Hotels to Dorms: Converting Hotels to College Housing During the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Fred DeMicco, Executive Director and Professor in the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management at Northern Arizona University and Jackie Guzman, Student at the Northern Arizona University School of Hotel and Restaurant Management
During the early months of 2020, once it was apparent that the novel coronavirus (COVID19) was a global pandemic, people everywhere started to think of creative solutions to help ease the problems of the virus. The virus has halted travel, leaving many hotels close to vacant. Hotel managers have been getting creative, at first using empty hotels to house healthcare workers or sick patients. In fact, as of June 23rd, 2020, hotels across the US have offered over 3.4 million hotel rooms to healthcare workers. Now, another resourceful solution has become popular in college towns across the country: using empty hotels to house students.
Universities have been facing many difficulties for the start of the 2020/2021 academic school year. The virus is still wide-spread, and universities are implementing various social distancing policies, along with requiring masks. Some students are moving back to campus even if their university is fully online. Universities often offer housing guarantees for first-year students, or even require first-year students to live on campus. To help slow the spread of the virus, universities are dispersing students, offering more single rooms and double rooms. To do this, universities are looking to nearby hotels to help house students. Agreements across the country vary, from renting out just a couple floors to renting the entire hotel for the university.
Just as with hospitals and healthcare workers, universities are modifying the hotels for student use. In New York, when the Four Seasons began housing medical personnel, the stay was toned down and not as luxurious as a typical Four Seasons stay.1 The ballroom became a disinfecting zone; room service and the restaurant were closed, instead guests were given boxed meals; and there was no daily housekeeping, each guest was given their linens at the beginning of their stay.1 Universities are making similar modifications to limit contact between hotel workers and students, and to help keep the cost low.
History of Hotel Use
This is not the first-time universities in the US have housed students in hotels. In 2011, the University of South Florida-Saint Petersburg (USFSP) partnered with the nearby Hilton hotel to house students when the university reached capacity. It has since been named a permanent residence hall and is just an eight-minute walk from campus. There are some downsides to living in this hotel, such as not being on campus, having to walk to a laundromat for wash clothes, not being allowed a microwave in the rooms, and not having access to parking at the Hilton.1 It is also at least 30% more expensive to live in the hotel rather than on campus.1 However, some upsides are added amenities, such as weekly linen service, twice-a-week trash service, full size beds, a TV, mini-fridge, and an armchair.1
Last year, in 2019, Virginia Tech enrolled 1,000 students over what was originally anticipated by the University. Virginia Tech's solution to housing was to place some students in the on-campus Inn at Virginia Tech and to also lease rooms from a local hotel.2 Other universities that have housed students in hotels in the recent past have been James Madison University, New York University, Northeastern University, San Jose State University, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Southern California,2 the College of Charleston, Texas Southern, University of Vermont, and Paine College. Boston University (BU) has housed international and exchange students at the Brookline Holiday Inn before too.3
Colleges Across the Country Look to Hotels Amid the Pandemic
Schools across the country currently have plans or are still working on plans to house college students in hotels. For the fall of 2020, BU wants to take over a nearby apartment building that the University has previously used as temporary student housing when dorm space was unavailable.3
The University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) has plans with three hotels for the fall, in attempt to "de-densify" student housing. Pitt arranged a bidding process with local hotels to select the ones that would best fit their needs. The University was looking for about 1,000 rooms and had estimated that the deal would cost about $22 million in total.5 Each hotel that is partnering with Pitt is offering up their entire property so that only students will be in the building, along with a Resident Assistant and Resident Director.2 Most students in these hotels will have just one roommate and will not have to share communal bathrooms. Each hotel that has been selected is within a 15-minute walk from campus.3 University shuttles will have stops at each hotel so that students can eat at dining halls and easily access campus, and each hotel will have 24/7 security just as with normal dorms.3
Other schools that are considering, or that already having plans to house students in hotels for the fall include the University of Colorado Boulder, Northwestern University, and the University of Northern Colorado.
Northeastern University in Boston is making a lot of changes for the fall. Northeastern has deals with several hotels (including the Westin Copley Place and the Midtown Hotel) and nearby apartment buildings to help house students while maintaining some social distancing. At Northeastern, no student will have to share a room with more than one roommate this fall.8 Northeastern has negotiated special deals with the hotels, but has signed "master leases" for the apartments so that students will rent directly from the university.8 Northeastern will also be setting the rent price for students at the same cost as living on campus.8 To help make the hotel more accessible and dorm-like, Northeastern is also installing laundry facilities and mail services at both hotels.8 In addition, Northeastern is renting meeting rooms at the Westin to be able to host some afternoon and evening class seminars.8 Finally, Northeastern is keeping a number of empty rooms on campus so that if and when students do become infected with COVID19, they will have a space to quarantine away from other students.8
At Loyola University in Maryland, few students are electing to stay at home and go entirely online - only 130 out of 4,000 undergraduate students are taking this option.8 To help disperse students, Loyola has leased 400 beds across two apartment buildings to house students.8 Brown University is making a similar move, signing leases at four different apartment buildings.8 Suffolk University in Boston is not leasing apartment buildings, but is renting out 473 rooms at various downtown hotels.8
Housing students in hotels is a very positive move, benefitting all parties involved. There are benefits for the hotels who are hosting, as it allows hotels to make money during this difficult time where people are not traveling. The universities get to honor their commitments to house certain students, and universities do not have to worry as much about students not attending in the fall due to lack of socially distanced housing. The students get to come to campus without being crammed into one room with three or more people, at the risk of their health. Finally, keeping distance between students is good for the greater community because doing so will help slow the spread of COVID-19.