Mahoning Valley Hotels See Demand on the Rise

YOUNSGTOWN, Ohio – The pandemic was particularly rough on the hotel industry but a sampling of the area’s more prominent properties shows they are bouncing back and approaching normal occupancy levels.

Most look forward to a strong summer as travel rebounds and business meetings, weddings and other rescheduled events fill up the calendar.

Linda Macala, executive director of the Mahoning County Convention and Visitors Bureau, says her agency sees an increase in calls for information as people consider weekend getaways.

“The outdoors is what we are promoting most heavily this year,” Macala says. “Golf courses were crowded last year and that will continue this year.”

The Mahoning visitors bureau is also touting Mill Creek Park, hiking trails and kayaking on lakes and rivers, as well as the wineries and brewpubs within the county.

Macala points to one niche that will make an impact. “Hotels will be benefiting from the return of youth sports, which is happening,” she says.

The Ohio middle school wrestling championships took place at Covelli Centre in March, drawing players and families from across the state for a long weekend. Youth baseball and softball tournaments and golf tournaments will also help to fill hotel rooms, Macala says.

Beth Kane of the Trumbull County Tourism Board says most people in the industry believe that tourism will help to pave the way for the nation’s economic recovery.

She cites research in Destination Analysts, a travel website, which reported May 3 that travel readiness among consumers hit a pandemic-record 77%. The website added that 73.5% of American travelers say they have high levels of excitement about travel this year, up from 65% the previous week.

The Grand Resort

The Grand Resort in Howland recently completed a five-year improvement project at a cost of $30 million that elevates the property to a tourism destination for the entire Midwest.

 Amenities such as indoor tennis courts, indoor and outdoor pools, a fitness center, the luxurious Roman baths, a spa, multiple lounges and restaurants such as the Wine Cellar, and – above all – four elite-caliber golf courses, make the resort and hotel a natural for weekend getaways.

Comparing occupancy rates between this month and May 2019 is an apples-to-oranges exercise because of the improvements, says its sales and marketing director, Mike Case. The resort hotel, which has 132 rooms and suites, is just not the same place it was five years ago.

“We are driving distance from Pittsburgh and Cleveland. So we sell out a lot of weekends,” Case says. “Staycations are becoming the norm and the hotel as a destination for them is doing well.”

The Grand Resort is also a popular site for business meetings and conferences. Case says that segment has been slower to bounce back but is beginning to pick up.

The number of weddings rose sharply in the fall after most were canceled or postponed from the summer. Golf packages are shaping up for a strong year.

“We’re getting the golf groups,” Case says.

The Grand Resort is represented at winter golf conventions in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Toronto. “It’s a winter thing,” Case says. “Some people go there to buy clubs and others go to book their golf trip. Some sign up right on the spot.”

The Grand Resort has a strong pipeline from the Pittsburgh area.

“We do very well in that market because it’s hilly there and the courses here are flat,” Case says. “And we’re starting to draw more from the Cleveland market.”

But the Canadian tourists have all but dried up, Case says, because of the ban on nonessential travel between that country and the United States.

Das Dutch Haus Inn

The Best Western Das Dutch Haus Inn in Columbiana is another unique property. It’s a tourism destination, with guests coming for weekend getaways, as well as a hometown hotel.

The property is a cross between a full-service property, with a restaurant and shops, and a country inn with multiple fireplaces, a grand staircase and woodwork on every doorframe. The 20-year-old building, which got a room-by-room makeover four years ago, is also popular for business travelers, wedding parties and those visiting family in Columbiana County. Overnight stays by travelers comprise the smallest percentage of guests.

The Dutch Haus weathered the pandemic better than most and is poised for a strong year, says its general manager, Kelly Williamson. Sales for January of 2021 were better than January 2019.

Comparisons are tricky for one big reason.

The hotel became part of the Best Western group in 2017, which puts it in the chain’s national reservations and frequent-guest perks system. It’s a surefire way to increase bookings and get repeat customers. But it takes about two years for the brand name to sink in, Williamson says.

“It gets the businesspeople in and incorporates what they are looking for: the quality standards of a chain and rewards points,” she says.

“It’s a hard call to say if we are where we should be. But we are close to 100% [of pre-pandemic levels],” Williamson says. “What helps us tremendously is we have a lot of return guests “

She says there is a family-like atmosphere among staff and guests.

“We get retreats from church groups, scrapbookers, knitters,” Williamson says. “Of course, we just had a whole year of none of that but it’s now returning in full force.”

The hotel has a large events room with a capacity of 280, plus several smaller rooms that hold 50 to 60. The large room hosts live dinner-theater events, which are typically part of overnight packages, but all were canceled over the past year.

During the pandemic, the Dutch Haus also became a respite for local residents who needed a getaway but didn’t want to drive too far. “They were looking for somewhere to escape their daily lives,” Williamson says. “We have rooms with whirlpools and it’s just a nice place for a staycation. We definitely got more from that sector than we usually do.”

With PPP money and a smaller staff, the hotel managed to turn a profit throughout the pandemic, Williamson says.

Some unusual circumstances helped.

The federal prison at Elkton flew in nurses from all over the country to treat patients during a COVID outbreak there. They nurses stayed for between one and six months.

As warmer weather arrives, inquiries are rising sharply. “In the past three weeks we’ve had an amazing amount of calls,” Williamson says. “Between May and October, our weekends are basically all sold out.”

The unusual nature of the pandemic also brought some darker aspects. “People were undergoing tough times,” Williamson says. “Everybody was emotional and we needed to be aware of that. We had one guest who attempted suicide. We found him just in time.“

An ambulance was called and the guest survived, Williamson says, adding it’s the only time the hotel has had a suicide attempt in its two decades of existence.

DoubleTree Youngstown Downtown

Occupancy at the DoubleTree by  Hilton in downtown Youngstown for the first quarter was 80% to 85% of what it was for the same three months of 2020 – right before the pandemic hit.

The DoubleTree opened in May 2018. So 2019 was its first full year. The general manager, Steve Mitchell, says the 125-room property is unique in that it’s the only full-service hotel in the center city.

Most of its guests are transient – travelers who book a night’s stay – but close to a third are part of a group. The hotel has 5,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space.

 Its wedding business, which was steady before the pandemic, is “coming back but at a smaller capacity,” Mitchell says. “We had postponements last year so we are seeing some of them now.”

Two reliable sources of guests, Mitchell says, are nearby Youngstown State University and Covelli Centre.  

“Covelli is always a draw,” Mitchell says. “You can check in, park your car, and walk. YSU is the same thing.”

Both have been forced to cancel all events and in-person meetings the past year, which dealt a blow to the hotel. The DoubleTree had to reduce its 40-person staff to seven during the height of the pandemic. The number of employees now stands at 27, Mitchell says.

The DoubleTree occupies a niche for larger business gatherings. “If you want to meet downtown, we’re the only game in town,” Mitchell said.

The hotel has a ballroom on the 12th floor with a panoramic view of the city. Its ground-floor restaurant and lounge, Bistro 1907 by Mark Canzonetta, is open to the public.

But its central location and amenities are not its only draws. “It’s a unique hotel, a historical property, with a lot of character that you don’t see in other hotels,” Mitchell says. “The building was built in 1907 as an office building and when it was converted, they went to great lengths to preserve its character.”

Residence Inn and Hampton Inn, Niles

As its name implies, the Residence Inn in Niles gets the bulk of its guests from people who need a home away from home for multiple days. These include wedding parties, business travelers, staycationers, athletes and their families who are in town for sporting events, and weekend golfers.

Alyse Bombeck is director of sales for both the Residence Inn and the Hampton Inn, both at the Eastwood Mall complex. The Residence Inn is connected to the mall and adjacent to the Eastwood Events Centre, which also drives bookings. The Hampton Inn is a few hundred feet away, across the parking lot.

The Residence Inn opened in 2014, the Hampton in 2016, putting them among the newest hotels in the area.

 Both properties have more than 100 rooms. But the Residence is an extended-stay hotel; its rooms tend to be larger and have kitchens. Those amenities helped it get through the dark days of the pandemic as a one-tank getaway spot.

Bombeck says occupancy at the two hotels is running around 80% of normal and rising. “If the pandemic never happened, we’d be sold out every weekend,” she says. “We’ve already had a few weekend sellouts this year and we’re strong during the week.”

She hopes to be back to pre-pandemic levels by July, noting that Fourth of July weekend is already booked solid.

Wedding season is generally May through September but fall weddings are coming into vogue. “It’s a new trend,” Bombeck says.

Both hotels sit in the middle of an area with many dining-drinking options within walking distance, plus Eastwood Field and two movie multiplexes. That’s a plus for business travelers, wedding parties and weekend getaway travelers, Bombeck says.

Pictured: Kelly Williamson, general manager of the Das Dutch Haus Inn, stands beside the fireplace in the hotel’s lobby.