Hotel and lodging group CEO seeing ‘devastation’ in the industry

The head of the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association is concerned about the future of the industry as businesses take drastic measures to survive the current crisis. 

“We were one of the first, along with restaurants, to get hit right out of the gate when this blossomed dramatically into more severe numbers and impacts,” said Trisha Pugal, the group’s interim CEO and a registered lobbyist. “Naturally, we share everyone’s concern about how long this is lasting, and the impact on our employees, our businesses.” 

In a recent interview, Pugal said hotels and other related businesses are “experiencing devastation” as large group events are cancelling at least through the end of the month. A number of these companies are closing temporarily due to a lack of business, and many have little to no revenue coming in, she said. 

She noted most have had to enact “considerable” layoffs just to keep the business from failing. And that’s particularly difficult, she explained, because these workers make up “the backbone of our industry.” 

“It’s been very difficult for owners, managers to try and keep things operating and provide the jobs needed for their valued employees,” she said. 

The American Hotel & Lodging Association has been circulating projections showing Wisconsin could lose as many as 18,000 direct jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. On a national basis, as much as 44 percent of all hotel employees are expected to be out of work in the coming weeks. 

“We’ve been doing weekly surveys, trying to keep an eye on what everyone is saying statewide,” Pugal said. “We’re seeing the impact, and it’s changing on a week-to-week basis. A week ago, those that thought they could weather the storm are not able to next week.” 

The latest federal stimulus package is expected to help many businesses impacted during the pandemic, including some hotels. But since hotels, restaurants and others have been dealing with the virus’ fallout for longer, Pugal says “it makes it more difficult, because it’s taking a while for the money to free up … it’s very, very challenging.” 

She added: “We really are desperate for relief on the federal and state level of some kind, to make sure that not only employees are taken care of, but that properties closing will indeed be temporary.” 

The WHLA, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association and the Wisconsin Tourism Association recently sent a policy agenda to legislators with suggestions for helping out their industries during the outbreak. 

“Not any one thing is going to save the industry, but each part can help to ensure we’ll be back and providing great Wisconsin hospitality when this all subsides,” she said. 

The request includes expansions of programs such as interest-free loans provided through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. WEDC recently announced a $5 million loan fund providing $20,000 loans to certain small businesses, but Pugal says that will only go so far. 

“That’s just not anywhere near what would be needed to help,” she said. 

She said the policy agenda also includes extending deadlines for tax payments. Income tax payments have been delayed until this summer, but she said doing the same for sales taxes would be helpful for the industry. That could include allowing installment payments over time to lighten the burden on businesses. 

She noted the industry she represents is among the largest in the state, and contributes significant tax revenues at the state and local level. 

“It’s imperative that it’s not forgotten,” she said. 

–By Alex Moe