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.

Mental Amusements Is a Global Hit!

media contact: David Perry & Associates, Inc. (415) 676-7007 / news@davidperry.com

Mental Amusements Is a Global Hit!

Live, Interactive, Online Show Starring Vinny DePonto
Draws International Audience

www.dezartperforms.org 

11 February 2021 – Palm Springs, CA:  From January 13 – 31, the world came to Palm Springs! As if by magic, the award-winning Dezart Performs (www.dezartperforms.org) extended its reach around the globe with its critically acclaimed virtual online interactive production of Vinny Ponto’s Mental Amusements.  Delighted audience members tuned in and took part in real time from as far away as Australia, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Canada. In the US, cross country viewers watched from New York to Seattle, as well as many locally here in the Coachella Valley. Designed exclusively for the virtual stage as an interactive live-streamed event, Mental Amusements used a combination of psychological tricks, illusion, visual art, and immersive storytelling that astonished viewers with DePonto’s mind-boggling skills.

“The wonderfully clever and personal engagement between Front Row patrons and Vinny was the closest thing to live theatre we’ve experienced in a long time. Until we can get back to in-person performances, this fit the bill,” said Dezart Performs Founding Artistic Director Michael Shaw noting that over 500 people tuned in for the unique and first-of-its-kind effort for the award winning ensemble.  “The performer, Vinny DePonto, was in New York, the stage manager was in Atlanta, and tech support was in Palm Springs.  So popular was the production that the show was extended. While we’re hopeful and anxious to soon get back to live, in person performances, this virtual experience was truly eye-opening. We’ve seen the present, and part of it’s on our screens and directly in our homes.”


“Last night, I saw the future of theater—the immediate future, at least—and it is bright and beautiful,” said V.J. Hume of The  Coachella Valley Independent. “Just like other unforeseen advances that have resulted from this pandemic, theatrical technology has been hard at work behind the scenes. The result? We can now stay home in comfort and watch a live production from New York! The show transformed us all into wonderstruck children, as he pulled out surprise after surprise, making us laugh and clap our hands and shake our heads in amazement. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I felt like that.”


So, what’s next?

“COVID has certainly forced us to be creative and nimble,” said Shaw,  who is already looking at options for another hybrid show to entertain Dezart Perform’s loyal, and now international, fan base. “As we said at the beginning of the pandemic, we’re still here and dreaming. Now, some of our dreams are showing us the way to new audiences and new ways of presenting theatre.”

Audience Reactions to Vinny DePonto’s Mental Amusements:
“Fun, inclusive, intriguing…still cannot figure it out. HOW DOES HE DO IT!?” –Tammy H.

“We loved it! Minds truly blown!” –Rachel and Dave

“The ‘grand finale’ was amazing!” –Barbara

“Crazy Incredible! Congratulations on an outstanding show! Vinny DePonto is absolutely spec-freakin-tacular!!!!” –Chet and Pamela

“Seriously – this was one of the most enjoyable things our family has done in all of quarantine! You will be SHOCKED and AMAZED! You will not be sorry!” 

–Annie and Matt

“It was a wonderful show!  Bill and I really enjoyed it and it was well worth the cost of admission.” –Joni

“Vinny was TRULY amazing and I haven’t stopped thinking about the show!!”

–Shannon

“Mental Amusements and its star, Vinny DePonto, provided a much-needed dose of wonder and joy.” –Vivian

Dezart Performs, one of the Coachella Valley’s preeminent theatre companies, recognizes that the performing arts enrich the life and culture of a community, promote greater understanding and provoke insightful discussion. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit theatre company, its mission is to provide an artistic home for bold and cutting–edge plays, creating an atmosphere of artistic growth for actors, writers, and directors who uniquely contribute to the diverse theatrical environment in the Coachella Valley.

Valencia Street Shared Spaces Continues February 5 – June 27

Media contact: David Perry & Associates, Inc. (415) 676-7007 / news@davidperry.com 

Valencia Street Shared Spaces Continues February 5 – June 27

Small Businesses Given Boost by Limiting Cars Weekends Beginning This Friday

“Valencia Lights Project” Raising Funds for Beautification Effort 

2 February 2021 – San Francisco, CA:  Buoyed by positive response from shop owners and residents alike the Valencia Corridor Merchants Association is leaping into an expanded version of the COVID-induced Shared Spaces Program. Beginning this Friday, February 5 and continuing through June 27, on weekends Valencia Street will become a pedestrian only area to encourage retail and outdoor socially distant dining options.  Cars will be prohibited during this period in the following blocks of Valencia: 16th to 17th; 18th to 19th; 20th to 21st during the following times: Fridays 5pm to 9pm; Saturdays 12pm – 9pm; Sundays 12pm – 4pm. Vehicular traffic on the cross streets will not be impacted. Additionally, over the next few weeks, funds are being raised for the Valencia Lights Project whereby LED ambient string lights will be installed along Valencia from 14th to 24th Streets.

“We’re so excited to do something lasting and bright for our neighborhood, our residents, and our merchants,” said Jonah Buffa, co-owner of Fellow Barber and President of the Valencia Corridor Merchants Association. “Lighting up Valencia from end to end, from 14th to 24th street, for years, maybe even decades to come, will bring a sense of community and warmth we all need this winter and beyond as we re-emerge as a City.”

To pay for the project, a GoFundMe campaign has been launched, having raised over $ 17,000 already with another $ 23,000 needed so as to install the lights by late March or early April. The campaign link is: https://www.tinyurl.com/valencialights

“I’m so excited that the community will be able to enjoy all of the glory of Valencia street shared spaces and the potential it has to save the small businesses on our precious corridor once again,” said Manny Yekutiel, owner of Mannys and Valencia Corridor Merchants Association Board Member. “We need the love now more than ever.”

“We see this as a way to bring light back to the street to clear away the darkness,” said Buffa. “This will help create jobs and support the economic recovery of this important commercial corridor in the City. “

The Valencia Corridor Merchants Association is a member-operated neighborhood association including merchants in and around the Valencia Corridor. Our mission is to cultivate and beautify the corridor for the benefit of visitors, residents and merchants. Additionally, we endeavor to combine our voices and views toward the goal of maintaining the unique identity and independent spirit of the neighborhood.

Pete Buttigieg Confirmed as Secretary of Transportation First Openly Gay Member of Presidential Cabinet Called “Historic and Smart” by BuildOUT California

Media Contact: David Perry & Associates, Inc. / news@davidperry.com / (415) 676-7007

Pete Buttigieg Confirmed as Secretary of Transportation
First Openly Gay Member of Presidential Cabinet Called
“Historic and Smart” by BuildOUT California

2 February 2021 – San Francisco, CA: Former Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg has been confirmed by the United States Senate in a bipartisan vote of 86 to 13 to be Secretary of Transportation, making him the first openly gay Cabinet member in United States History.  

“Mayor Pete, now Secretary Buttigieg, understands transportation at street level from his time heading up an American city,” stated Paul Pendergast, President and founder of BuildOUT California. “This is an appointment that is both historic and smart.”

About BuildOUT California:

BuildOUT California is the world’s first LGBT Industry Association dedicated to the sustainable growth of LGBT owned & certified businesses, and our allies, in the fields of Architecture, Engineering, Construction Services, Real Estate Development, and Related Industries. BuildOUT California’s efforts are directed toward advocacy at the regional, statewide and national levels, providing relevant technical assistance & training and delivering connections that lead to measurable business growth. BuildOUT California’s 21 Founders represent over 620 years of experience in the A&E/Construction industries. For more information, visit www.buildoutcalifornia.org

LYRIC Founder Carmen Vázquez Remembered as “Champion of Economic and Social Justice”

Media Contact:
DP&A, Inc. / David Perry / news@davidperry.com / (415) 676-7007

LYRIC Founder Carmen Vázquez
Remembered as “Champion of Economic and Social Justice”

Longtime LGBTQ Advocate & Activist
Died from COVID-19 January 27 in New York City

29 January 2021 – San Francisco:  Carmen Vázquez, who died on January 27 in New York City from complications due to COVID, is remembered as a “champion of social justice” for her work in helping found LYRIC (www.lyric.org) and creative “safes spaces and critical services for LGBTQ youth.” She was 72.

“LYRIC is deeply saddened by Carmen Vázquez’s passing. Carmen was one of the community leaders that founded LYRIC in 1988 to create safer spaces and provide critical services for LGBTQQ youth,” said a statement on behalf of the LYRIC staff and board.  “As a long-time LGBTQ activist and organizer, Carmen worked tirelessly to improve the lives of others.  We thank Carmen for her remarkable contributions to our community and the greater social justice movement.”

In addition to her work on behalf of LYRIC, Vázquez, a butch lesbian, was the founding director of the Women’s Building in San Francisco and the LGBT Health & Human Services Network, a coalition of over 55 organizations and groups in New York advocating for LGBTQ health and human services.

“Carmen was a tireless champion of economic and social justice,” said LYRIC Interim Executive Director Toni Newman. “Her death would always have been a great loss to our community. Coming now during COVID, and because of COVID, is yet another example of how marginalized communities are at risk from the current pandemic.”

LYRIC is a leader in the San Francisco Bay Area offering safe spaces, workforce development, healthcare navigation, individual counseling, and group-based community building to marginalized low-income LGBTQQ+ youth.  During the COVID-19 pandemic, LYRIC has continued its vital work for LGBTQQ youth in our community. LYRIC’s mission is to build community and inspire positive social change through education enhancement, career trainings, health promotion, and leadership development with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQQ) youth, their families, and allies of all races, classes, genders, and abilities. For more information and to make a donation, go to www.lyric.org