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117-year-old St. Francis Hotel hopes S.F. tourism rebounds this year: ‘I keep telling people to hang on’

117-year-old St. Francis Hotel hopes S.F. tourism rebounds this year: ‘I keep telling people to hang on’

San Francisco Chronicle
Heather Knight, February 18, 2021

Westin St. Francis general manager Jon Kimball stands in the empty ballroom of the hotel.
Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

The tourists packing the lobby to check into one of the hotel’s 1,200 rooms have almost entirely vanished. The locals visiting for a cocktail aren’t venturing out much these days. Nobody’s uttering that famous San Francisco phrase, “Meet me at the clock!” and finding their date for the evening at the hotel’s huge timepiece.

Wandering around the eerily empty St. Francis Hotel on San Francisco’s Union Square the other day sparked memories of a joyful, thriving city, but was also somewhat depressing.

The glass elevator had the same stunning views of the city skyline, but it was a lonely ride. To see one of the city’s oldest, most glamorous hotels looking like a ghost town — particularly on the top floor’s ballroom where nobody’s danced in a long time — was a reminder of how far San Francisco must travel to return to any semblance of normal.

And San Francisco can’t get back to its old self without its hotels, restaurants, museums and other attractions. While we hear a lot of fretting about the fate of San Francisco’s tech industry, it’s the tourism industry that brings in the most money and supports the most jobs. Or it used to before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the Before Times, more than 25 million people visited San Francisco each year, spending $10 billion. They supported more than 85,000 jobs and contributed more than $750 million in taxes to the city. Since the pandemic hit, at least 30,000 employees in the tourism sector are out of work. Hotels lost 90% of their bookings. Revenue plunged.

And that’s obvious with a tour of the St. Francis, where just 60 employees work now, down from 600 before the pandemic. There’s no longer a doorman, welcoming visitors day or night. Instead, the door is locked, and visitors can enter only from a hard-to-find entrance in the back. The cable cars aren’t clanging past. No taxi line forms out front. Union Square sits mostly empty save for its pigeons.

“I thought I had seen it all in this business,” said Jon Kimball, general manager for the Westin St. Francis on Powell Street. “We’ve been through fires and floods and strikes and everything else. I’m an eternal optimist, and I keep telling people to hang on. But it’s been forever.”

He often stops to check out the lobby’s glass display case featuring memorabilia from the 1906 earthquake. The Crocker family spent $2.5 million to build the hotel two years before, part of its vision of transforming San Francisco into “The Paris of the West.” The hotel weathered the quake, but was gutted by the subsequent fires. It reopened 19 months later.

“I’ll glance at this, and I’ll think, ‘Jon, they got through the earthquake. We can get through the pandemic,’” Kimball said.

Blady Domingo uses an electrostatic sprayer to disinfect the check-in counter of the Westin St. Francis hotel in San Francisco, Calif. Monday, February 1, 2021. The Westin St. Francis has seen a significant dip in visitors since the start of the pandemic, but employees have continued to work hard and enforce every safety protocol to ensure guests still visiting have a safe experience.
Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Kevin Carroll, executive director of the Hotel Council, said nearly all the city’s 215 tourist hotels are struggling. About 25 are housing homeless people in exchange for city payments. The city has purchased two, the Hotel Diva in the Tenderloin and the Granada Hotel in Lower Nob Hill, to convert into permanent supportive housing. More than 100 hotels have temporarily shut until the pandemic subsides, Carroll said.

And some, like the St. Francis, never closed their doors, in hopes of being ready to accommodate tourists as soon as they return.

Carroll said the tourism recovery will come in waves, but isn’t expected to fully recover until 2024. Conventions, he said, will be the last to come back.

“This industry is critical to the city,” Carroll said. “Our jobs can’t be exported. You can’t move a hotel to another city. When we can get back to work and get people in hotels, it’ll help everyone around us and especially the citizens of San Francisco.”

The St. Francis has sometimes seen as few as 10 rooms occupied during the pandemic, mostly by pilots and flight attendants passing through SFO and major-league baseball teams squaring off against the San Francisco Giants.

“There are sometimes more staff than guests,” Kimball said, noting that employees spend most of their time obsessively cleaning.

Nu Vong, a housekeeper for the past 32 years, waits to clean a room on the 32nd floor of the hotel overlooking San Francisco’s Union Square.
Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

On the day I visited, Nu Vong, a hotel housekeeper for 32 years, cleaned rooms. Asked what it’s been like to work inside a huge, empty hotel for nearly a year, she said, “Of course, no good. We want business to come back. A lot of my co-workers are not working.”

Tonette Yusuf staffed Caruso’s, the lobby restaurant, on her own. In her seven-hour shift, she might see just seven people. She keeps herself busy by “cleaning, organizing, sanitizing,” she said.

“I’m blessed that I’m working,” she said. “But I miss the hustle and bustle. We’re usually very, very busy. But there’s hope. The vaccine came already. All we need right now is patience. Patience is a virtue.”

And that patience is slowly paying off. The long weekend including Lunar New Year, Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day saw a pandemic record: 414 rooms filled, or about a third of the hotel. Kimball said the guests were all Bay Area residents who drove in for a change of scenery. He’s seeing bookings pick up through the spring, which he takes as a promising sign that local leisure travel is slowly returning.

Those who book rooms will pass by several historical displays about the hotel’s 117 years on their way to the front desk. Queen Elizabeth II visited. So did Shirley Temple. And every president since 1904 except for George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Asked if that’s because their politics were so misaligned with San Francisco’s, Kimball wisely declined to comment. He’s already envisioning a new display case of memorabilia for the lobby.

“I can’t help but think someday we will do a case of the hotel during the pandemic,” he said, noting masks, hand sanitizer, bleach and plastic dividers would be natural fits.

And someday, the hotel and Union Square will hopefully be as busy as ever. The cable cars will resume running. People will raise their cocktail glasses downtown to toast to life’s joys. And that hotel display box with masks and sanitizer will be just a glanced-at reminder that we prevailed.