment, or perhaps distance learning situation for children,” the hotel said.
“We are targeting people that want to get away and have a curated luxury experience, and with the JW brand, they know we are ensuring safety and cleanliness,” Patel said.
It’s a strategy being undertaken by others resorts in OC.
Dana Point’s Monarch Beach Resort, the former St. Regis, last week announced a new “Edu-Cations” package, to provide families “the opportunity to travel together in inspiring and enriching ways while schooling online.”
Monarch Beach Resort also offers the “Zoom to Zen” package, which offers guests “the opportunity to work-from-resort in a private, dedicated office, providing a luxurious change of scenery.”
Another newly debuted property in Orange County is marketing a relaxed vibe to potential staycationers.
The newly opened 125-room Inn at the Mission San Juan Capistrano, an Autograph Collection Hotel, emphasizes the resort feel with “4 acres of lush landscaping, an expansive outdoor patio overlooking the Great Stone Church, resort-style pool and spa” and multiple dining options, with, of course, expansive outdoor seating.
The Inn at the Mission was developed by local real estate exec Bill Griffith’s Mission Commercial Properties; built by R.D. Olson Construction; and designed by AO, formerly Architects Orange.
OC’s collection of coastal properties has seen a quicker return to normal than their inland peers as a result of one attractive natural amenity—proximity to the ocean—as locals look for staycations, and out-of-towners look to escape their dense metro cities.
“Coastal hotels are already starting to fare a lot better, with many projecting that these properties will do very well for the remainder of the year,” Reay told the Business Journal at the start of the summer, when spots like Newport Beach’s Lido House were already in full swing.
Marketing efforts for many area resorts now emphasize cleanliness and safety efforts, in addition to the ocean.
At Newport Coast’s Pelican Hill Resort, a “Pelican Peace of Mind” initiative highlights the ease of safe-spacing on its expansive grounds.
“Perched on 504 acres of unrivaled coastal space,” the resort offers “a sanctuary of seclusion,” it said.
The 400-room Monarch Beach Resort has highlighted its partnership with the University of California-Irvine to mitigate COVID-19 fears with potential guests.
Practices include hand hygiene, masking, staff workflows, self-monitoring and other virus mitigation techniques.
The hotel shuttered in March as a result of lockdown orders, and reopened on June 18, with 500 employees returning to work.
“As the only program in public health in Orange County, we have an obligation to assist our community,” said Karen Edwards, professor and chair of epidemiology at UCI and the lead faculty member for the project.
UCI said it has additional consultation agreements with other OC businesses in the works.
“I think there’s a gap in this area for us to step up and offer these types of services. This has the potential to have a major positive impact,” Edwards said.