Locals keeping Apia hotels going in lean times

By Sapeer Mayron 11 September 2020, 1:00PM

Apia town hotels are struggling to get by but say they remain grateful for local patrons during the state of emergency downturn that has all but wiped out Samoa's tourism sector. 

With incoming tourist arrivals completely drying up, an exodus of foreigners in the volunteer and private sector and a wave of unemployment, hospitality in town is doing it tough.

Amanaki Hotel manager, Lynelle Betham, said the restaurant and bar is keeping their once-busy hotel afloat, but sales on food and beverage are not substantial. 

They have had very few hotel guests, mainly locals taking the opportunity for a weekend away and one foreigner staying in the hotel while waiting until he can return home. 

“It’s barely covering expenses and allowing us to continue,” Ms. Betham said. “We’re not making heaps of income; it’s really just trying to cover overheads and pay the staff.”

Today, Amanaki has just 20 staff; many have been laid off.  

Ms. Betham had hoped for a revival in visitor numbers with the Teuila Festival, which, in the past, has been among their busiest weeks of the year.

But a decision to instead hold a “digital” festival put an end to those hopes.

“We are disappointed business-wise but at the same time we understand the whole reason why they (the Government) don’t want too much crowding out and about,” she said.

Losing Sunday trade to the state of emergency orders has also been a burden, but the hotel’s regular Sunday customer base has left the country anyway, Ms. Betham said. 

She decided that even after rules changed to allow hotels to open from noon until 10pm on a Sunday, it would not be worth their while to do so. 

“We don’t feel there would be many locals coming out on Sundays, usually that is when they are at home having their big family to’onai (lunch), so we made our decision based on the customer base,” she said. 

So far national stimulus packages designed to help the tourism industry weather the economic shock of the pandemic have not substantially helped, Ms. Betham said. 

The manager said she has opted to keep paying her staff’s entitlements rather than accept the option to defer them to avoid incurring a big debt to be confronted later.

Her medium-sized hotel did not qualify for a 50 per cent discount on power bill and, while grateful for the option to only pay interest on her loan account for now, she said not making inroads into repaying the principal loan was cause for concern. 

Next door at the Millenia Hotel, manager Rosanne Ah Him said the local crowd have been hugely supportive in the absence of overseas guests.

“We’re depending on the locals, especially with the bar and restaurant. When we had guests from overseas they did spend a lot at the bar and restaurant, so now we don’t have that group,” she said.

“The locals are very good supporters of the bar and restaurant too so we are very fortunate to have them.

“It’s not as good as before but at least our locals are still coming out to have drinks, food. A lot of people are unemployed so they don’t have money to spend.”

The hotel has had just a trickle of weekend guests, and so have laid off more than 40 staff, bringing their team down to seven.  

They said that Father’s Day brought a weekend rush of customers, but no guests over Mother’s Day and Independence Day. 

Ms. Ah Him is optimistic that when the borders open it will be back to business as usual.

“A lot of people were planning to come for meetings and they were all put off because of the measles [epidemic last year] and now the coronavirus, and we also had a lot of bookings for [visiting] families,” she said. 

“Most of them have contacted us and requested to put their bookings on new dates.”

At the nearby White House Hotel, general Manager Anna Liu said business is finally picking up this month after several lean weeks. 

The hotel was chosen as a quarantine facility for returning repatriated citizens, which, Ms. Liu said, had been a good financial boost. But enticing locals to stay the night since has been slow going. 

To attract guests they have dropped prices from $140 a night down to $80, including free meals and drinks, which has led to a boost in bookings. 

Ms. Liu said usually the kinds of people who stay are Savai’i residents who need to be in Upolu for reasons such as a legal matter or a funeral.

“We are at a good level now and we still have people coming in, but the business is still struggling,” she said. 

Ms. Liu said the attached restaurant, Rosy’s Burgers, has been faring well but its menu and prices needed to be adjusted to attract locals.  

“Samoans want a cheap meal that comes with a drink that satisfies their hunger so we are trying to meet that,” she said. 

She said they were unaffected by the decision to ban the sale of alcohol and restrict hours of trade on Sundays, or the 10pm curfew for restaurants because they had always operated on similar hours. 

By Sapeer Mayron 11 September 2020, 1:00PM

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