Suitcases being wheeled, cell phones ringing, interspersed by the voices of guests arriving and departing — that’s probably what it would be like at the Novotel at Berlin’s Tiergarten these days if it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic. These days, with Germany in lockdown, the 274-bed hotel is as good as empty. The spacious lobby with its light-colored marble floor is deserted, and only one employee can be seen, sitting alone at the reception desk. Because of the hygiene regulations in force, she is sitting behind a plexiglass screen. 

“At first, it was very, very strange that it was suddenly so quiet here,” says Sebastian Loelf, the hotel’s deputy director. Otherwise, the hotel is usually quite busy, even during the winter, he says. Most of the guests here are on business trips — they are visiting trade fairs or coming for professional meetings. Business people can still stay at the hotel now. However, there are not many of them who travel for work during the pandemic.

An empty lobby at the Novotel in Berlin Tiergarten

These days, there are hardly any guests to be seen at the Novotel in Berlin’s Tiergarten district

Hotels suffer dramatic loss of revenue

Loelf does not want to say more precisely by what percentage the occupancy rate of the hotel has decreased during the COVID crisis. On the whole, however,it will be similar to the situation everywhere in Berlin. According to the Hotel and Restaurant Association, the sector has suffered massively. Sales per available room — an important factor in the hotel industry — fell by almost 80% between the beginning of the pandemic last March and the end of the year.

To generate some extra income, some hotels offer “home office in the hotel” — the Novotel am Tiergarten also does this. People can then rent a room for the day to work in at a reduced price. For example, if they can’t find peace and quiet at home because their children are attending school remotely. Without naming specific figures, Loelf says that the daily hotel office rental option “has been well received.”

Novotel in Berlin Tiergarten assistant manager Sebastian Loelf standing in the hotel bar area

“We are working on new business models,” says Sebastian Loelf from the Novotel in Berlin Tiergarten

Search for new sources of revenue

The Hotel Oderberger in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin has now scrapped its home office offer. During the first lockdown, individual rooms were rented out for work, says hotel manager Tini Diekmann, but the proprietors quickly discovered that the model was not cost-effective. Neither did the handful of business travelers who came. Since the hotels had to close again at the beginning of November, the boutique hotel has therefore been completely closed.

Tini Diekman still is here every day, because even when the house is empty, there’s plenty to do. “We are using the time for digitalization and diversification,” including a cloud-based reservation system and expanding booking options for guests. In addition, he says, a voucher tool is currently being established for the hotel. Guests can use it to purchase vouchers for the period after the lockdown — for overnight stays or visits to the hotel’s historic swimming pool.

Germany Berlin | coronavirus lockdown Berlin Hotels | Historic swimming pool at the Hotel Oderberger

The historic swimming pool of the former public baths is now part of the Hotel Oderberger

Long wait for relief funds

The listed building from 1902 was once a grand public bathhouse — and has been home to the Oderberg Hotel for five years. The hotel attracted many guests even before the pandemic — and will do so again afterwards, Diekmann is firmly convinced: “We have to battle our way through this now, but we will get back on our feet.” As long as there is no swimming, the old bath is also frequently booked for photo shoots. That also brings in a little money.

The aid that the government had announced for the industry, on the other hand, has been a long time coming. According to a recent survey by the Hotel and Restaurant Association, just over 60% of businesses have received a November round of promised governmental financial support and not even 25% have received the December round. A quarter of such enterprises are considering insolvency, according to the association. The need is large and the waiting is also grinding them down. Like so many others, The Oderberger Hotel has also only received some of the promised aid. 

Hotel manager Tini Diekmann from the Hotel Oderberger in Berlin

Tini Diekmann from the Hotel Oderberger is confident: “We will somehow also manage to survive the second lockdown”

No prospect of opening in sight

The Sunflower Hostel in the Friedrichshain district was more fortunate — the November money has already arrived. Which nevertheless does not mean that there is any relief here. “We’re running on fumes,” says managing director Robert Sievers. He and some partners built up the 180-bed establishment 20 years ago. It’s on the edge of the party mile Warschauer Strasse and — a big plus — within walking distance of Berlin’s most legendary club, Berghain. There’s no question that the hostel was popular before the pandemic hit. 

As at the Novotel am Tiergarten and the Oderberger Hotel, most of the employees are working reduced hours. However, the business is still open — not to young travelers as in the past, but to long-term guests. People who are looking for accommodation have a burst water pipe or need a place to stay temporarily for other non-touristic reasons. What annoys Sievers most at the moment is the unclear prospects — that there seems to be no end to the lockdown.

Germany Berlin | coronavirus lockdown in Berlin Hotels | Interior of Sunflower Hostel reception and bar area

Most employees at the Sunflower Hostel are also currently on reduced working hours

The desire for a trip to Berlin will return

But Sievers believes that when travel is possible again, tourists will quickly return. There is a bigger question mark over the future of business travel, however, because digital conferences have long since established themselves as an alternative. Sebastian Loelf, from the Novotel in Tiergarten, is well aware of this and is already working on new concepts. However, he believes that city trips will continue to be in demand in the future. Tini Diekmann from the Hotel Oderberger also expects that people will once again have a desire for the lively big city of Berlin after the crisis. “People will simply have had enough of going on walks.”