Banquet halls, hotels rebound after mandated closures

By: Mary Beth Almond | Metro | Published August 24, 2022

 The Royal Park Hotel features outdoor and indoor spaces, like the Royal Grand Ballroom, for weddings and events.

The Royal Park Hotel features outdoor and indoor spaces, like the Royal Grand Ballroom, for weddings and events.

Photo provided by the Royal Park Hotel

  Anthony Jekielek, who has owned The Vintage House for the past 15 years, works at an off-site catering event.

Anthony Jekielek, who has owned The Vintage House for the past 15 years, works at an off-site catering event.

Photo provided by The Vintage House


METRO DETROIT — Hotels and banquet halls are adjusting to a new normal after being empty for months as government and health officials paused large gatherings during the height of the COVID-19 crisis.

Those in the hospitality sector had to quickly pivot to mitigate the impact the pandemic had on their business — furloughing staff, moving services online and reducing costs — and once they were given the green light to reopen, they learned that the industry had drastically changed.

“At some points during the pandemic, there were only 10 people allowed per gathered space, so our whole focus the entire time was to just pivot,” said Sarah Osbourn, the marketing and communications manager for the Royal Park Hotel. “No matter what mandate was coming down from the governor and the health department, we just tried to pivot and work within whatever we were given.”

Amid COVID-19, Royal Park Hotel got creative and instituted a mini wedding plan — which included an officiant, a photographer, music, a champagne toast, a mini cake and a guest list of 10 people or fewer, all held in the hotel conservatory.

“Some people still wanted to get married. They didn’t want to wait until it was over,” Osbourn said. “It was great because we all still got to make the magic happen, even though it wasn’t a magical time for people.”

The temporary pause on events, paired with the move to smaller gatherings upon reopening, had a significant financial impact.

Anthony Jekielek, who owns The Vintage House and Gardens in Fraser, admitted the past couple of years haven’t been easy.

“It was a little bit of a rough go for us financially in this industry … and I think the struggle is going to continue to be there for the next couple of years as we continue to bounce back to where we were pre-COVID,” he explained.

The good news, according to Jekielek, is that the event services industry has once again begun fielding calls from customers who are ready to celebrate everything from weddings to baby showers to graduations and more.

“The phones are ringing, and we’re booking a lot of events. We are also turning away events because we don’t have dates for them right now,” he said. “I guess the difficult part is a lot of the events we are doing right now were either rescheduled from 2020 or they were rescheduled from 2021, which definitely tied up a lot of other dates for 2022. We were able to fill in some voids for 2022 with a lot of our new bookings, and now a lot of the bookings are moving into 2023-2024.”

“The demand is there,” Osbourn added. “But we have always been able to accommodate everybody, in some way, shape or form, to make it what they want.”

It’s no longer just about dates, rates and space. Safety and efficiency are now just as important, which has prompted an increase of outdoor events, smaller gatherings and permanent sanitation stations.

“We have a lot of really beautiful outdoor spaces, so we have had a lot of success with that,” said Osbourn. “And we have implemented sanitation stations at every event. … That’s just good practice, I think, for everybody to use.”

A constant struggle is finding employees.

“It’s hard to find great chefs right now and great banquet servers and catering servers because of the fact that the restaurant industry took a hit so hard,” Jekielek said. “We saw a lot of people that were employed in this industry decide to go in a different direction of employment because the banquet halls closed for 15 months because we couldn’t do an event. Chefs moved elsewhere; maybe they went away from the banquet halls to the restaurant industry or just got out of the industry altogether, so the employment has definitely been a challenge, but we are doing the best that we can right now. I think it’s going to be a slow go process, just like everything else, to get back to where we were.”

Recruiting, Osbourn added, is always on the top of the list at the Royal Park Hotel.

“Of course, we’re always looking for more fantastic family members to add to our team,” she said.

The rising cost of goods has also been a challenge.

“The shortages and what we are paying now for food versus what we were paying in 2019 (has all changed). Pre-booked weddings, which are pre-quoted out, you just can’t change the price on customers,” said Jekielek. “We have definitely made strides now with all of our new and current bookings that we are planning. We have actually adjusted the price twice in the last eight months, and I do expect another hike right now probably in the first part of January … but as you see in the news, we are at an inflation rate of 8.5% right now.”

Despite what some might think, the rising costs aren’t deterring people from wanting to celebrate their special events in group settings.

“From the consumer’s standpoint, they are fine with it because of the times we are in right now,” Jekielek said. “I think they are understanding of it — they are still going to get married. They are still going to have their wedding showers, their baby showers, their memorial luncheons and graduation catering.”

“We definitely see that people do want to be out. They want to meet,” Osbourn added. “We’re seeing a lot of people that maybe have virtual offices now that want to meet in person and get together with the folks they are working with. I think that’s going to be something we see a lot more in the corporate meeting setting. People are ready to come together again.”

As things keep picking up, Jekielek intends to keep doing what he’s been doing.

“Just to recover the losses that we faced in this industry, we are probably looking at at least a five-year window of recovery of being able to recover those losses through profitability of getting back to where we were pre-COVID in 2019,” he said. “The recovery is going to be slow, but we’ll get there.”

The Royal Park Hotel is also reporting an increase in business for event services this year, and Osbourn predicts that will continue into the future.

“We’re now busier than we have been ever since the pandemic started,” she said. “It is so much brighter, and it is so much more positive than it was a few years ago. Everybody is looking forward with hope and excitement to what’s next.”