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Ripple Effect: Hotels benefit from September Wildfires

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Following the Almeda Fire, a local woman stands in the rubble of what used to be her home in the Rogue Valley. Kensington Investment's Doug Bradley said he's never seen anything like this housing emergency in his 40 years in the hotel industry.
The percentage breakdown of usual gusts and fire survivors at Kensington Investment's four hotels starting in September. Across their two hotels in Grants Pass, one in Roseburg and one in Medford, they noticed 60-70 percent usual guests and 30-40 percent fire survivors.
Travel Southern Oregon's Brad Niva said they've noticed this disparity between hotel occupancy increases along I-5 versus the lack of increase in Klamath County partially because of where fire survivors chose to stay. Niva said while counties along I-5 were fully booked following the fires, Klamath County had hundreds of hotel rooms that could've been used. He said they're working on a plan to let people know about open hotel rooms in case a disaster like this happens again.
A wide view of the 123 rooms at Inn at the Commons hotel in Medford. After the fires, the demand for housing is so strong, a Beaverton-based company bought this property from Neuman Hotel Group and plans to turn it into apartment-style living. (News10/File)
This graphic shows the impact of fire survivors on two hotels owned by Neuman Hotel Group during 2020. Thirty percent of Ashland Hills hotel rooms were occupied by fire survivors starting in September and fifty percent of the rooms at Inn at the Commons in Medford were occupied by fire survivors.
Neuman Hotel Group was doing only 40 percent of its usual business between the start of the pandemic and the start of September. Then, when the local fires started on September 8th, their business increased 50 percent. From September through the end of 2020, Neuman Hotel Group was up to 90 percent of its usual business.

While many businesses struggled to stay afloat while recovering from the devastation caused by the September 2020 wildfires, one industry flourished.

The local hotel industry had a huge increase in business starting in early September after the Almeda, South Obenchain and Slater Fires destroyed thousands of homes. Those fires left families displaced and in need of shelter.

Travel Southern Oregon Executive Director Brad Niva said hotel occupancy rates in Jackson, Josephine and Douglas Counties increased 20-30 percent between September and the end of 2020 partially because of those fire survivors needing a place to stay.

“Anybody (hotels) on the I-5 corridor had one of the best fourth quarters they ever had in existence,” Niva said. “Each one of those counties also had fire victims.”

Niva said they don’t have an exact system to measure how much of an impact the fire survivors had on hotel occupancy, but he said it was a noticeable one.

“This was just an absolutely new phenomenon,” Niva said. “We’ve never had to find housing for locals during a fire. That’s just never happened before.”

Doug Bradley, Director of Hotel Sales at Kensington Investment Group said he's never seen anything like the recent housing emergency in his 40 years in the hotel business.

“We experienced higher than normal occupancy from the fires for a good three or four months,” Bradley said.

He said fire survivors caused an increase in hotel occupancy of 30-40 percent across his two hotels in Grants Pass, one in Roseburg and one in Medford. Bradley said once the fire survivors were added to their usual guests, who took up 60-70 percent of their rooms, they were fully booked from September through December.

To book those rooms, the displaced residents worked with organizations like the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which then covered the entire cost of their stay.

On the hotel management side, Bradley said they had to use tactics they’ve rarely used just to make room for those in need.

“We were actually calling guests that had reservations and asking them to either stop where they were or travel farther so we could make their room available to evacuees that would need it,” Bradley said.

The Chief Operating Officer of Neuman Hotel Group, Don Anway, saw a similar boost in business at the end of 2020.

Anway said, because of the pandemic, business was down 60 percent at his five hotels before the September wildfires. Then, business immediately increased 50 percent for September through December once the fire survivors needed living space. The devastation of others helped their business increase to near normal levels by the end of 2020.

“Even though it has some benefit to the industry during the pandemic, I really think we would rather be weathering the pandemic without the fires and the benefits that came from them,” Anway said.

He said two of Neuman Hotel Group’s properties had major occupancy rate increases following the fires.

Starting in September, fire survivors stayed in 30 percent of the rooms at Ashland Hills Hotel and at they stayed in half of the rooms at Inn at the Commons in Medford.

Anway said about 15 percent of the rooms at Ashland Hills are still being used by the displaced residents. Since the Department of Human Services has taken over the housing efforts, they’ve moved fire survivors to a select few Southern Oregon hotels including Ashland Hills.

“We’ve received thank you letters and thank you cards from individuals who lost their homes and were here,” Anway said. “Expressing appreciation to staff members for just listening to them and being that shoulder to cry on, and that’s what it’s about when a community comes together.”

Anway said the fires caused a major emotional and financial impact on the hotel industry. The need for housing in Southern Oregon continues seven months after the fires and companies from around the state are looking to capitalize on that need.

In January, Neuman Hotel Group sold Inn at the Commons to a Beaverton-based company that will turn the 123 hotel rooms into apartments.

After having a couple of seasons to reflect on their handling of September wildfires, Travel Southern Oregon’s Niva said the fire-caused housing crisis is a wake-up call. They’re now working on two new projects to prepare for fires causing another need for places to stay.

First, they want to give emergency overnight kits to local hotels in case fire survivors need to stay somewhere in a hurry. Niva said those kits would include essentials like underwear, socks and hygiene items to last people until they collect themselves.

Second, they’re working on getting the word out about vacant hotel rooms in the area. Niva said, while hotels in cities along I-5 were full after the fires, Klamath County had hundreds of open rooms that could’ve been used to help displaced residents.

“They all went up I-5, but they did not just cut over an hour and 20 minutes and could’ve stayed in a nice hotel in Klamath Falls. It’s just flukey how people think about it,” Niva said. “So we’re working on that as part of our messaging the next time if this was to happen.”

Niva said they’re starting a system of calling hotels and recording available rooms on their website. He said they’ll also relay the openings at local hotels to the Ashland welcome center.

“That’s our future,” Niva said. “Being able to track hotels and pointing visitors toward someplace to go.”