The year 2020 promised to be gangbusters for the Historic Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant of Berea College. Patrick Huston, director of sales and marketing, was booking a brand-new event space that could accommodate 150 people and would open up a world of possibility for the Tavern, which until now could only handle more intimate gatherings. After the traditionally slow winter, March was looking good and busy. The Tavern had hosted a murder-mystery weekend that had been a huge success.
And then—well, by now everybody knows what happened—the global COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a ghostly standstill.
“We were getting ready,” Huston said. “2020 was probably going to be a year of history for Boone Tavern. But then the phone stopped ringing, except for cancellations.”
Now Huston was scrambling to move events into the mysterious future. “Everything short-term was moved to later. In the beginning, everybody thought this was temporary, but it just kept on going. It was a big change.”
Another big change was the reduction in staff. Huston usually has four colleagues working alongside him. Now it’s down to him and another person. There is one desk clerk, working behind plexiglass, rather than four. And for the first time in anyone’s memory, there is no bellman, furloughed along with half of the remaining hotel and restaurant staff.
This sudden emptiness was the scene that Melissa McGuire walked into in April, having just accepted the position of general manager. Two years before, she had turned down this same job, feeling it wasn’t the right time in her career to make the move. But now here she was, managing the historic, unique and empty hotel in the throes of a pandemic.
“When I came in, it was pretty slow, as you can imagine,” she said. “I came in to very minimal staff, just trying to figure out how to minimize cost and still give some sort of service.”
Minimizing costs was difficult because there were new costs: sanitizer, gloves, plexiglass, additional deep cleaning for the sporadic hotel guests. For a time, in the most restrictive weeks of the pandemic, the restaurant began offering low-priced, carryout family meals to the community.
“The family meals weren’t truly a revenue substitute for what we had lost,” McGuire said. “We were basically just breaking even. Our goal was to stay relevant while giving back to the community.”
“We have been very aware of the challenges the staff has been facing and we are so proud of them for all they’ve done, especially our new manager, Melissa, walking into such a difficult situation,” added First Lady Laurie Roelofs, who chairs the Frost Committee, which oversees the Tavern. “We look forward to having our Tavern back with all of its busyness and historic charm.”
When the restaurant reopened in June, it did so at 50 percent capacity, per the Kentucky governor’s orders, as the hotel maintained a similar occupancy rate. In October, excitement grew as business picked up. But it wasn’t for long, because in November, just before the traditional Thanksgiving service—normally a buffet, though not this year—a spike in COVID cases moved the governor to shut down Kentucky’s restaurants once again.
Besides cutting costs and looking for ways to increase revenue, McGuire’s main focus has been on reducing risks without sacrificing service. The remaining staff have their temperatures checked before and after their shifts and are tested for COVID-19 regularly. Room keys are sanitized between guests and placed in a sealed envelope. Pens and menus have been removed from the rooms. If someone stays multiple nights, their room is cleaned only by request and then deep-cleaned after departure.
“We just try to minimize the touch points,” McGuire said.
For many who have stayed or eaten at Boone Tavern, the distant, sanitary practice of minimized touchpoints may seem anathema to a place that, historically, has prided itself on the personal touches of service and storytelling. McGuire and company are trying to make up the difference by offering delivery for the first time in Boone Tavern’s 112-year history. As she finalizes the budget for the next fiscal year, she remains “cautiously optimistic,” imagining a slow return to some kind of normal.
For Huston and his colleague, they’ve had to get creative when it comes to booking events. This might mean arranging tables outside under the portico or booking smaller “hybrid” conferences where half the attendees participate via web-based video platforms. Over the past year, Huston has put together special packages—a kayak package, a hiking package, a “staycation” package—that might appeal to the local traveler looking for a close-to-home, outdoorsy getaway.
“We’re not going to let COVID stop us from doing what we do,” Huston said. “I want to let people know that we’re still open for business.”
More than a year later, McGuire still hasn’t seen the place at its busiest, at its best. In January—a slow month in normal years—McGuire was anticipating the romance of February to bring some business back to Boone Tavern. “We see light at the end of the tunnel in February,” she said heading into the month. “We’ve got some good things going with Valentine’s Day. We’ve already got a lot of reservations on the books for Valentine’s weekend.”
Romance, it seems, will keep Boone Tavern afloat. For Huston, too, it’s suddenly wedding season as people who had cancelled their nuptials in 2020 are ready for vows in 2021. “Micro-weddings are a big trend right now,” Huston said. “Weddings are doing very well. That’s the one segment out of everything that seems to be really performing.”
Both McGuire and Huston expect things to operate a little differently well into 2022, as people reemerge into society vaccinated and eventually without masks. Until then, for Boone Tavern’s business, anyway, it seems love will save the day.