CHINON, France — It’s an understatement to say this past year has been devastating for the hospitality business. Mandatory closings, the often-prohibitive costs of adapting to strict new hygiene rules, travel restrictions, and confinement have ravaged an industry around the world, forcing both temporary and permanent closures of hotels, restaurants, cafés, and bars. But while stories abound of massive layoffs of employees and owners losing everything they’ve built, the consequences of these closings goes much deeper than many people realize:
My husband and I own a 27-room hotel in the small French town of Chinon; an end-of-career-reconversion purchase we made in January 2015. The hotel, housed in a XV Century building, has required loads of seemingly never-ending TLC, renovations, and restoration. Five years of incredibly hard, often physical work, juggling expenses, the long endeavor of bringing together an excellent staff, constantly readjusting decisions to follow client expectations, and an evolving, creative approach to marketing, we ended 2019 on a high: business was finally booming. And with an unexpectedly busy January, February, and beginning of March, bookings for the year flowing in, all signs pointed to 2020 being even better.
Then coronavirus hit.
Chinon has a normally long and robust tourist season (Easter through the end of October), but on Mar. 15 everything stopped. Other than the six weeks this past summer where the government allowed all businesses to open and the French people to travel freely — a decision made in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that, in the end, proved unwise — restaurants and bars have been shuttered for 12 months now, and hotels have been reduced to serving the occasional businessperson or random passing visitor.
We’ve been fighting to save our business since the moment we learned of our first impending mandatory national confinement and lockdown last March, spending half our waking hours every day making calls, writing letters, filling out forms, reading official decrees, coming up with creative solutions to replace lost income, juggling bills to pay, negotiating with bankers and our landlord, and managing reduced staff hours.
We’re luckier than our American counterparts in that our employees are being given fairly generous unemployment pay from a government that wants to avoid massive layoffs, allowing us to keep our team intact through long periods of inactivity without the income to pay salaries, and the monthly solidarity aid we’ve been receiving that has so far saved many a small business such as ours, but the fight has been daily and unrelenting for a year now.
But the risk of failure, of simply not being able to make it through this continued lockdown, and all the fear that accompanies that potentially dreadful outcome, is ever-present. Like millions of other small business owners, we fear the prospect of losing a project we put our hearts and souls into, and losing our life savings that we sunk into buying and keeping up this hotel that’s now a part of us.
But we hope, just like every local chef and bar owner we’ve spoken with, if we lose our business, we’ll be able to land on our feet even if the idea of going under is a devastating one we’re doing everything we can to avoid. While the eventual sale of our hotel was meant to finance our retirement, recuperating our investment and whatever profit it brings, the prospect of bankruptcy is softened by the fact that it wouldn’t have been the result of mismanagement, wrong choices, or being in over our heads, but rather something out of our own hands. We are oddly comforted by the fact that we did everything possible in this impossible situation.
Small businesses need the government now more than ever
But our business is more than just about us. We’ve been well aware from the start that everything we do to save our hotel is also action taken to save the jobs of our employees. We employ five permanent, full-time staffers, and we add a sixth during high season. Their families count on these jobs in an area where there aren’t many to be had. While we know they are struggling with their reduced paychecks, they know they will have a job to return to once this is over.
But no business stands alone. No business is simply owners and employees, especially in the hospitality industry. The first month after France went into mandatory confinement, knowing that there was a huge risk that we wouldn’t be seeing any income for a long while to come, we sat down with the plan to divide our bills into two piles: pay-immediately and put-off-for-as-long-as-possible. Suddenly we realized the survival of countless other small businesses was so intimately tied to our own survival. An already heavy burden only grew heavier for us.
If we learned anything in the past year, it is how tightly connected we are, cities of small, independent, often family-owned businesses creating an interwoven web who work together, rely on each other — a network sharing clients, goods, and services. Our hotel bar offers almost entirely local wines, craft beers, and juices; our breakfasts are exclusively products from local artisans and farms — from the hand-ground roasted coffee, freshly baked goods, fruit juices and the small-batch butter and milk, to the charcuterie and goat cheeses, walnuts, and honey; we buy fruit to make our jams from small local producers.
In turn, our guests, from 40 to 50 every single day during a very long high season, dine at the local restaurants, lounge while nibbling at the cafés, drink their fill at the wine bars, buy ice cream, sandwiches, and croissants from the bakeries, pastry and snack shops, and souvenirs from our town’s craftspeople. They purchase wine from family-owned wineries and tickets to visit the tourist sites and turn to independent, often family-run businesses for everything from guided tours to bike rentals. We can’t forget the cleaning and laundry services, gardeners and florists, dog walkers and babysitters, plumbers and electricians whose client lists include all of our region’s small businesses.
Each time I ask local restaurateurs how they are doing, they never bewail their own plight. Like the chef/owners of so many American farm-to-table eateries, they worry about their butcher or the local family-run fishery, the small producers who supply fruit and vegetables, the farmers who sell them cheese and eggs. They worry about the survival of the local food artisans, business partners who, in a sector such as ours, have become friends.
This isn’t a uniquely French story; this is a story of every small business in cities and towns everywhere in our global community. From the neighborhood bakery, the corner mom-and-pop shop, to the independent florist, from the diner to the elegant restaurant, the barber shop and beauty salon, to small hotels and hardware stores, each small business has a greater effect on the local economy than is visible on the surface. The ripple effect is real: If one local business, one restaurant, one hotel closes, not only are employees laid off, but suppliers, producers, and service providers lose a client — sometimes a friend — and that means losing revenue essential to their survival.
As hotel owners, we are a part of the life of our town and our region
In the best of times, small businesses — between mortgage, rent, employee salaries and benefits, stocking our supply closets, and taxes — often survive month to month. Even one or two bad months can push many into bankruptcy.
I saw this happen in France after three back-to-back terrorist attacks depressed the tourist industry our first three years as hotel owners. While that was difficult enough to bounce back from, a public-health crisis like the one we are in the middle of can be a catastrophe, and it has already pushed many to shutter. As shocked and saddened as we all are to see our favorite restaurants and shops permanently close, a heavy loss to any neighborhood, I don’t think people fully understand the impact one single business has on a local economy or community.
As hotel owners, we are a part of the life of our town and our region — partners in our local tourism industry; one thread in an ecosystem of small businesses, artisans, and producers — our business family.
We’re not special. We just are. For now. And our existence not only provides lodging for weary and adventurous travelers alike, we’re a part of a tapestry of small businesses whose true benefits — being an integral link in the chain of commerce and life that strengthens and enlivens our entire community — are often unseen, even if relied upon daily.
Without access to our regular, loyal patrons and the new ones we longed to meet this past year, small businesses need help. Because just as we’ve been there for our communities, our communities have been there for us. But under government mandated lockdowns, we’ve been denied access to the people we’re here to serve.
Small businesses need the government now more than ever. We need federal, state, and local aid on top of continued patronage by individuals, because when you save one small business, you protect the jobs and livelihoods of many people, a local economy, and an entire community.