In the center of downtown Allentown’s renaissance, the city’s actual Renaissance sits quietly, its 170 rooms, 11,000 square feet of meeting space and valet service unused. The hotel, attached to the also-idle PPL Center, remains closed amid the coronavirus pandemic and without a reopening date.



a tall building in a city: A file photo taken of the exterior of the PPL Center and Renaissance Allentown from Two City Center. The Renaissance remains closed amid the coronavirus pandemic and is without a firm reopening date.


© THE MORNING CALL FILE PHOTO/The Morning Call/TNS
A file photo taken of the exterior of the PPL Center and Renaissance Allentown from Two City Center. The Renaissance remains closed amid the coronavirus pandemic and is without a firm reopening date.

“The Renaissance Hotel caters to the business traveler,” said J.B. Reilly, president and CEO of the hotel’s owner, City Center Investment Corp. “So the hotel will reopen once business travel is reestablished — it’s really as simple as that.

“We just don’t know when that’s going to be.”

The Renaissance, a $65 million luxury hotel that opened in January 2015, is one of the only Lehigh Valley hotels, if not the only one, that has yet to reopen amid a pandemic that has hammered leisure and hospitality. The hotel, along with Hotel Bethlehem, also is part of the full-service hotel category, those with on-site restaurants and significant event space that have lagged the slight recovery seen by select-service and extended-stay hotels.



a group of people in front of a building: Hotel Bethlehem is operating at just 25{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c}-30{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c} of normal occupancy and has a total of 80 people on staff, compared with 222 before the pandemic.


© Ryan Kneller/The Morning Call/The Morning Call/TNS
Hotel Bethlehem is operating at just 25{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c}-30{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c} of normal occupancy and has a total of 80 people on staff, compared with 222 before the pandemic.

What’s particularly hurt Hotel Bethlehem: The additional restrictions announced July 15 by Gov. Tom Wolf as he sought to stem a surge of the virus in certain parts of the state. Those restrictions limited indoor dining to 25{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c} capacity, and capped indoor events and gatherings at no more than 25 people.

Bruce Haines, Hotel Bethlehem managing partner, said that effectively shut down the facility’s meetings, weddings and banquet business, responsible for 40{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c} of revenue.

“When he cut back the whole state to 25{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c} for restaurants and 25 people for event venues, he effectively shut down 40{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c} of full-service hotels like us and the Renaissance,” he said. “That’s really holding us back badly.”

But even for those hotels showing an improvement in performance since the pandemic started, 2020 is still shaping up to be a record bad year where the coronavirus has overstayed its welcome with a still yet-unknown checkout date.

On a national level, the hotel segment is the hardest hit sector of the commercial mortgage-backed securities market. As of July, 23{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c} of all hotel loans folded into those kinds of securities were at least 30 days delinquent, compared with 1.34{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c} a year earlier, according to Trepp LLC, a New York City firm that monitors loans included in commercial mortgage-backed securities. That translates to $20.6 billion in delinquent hotel loans, easily outpacing the $13.5 billion seen during the height of the Great Recession.

Many area hotels received Paycheck Protection Program loans, which helped them stay afloat and retain workers. While hotels are still struggling, many are reporting an uptick in occupancy and the data suggests the Lehigh Valley is outperforming many other Pennsylvania regions, according to Alex Michaels, president and CEO of Discover Lehigh Valley and the area’s chief tourism official.

Citing data from global hospitality data provider STR, Michaels said the Lehigh Valley’s hotel occupancy rate in July was 62{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c}, way down from 81{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c} a year earlier but ahead of Philadelphia, Bucks County and the Poconos.

The area’s extended-stay hotels, Michaels said, are probably doing the best right now, though the select-service hotels (room-only operations) also are starting to recover. Extended-stay hotels, which have in-room kitchens, continue to benefit from longer stays of construction or production workers here for a project, he said.

That’s consistent with what David Aungst has seen in his role as vice president of operations for High Hotels, a Lancaster company that operates 15 hotels across Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. The company’s extended-stay properties have weathered the storm the best, with kitchens where guests can isolate themselves and cook.

High Hotels also operates select-service hotels, such as the SpringHill Suites by Marriott just off Route 309 in Center Valley. Aungst said that hotel has seen a slight comeback in its leisure travel business, but the SpringHill Suites still only has about two-thirds of its full-time staff back on payroll.

Even with the recent gains, Aungst said High Hotels is projecting a 50{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c} decline in occupancy this year compared with its performance in 2019.

While the STR report, which includes data from 74 hotels in Lehigh and Northampton counties, shows an uptick in occupancy rate, the area’s average daily rate for a hotel room was just $87 in July, down from the normal $108. Michaels would like to see the figure get closer to $100, but July’s numbers are still an improvement, especially considering some Lehigh Valley hotels had sat vacant for a month at the pandemic’s start.

The area even had a new hotel open over the summer, with Tru and Home2 Suites by Hilton opening near Route 33 in Lower Nazareth Township.

“Given the fact that we were as low as 20{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c} occupancy at one point, it’s nice that these hotels are starting to see life again,” Michaels said. “I’m definitely very encouraged by the numbers. My only concern is the numbers going backward and having more restrictions.”

Hotel Bethlehem is having a hard enough time with the current restrictions.

The hotel, Haines said, is seeing an occupancy rate of just 25{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c} to 30{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c}. The facility’s staff has dwindled from 222 prior to the coronavirus pandemic to about 80 today, as Hotel Bethlehem stretched out a $1 million-$2 million PPP loan over the course of several months to retain one-third of its employees.

With that money running out, and with doubts over how much of it will be forgiven, Haines said the hotel could need another loan to weather the storm under current restrictions. If restrictions were eased back to 50{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c} capacity, he said that could allow Hotel Bethlehem to have more events and weddings, though they would be smaller and socially distant.

All the uncertainty also means Haines has no idea when Hotel Bethlehem can revisit a $40 million expansion plan that would add more rooms and another 25,000 square feet of meeting space.

“The viability of the entire hotel industry is still in question,” Haines said. “When you’re only operating at 30{143106009d8b87d45252e1fd973f0c0835ad3aabba3679e828c3cd83539ae06c} of your revenue when we were considering the expansion, we have no idea when we’re ever going to recover to the levels in 2019, which was our record year.”

As it was, Hotel Bethlehem in January was granted up to four more years to tap into a special tax incentive to help fund the expansion, after the facility decided it wanted to wait to see how the market absorbed a hotel project at Wind Creek Bethlehem.

Wind Creek also has yet to break ground on its planned $100 million, 270-room hotel, which will be attached to the existing 282-room casino hotel. Once work starts, the hotel expansion should take 14-16 months to complete.

“We are continuing to move forward with the hotel expansion and, even with our property closure earlier this year, we remain confident that we are on target to complete in the original three-year window,” Wind Creek spokesperson Julia Corwin said.

That window expires May 31, 2022, exactly three years after Wind Creek Hospitality acquired the property.

Morning Call reporter Jon Harris can be reached at 610-820-6779 or at [email protected]

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