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More hotels are catering to the 'bleisure' — business and leisure — traveler

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There used to be travel for business and travel for leisure. Now the hot new word in hospitality is bleisure. That's a combination of the two. It's a part of a big reset at hotels, as NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: What the idea of bleisure represents is a reshaping of our travel habits post-pandemic and, as a result, the American hotel on its circuitous path to recovery. Take, for example, this Hampton Inn & Suites, six miles from an international airport in Northern Virginia. Midday, it's quiet. Between checkout and check-in, just one couple rolls a suitcase to the front desk.

VINAY PATEL: How are you? How is everything?

SELYUKH: And this has gotten more rare, says the owner, Vinay Patel.

V PATEL: People are now literally not wanting to go to the front desk. They'll, you know, check in online on the phone - similar to the airlines - and go straight to your room.

SELYUKH: Why talk to a stranger at the front desk if you have an app? Technology has been changing hotels for a while. The pandemic accelerated change. It trained hotel guests to skip room cleanings. And now Hilton and Marriott encourage you to decline housekeeping with reward points. Hotel breakfasts are more automated.

V PATEL: Somebody going in the back and, you know, making a pancake. Now you've got a button to push a pancake and, you know, literally just slide it through.

SELYUKH: All this means hotels can do more with fewer workers. This saves companies money, for sure. It's also the aftereffect of how hotels survived the pandemic. When travel cratered in 2020, hotels were wiped out. Over a million workers lost jobs. Housekeepers, front desk agents, maintenance staff went into construction, food, retail. General manager Jenny Gomez.

JENNY GOMEZ: I was just worried about everybody - us, employees. They needed to work. It was very heartbreaking 'cause we had a lot of the good people leave, obviously, because they needed, you know, a stable job.

SELYUKH: Today, fewer people work in hotels and other lodging than they did before the pandemic, by about 9%. Lower employment is often a sign of an industry in trouble, but actually, many hotels may never need as many workers as they once did.

V PATEL: We've become a lot more efficient, and like it, not like it or whatever, the pandemic has kind of taught us all of that stuff.

SELYUKH: And one of those things is to expect new travel patterns. That's another big change. International travel is still down. So is corporate travel, by a lot. Making up for some of it is that bleisure guest, here for meetings, some remote work and a winery tour tacked on. For this airport hotel, that's shaken up its ebb and flow.

V PATEL: Tuesday-Wednesday was our peak days. I mean, you do not mess with Tuesday-Wednesday because business traveler comes in on Tuesday-Wednesday. Now, all of a sudden, it's kind of spread out a lot more.

SELYUKH: All week long. Still, the lagging business and foreign travel is a problem, says Miraj Patel. He's Vinay Patel's nephew and the head of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association. Its members own most of the country's hotels.

MIRAJ PATEL: The full recovery is still not there.

SELYUKH: In hotel speak, there are two main measures of success. One is occupancy. Another is rates. Data shows occupancy is inching close to pre-pandemic levels. The prices have been rising. So have expenses. Miraj Patel lists all the bills that have gone up.

M PATEL: With labor costs being so high, with insurance costs being so high, with property tax costs being so high, even cost of supply in the hotel.

SELYUKH: With coffee, cups, linens, detergent - add to this high interest rates and banks being stingier with loans, and you get to a big worry about the future of the industry, about its growth. Right now, fewer people are buying or building new hotels, which actually includes Vinay Patel, who keeps delaying his new construction.

V PATEL: I just can't make the numbers work right now.

SELYUKH: Though a silver lining - less competition for his existing hotels - for now. Alina Selyukh, NPR News, Herndon, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.