Dieter Schmitz, regional general manager of Riggs Washington DC, recalls the dark days following the announcement of the nationwide business shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This meant Riggs was forced to close its doors just six weeks after opening them for the first time on February 2. Schmitz described for LODGING how the brand-new property responded—both initially and as time went by, how the experience impacted him and the Riggs team members, and why he continues to love the industry he fell for as a 15-year-old pool and beach attendant at the Surf & Sand in Laguna Beach.
Schmitz says it is the teamwork required to bring hotels to life and the impact an empowered team can have on guests’ experiences that have ignited and sustained his passion for the industry during a career that included opening seven properties in Washington D.C., New York, and Southern California.
He calls being among the first hotels to shut down amid the pandemic “the most painful experience of my life” mainly because it meant parting ways with “the amazing team members who executed our guest experience perfectly after months of hard work only to be forced to leave through no fault of their own.”
Fortunately, when Riggs reopened five months later on August 8, the property was able to retain the core of its opening team, who pulled together during these most difficult times with a grace and dedication Schmitz finds inspirational in a way that bodes well for the future. “Coming to work during these times was not easy for any of us, and it was a true sacrifice that I appreciate so very much every single day. We stayed engaged while remote; took the time to meet socially distanced, and were able to maintain our DNA. Knowing we were able to make it through that together cemented our belief that Riggs would be unbeatable for years to come.” In fact, Schmitz says, he attributes the team’s “commitment to personable excellence and the hotel” for moving its TripAdvisor ranking from last place to third in the D.C. market
Although Schmitz says the property has yet to reopen the hotel bar and meeting space, the team made what he calls “some fun discoveries in a sea of otherwise difficulties.” This included creating an outside cocktail so popular it’s likely to be permanent in the rooftop space and deck intended for meetings.
Schmitz says even while facing the continuing challenges of dealing with a pandemic, his pleasure in and faith in the industry have never wavered. “As I always tell everyone on our teams, this is an industry that rewards hard work and loyalty, and I believe that now more than ever.” He speaks, too, of the lifestyle it brings in terms of travel and relationships with teams and guests. “I have lived in some of the best cities in the U.S., made friends for life from my former teams, and that thrill of an elated guest still makes me just as happy as when I was hammering in umbrellas at age 15.”
Schmitz values what he has learned about adapting, appreciating the human spirit, and the challenge of leading through these difficult times, but like nearly everyone, he longs for the days when people can again enjoy traveling and gathering and when the industry he loves will bounce back—a day most likely to arrive with widespread vaccination. “I really believe it will be like shaking up a bottle of soda. The excitement of finally being able to have those adventures again will explode as people feel more comfortable being able to travel and gather like before.”
Schmitz expects to see the impact of this delayed gratification to be seen first among markets with strong leisure travel, then in more crowded city centers. However, he believes full recovery of group and corporate travel will be more difficult. “Now that companies have learned to meet remotely, they may try to alleviate that travel spend,” he says. Even so, he thinks even in the meeting spaces, many will choose to attend meetings in person for the same reasons they did before: “You can’t replace the power of person-to-person communication.”
Schmitz feels certain hospitality will rebound and those who serve it and are served by it will return with a profound sense of appreciation. “It may take a few years to get back to where we were, but when we do, I know no one in our industry will ever take that for granted again. We will be back as an industry, and I can’t wait to see that momentum build again,” he says.