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Repurposing unused square footage to up the ante on experiential travel can give hotels the boost they need — especially during the off-season.

In high season, the drive for Bostonians heading to Cape Cod’s beaches and upscale resorts can take up to four hours. But in the off-season, those winding roads are just as barren as the trees.

Until now. 

At Pelham House Resort in Dennis Port, Massachusetts, 3,000 square feet of mostly unused ballroom space has been converted into an indoor curling rink. The only ice that’s required is that which clinks in the drinks coming out of the small bar, where birthday parties, bachelorettes, and families can grab a tipple or cocoa before trying their hand at the Olympic sport.

The $20,000 investment has not only inspired many guests to think about a summer stay once they’ve seen the property, said managing partner John McCarthy, but helped solve a twofold problem: bringing business back post-pandemic while giving the shoulder season a shot in the arm.

Across the U.S., hoteliers are joining McCarthy to up the ante on programming that repurposes the sunk cost of unused square footage while also satisfying the demand for innovative, experiential travel

In Newport, Rhode Island — famed for its beaches, sailing, and Tennis Hall of Fame — Gurney’s Resort & Marina transformed outdoor space that was formerly idle in wintertime into a skating rink for guests and the community. The experience is complete with outdoor dining and igloos that can be reserved in two-hour increments or rolled into a hotel stay skating package.

“We’ve all been watching Netflix on our couch for two years,” said Michael Nenner, Gurney’s Resorts executive vice president. “And you can sit by the pool with a book almost anywhere. We wanted to give guests the opportunity to activate themselves, to do something.”

While temporary pop-ups events like shops and art exhibits can attract new traffic and new attention, Nenner says guests are more likely to favor more active options over passive ones.

In the meantime, Seliece Womble, the director of marketing and public relations at the Houstonian Hotel and Spa in Texas, said using the 400-capacity Forest Ballroom for programming other than large gatherings helped achieve multiple goals. By converting the space into a theater for 26 couples who could unmask during an appropriately socially distant dinner service, the Houstonian was able to keep their employees working so it wouldn’t have to lose anyone who might obtain other employment while on furlough.

With minimal investment in getting the equipment to set up a movie night experience — each with its own theme — the Houstonian was also able to engage locals. 

“We pride ourselves on not only being an escape for some guests, but part of the local community,” said Womble. “We’re located right in the middle of Houston, and the campus is really part of the landscape here.”

Nenner also supports the approach of making programming open to residents whenever possible. “Newport had a skating center that closed and it was such an integral part of the community that we really did want to continue the tradition and be part of the fabric of Newport,” he said. 

Womble said that based on their success thinking outside the box, the Houstonian has added more interactive events in areas that were previously unused. Some of that programming includes gingerbread house construction events and fitness classes. 

The Houstonian isn’t the only property using its ballroom space creatively to fill a gap in guest or event bookings during the shoulder season. The Caribe Royale Orlando in Florida debuted its 50,000 square-foot Palms Ballroom in June 2021, and since then, hotel management has regularly converted the ballroom space into a live entertainment venue hosting boxing as part of a partnership with Entrobox and Bally Sports

The highest return on investment could ultimately be a one-two punch in the food and beverage space. Deer Path Inn converted what was unused patio space in chilly Lake Forest, Illinois into a limited-run ice bar complete with ice sculptures, fire pits and cozy chairs with blankets. The hotel generated an estimated $8,000 in beverage revenue in just 10 days. And the Sunset Sip n’ Stroll guided nature hikes with cocktails that the Houstonian launched mainly to adhere to social distancing guidelines have become so popular that Womble said it will continue the excursions seasonally.

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Tags: cape cod, experiences, future of lodging, hotels, orlando

Photo credit: Hotel ballrooms are increasingly becoming the site of many events. Gurney's

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