By Kaitlin Dunn, Writer, Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI)
Lauren Witt, catering and conference services manager at MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, is getting back into the swing of things, having returned to work at the beginning of July after being furloughed for several months. Witt recently shared with HSMAI her experience coming back to work and readjusting to the new normal.
What has changed the most since you have returned?
Right now, most of our sales and catering team isn’t back yet — so far, it is me, the directors who have been working throughout the pandemic, and one sales manager. None of our administrative assistants are back yet, so part of the reason that I came back this soon was to handle some of their duties, since I have experience with multiple systems. It’s a lot quieter since there aren’t as many people here.
Right now, the phones are relatively quiet, so I’ve done a lot of catching up with groups who are rebooking for the future and confirming existing bookings for later in the year. I haven’t gone to the cafeteria or around the building as much, because I’m pregnant and just feel more comfortable staying in my own office. We have cubicles, but I’m the only one here right now. When more people come back, they plan to put up plexiglass as a barrier between us.
What new safety measures have been put into place at your property?
On the employee side, MGM has done a lot to make sure that we stay safe. Everyone is required to come in one entrance and get their temperature checked before they enter.
In the casino, they have added plexiglass to separate people at the gaming tables as well as adding handwashing stations, hand sanitizer, and sanitization wipes all over the casino floor. The slot machines, tables, and chairs are being wiped constantly as well as sanitizing dice and chips.
In the hotel, we have mobile check-in, and the front desk has plexiglass if guests do need to speak to someone there. We are also temperature-checking guests as they go through the check-in process. We’re trying to create safer interactions. We’re even giving out welcome packets with masks and stylus pens for guests, and we have been cleaning everything more frequently.
What has surprised you the most about this experience?
I was really surprised by how few people realized that non-restaurant businesses were going to be affected by furloughs and closings. In the beginning, there was a lot of concern for restaurant employees, and I think it’s because people saw restaurants that they go to closing or moving to pick-up only, but they didn’t think about how many housekeepers or banquet servers weren’t working because hotels weren’t full, or how many different vendors — AV production companies, parking/valet companies, florists, photographers, etc. — were affected because of closures and events not happening. Restaurants were definitely hit and hit hard, but they aren’t the only piece of hospitality. If you’re not in hospitality, I don’t think everyone realizes how far-reaching it actually is.
Does it seem like things are trending in a positive direction for your property?
I feel like it’s been back and forth. Maryland and Virginia were trending in a good direction as far as numbers, but with other states going the opposite direction, the numbers are going up again and many visitors from other states can’t come and go without quarantining, which makes it hard for planners to want to organize a meeting.
We have a few groups that are scheduled for the end of the year that are waiting to see, but overall, not a lot of people are going through with bookings for 2020. I’ve booked a small meeting for November, with less than 50 people, and we’ve had other small events book, which is what we’re targeting at this time. I’ve had a few people reach out for similar small events, but I think after seeing what’s going on, they’re postponing. People are feeling that having large events is just not possible right now. 2021 and 2022, however, are well above pace!
What has been the most challenging part of ramping back up?
Not knowing what’s going to happen. We have holiday parties in December, so do we reach out now or do we wait until closer to then? It’s a balance of reaching out far enough in advance that they can adjust their plans, but not so far that they can’t make a decision.
When you talk to people, you have to be understanding of their concerns, because we don’t want them to come if they are scared or won’t be successful, but we do want people to come back and start meeting again, so it’s a balance between being understanding but still bringing in business.
Do you see things ever going back to “normal”?
I don’t think it will ever be 100-percent the same as before, because I think some of the changes that have been made will stick around. For example, my director had a meeting with F&B and talked about adding plexiglass to registration tables and setting up buffets to make them less do-it-yourself for guests. I do think things like this will stick around to keep hygienics up, but eventually, people will come back to meetings.
Have you seen anything positive come out of this?
People seem to be caring more about other people. I’ve noticed it here and out in the world in general. There are also people that are the opposite, but as a whole, people are trying to be more empathetic toward one another, and I hope that sticks around after everything dies down.