College students book hotel rooms for fall semester as uncertainty lingers

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Students move out of their dorm at the University of Michigan on March 17, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Gregory Shamus | Getty Images

Hotels near college campuses are looking to students to fill vacant rooms as the coronavirus pandemic casts uncertainty over the fall semester and demand from travelers remains depressed.

From Syracuse, New York, to Bloomington, Indiana, hotels are becoming an option for students whose families are looking for an alternative to dorm or off-campus housing this fall. Although the option is likely to be pricier than typical on-campus housing, it may alleviate some concerns by offering a less crowded and cleaner environment. That may be welcome as the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the U.S. and spikes in cases among sports teams and young adults fan fears about what happens when students return.

Around 12 students have already signed up to stay at the Hotel at the University of Maryland and Cambria College Park, said Jeff Brainard, vice president of sales and marketing for Southern Management Corporation, which owns both hotels near the Maryland campus. He said they are expecting that number to change as the school year comes closer.

Brainard said the hotels don’t see themselves as a competitor to dorms or apartments, but rather a more flexible living arrangement that, while costing more, may bring peace of mind to families given the hotels’ commitments to sanitation.

Students are locked into living in the hotel for at least 60 days, he said. They can then can opt to stay an additional 30 days, but if they need to leave partway through that period, they won’t be charged after the day they check out.

‘People want to come back’

“It’s been really encouraging to talk to the parents and families because as nervous as everybody is, people want to come back,” Brainard said. “But it’s a totally different environment than it’s been in the past. So the enthusiasm to return is tempered with ‘What’s it going to look like when we get there?'”

The cost varies depending on which hotel, the length of the stay and the frequency of services such as cleaning, but the cost to students, though charged daily, would likely come out to somewhere between $1,700 and $2,000 per month, according to Brainard. Depending on how long students live in hotels, they may be exempt from certain taxes in accordance with state and local laws on long-term stays.

Hotel operators say another draw to their properties is that the students are not locked into long-term leases.

Some colleges have reversed course over the past month, reverting from plans to offer in-person coursework to mostly remote, suggesting that students could arrive on campus only to be sent home if cases spike. Many schools have opted for a calendar that ends in-person instruction after Thanksgiving.

The availability of dormitory housing also may be an issue, as some schools have announced plans to reduce the number of students allowed in dorms.

Families also have noted the cleanliness a hotel offers through routine cleaning and sanitation that may not happen when students are left to their own devices, and without sacrificing living close to campus, said Eric Hassberger, president of AJ Capital Partners, which owns The Graduate Hotels chain.

The Graduate chain has booked students to stay in their hotels in Bloomington, Dallas, Minneapolis, Iowa City and New Haven, Connecticut. Students have options for length of stay, cleaning frequency and included meals. Pricing varies depending on the options and market, but the company said it could cost about $100 per night.

Scholar Hotel Group, which has hotels in Syracuse and State College, where Pennsylvania State University is located, has offered either a daily rate or a discounted monthly rate for students, according to Gary Brandeis, president and founder of the chain. At the Syracuse hotel, the cost is $1,650 for one month, but falls to $1,550 per month for a 3-month term or to  $1,350 per month for six. 

Brandeis said the rate isn’t as high as what they would normally get from guests, but they feel like they are providing a service to the community by offering another option and it also helps them keep some revenue coming in. Hotels, like other college town businesses, can no longer look to fall staples like move-in weekends or game days to drive revenue, he said, so they have to get creative in who they target.

“We’re trying to be as flexible and creative as we can to bring as much business into the hotel as we can because, frankly, the business that we would get if there wasn’t a pandemic, it’s just not there,” Brandeis said. “This is a way for us to sort of rethink our business, re-look at the business opportunities and offer our product to a different customer set.” 

A safety net 

Higher education has long been viewed as an equalizer for students coming from different backgrounds, and part of that involves eating in the same dining halls and living in shared spaces. A study from the Hope Center found 15% of students at four-year institutions surveyed in April and May were experiencing homelessness amid the pandemic.

Given the Covid-19 crisis, it is more important to ensure all students have housing, food and electricity than preserving shared spaces, said Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of “The Privileged Poor.”

Jack said students opting to live in hotels may have a positive effect, especially at schools that are planning to offer less housing or bring fewer students back to campus than in a normal year. Having the hotel option for students who can afford it, he said, leaves spaces in other housing open for students who have nowhere else to go.

“We have to suspend, in some respects, our beliefs that this incoming year will be one in which in-person community building is going to be the same,” Jack said. “It’s not, and so what I actually would want colleges to focus more on is how do we make sure that we provide students a safety net.”

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