I visited two high-end California hotels to compare their reopenings and felt completely safe at both. Here's how they're taking care of guests — and why I hope some of these measures stick around.

  • Freelance writer Molly O'Brien visited two hotels in vastly different geographic locations — Santa Monica's Hotel Casa del Mar and Hotel Cerro in San Luis Obispo county — to compare and contrast their reopenings.
  • While capacity and noise differed between the hotels, both had reopening plans with significant accommodations and enhanced safety protocols.
  • O'Brien says neither experience felt cleaner or safer than the other, and she felt "completely safe in both locations."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Across the United States, hospitality properties are reopening with increased safety measures and enhanced cleanliness protocols in order to protect their guests. In California, which has been one of the states hardest hit by COVID-19, the travel and hospitality industry has taken an especially hard blow. 

Now that travel restrictions are relaxing, I wanted to see how reopening looks at different California hotels. I visited Santa Monica's Hotel Casa del Mar, located in Los Angeles County, which has a population of approximately 10 million, and Hotel Cerro located on California's Central Coast in San Luis Obispo county, which has a population of just over 283,000. 

I wanted to experience these two hotels' reopenings, and compare and contrast how they differ based on the contrasting geographic locations and demographics of each property. Here's what I discovered. 

Hotel Casa del Mar, Santa Monica

Tourism is a significant contributor to the Santa Monica economy. In 2018, 8.4 million visitors came to Santa Monica (4.4 million of which were international visitors), which led to $1.93 billion in tourism revenue. When COVID-19 hit and travel essentially halted, the city's employment and tourism revenue were both enormously impacted. 

As soon as I pulled up at Hotel Casa del Mar, in sunny Santa Monica, California, I could feel that it was an ideal place for a relaxing escape from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding Angeleno lifestyle. The hotel emits a sort of a Mediterranan vibe, with beachy ocean design influences.

Self-parking and valet are both offered onsite, and I chose valet. Attendants greeted me wearing masks and gloves, and whisked away my car somewhere safe so I could focus on making the most of my stay. An attendant offered to take my bags, which I felt comfortable agreeing to, since he was wearing gloves and a mask. 

Upon entering the lobby, it was noticeable that the tables and couches had been arranged to accommodate social distancing regulations; there are signs on the tables letting guests know that indoor dining has temporarily been suspended due to current Los Angeles County safety guidelines.

There was a marker I was supposed to stand behind to provide six feet of space between me and the guest in front of me checking in. When I arrived at the check-in desk, there was a wall of glass between me and the woman who I spoke with, and everyone in the lobby was wearing a mask — both employees and guests. There were hand sanitizer dispensers distributed throughout the room on tables and next to doors.

The manager informed me that the hotel is currently sitting at about 40% occupancy, and most of the guests are locals that are looking for somewhere to relax and enjoy a staycation close to home (but closer to the beach). Casa del Mar offers 129 guest rooms and 16 suites, including three two-story penthouse suites — so it definitely isn't a problem to space out guests between rooms and floors.

When I explored the property, I felt like I was seeing cleaners and housekeeping service everywhere I went, and there were signs by the elevators directing guests to be respectful of a four person limit at one time. 

I was visiting on a Thursday, and it felt more relaxed than it might be on a weekend — but I could tell that capacity was lower than a normal September weekday. From my personal experience living and working in the city, there's no true "tourist season," because pre-COVID there are normally always people visiting Los Angeles from everywhere in the world. 

After checking out the room, which was extremely clean and well-organized, I explored the property's grounds and discovered that the pool is open and offering poolside food and beverage service until sunset. The hotel is spacing out each pool chair and covering them with towels that appeared to be replaced between each guest. 

The jacuzzi was understandably closed, as it's near impossible to abide by social distancing guidelines in such a small space. The fitness center is open, but only one guest room is allowed to use the space at a time, and they must book a time slot beforehand. The spa is temporarily closed.  

Luckily, this hotel is just steps from the Santa Monica pier, making it easy to stroll the boardwalk and explore the area without having to use any kind of rideshare or public transportation to enjoy the scenery and get some steps in.

Onsite restaurant Terraza is only offering al fresco dining at the moment, which hasn't seemed to be a problem for its guests, because it means listening to the sounds of the ocean and sitting closer to the sand. The other onsite restaurant, Catch, remains temporarily closed. 

The only challenge I anticipated with outdoor night time dining was being cold (living in SoCal has made me soft when it comes to internal temperature regulation), and it was an extremely windy September evening on the coast — but there were ample heat lamps protecting each table. Casa del Mar's director of food and beverage, Diego Ruiz De Porras, said the hotel is ordering more heat lamps as they'll continue to offer outdoor dining service as the local weather gets colder. 

When I arrived, there were again markers on the ground to space out guests waiting to check in for dinner. My server was wearing gloves and a mask and the restaurant was using paper menus that were replaced between each guest, or alternatively, QR codes via cell phone. The menu was still full-service, with more than enough choices for starters, entrees, drinks, and desserts, and items for diners of any age. 

I could tell it would be a peaceful night's rest at the hotel, because the lower occupancy rate meant that there were no noisy guests or outside disruptions.

The next morning I went for a walk along the boardwalk, which was just steps from one entrance of the hotel. You could tell that the others walking, biking, and running alongside me were Los Angeles locals, not tourists visiting from abroad.

Usually Santa Monica is filled with tourists all-year round because it's such a well-known international destination, but my experience at Casa del Mar provided a window into the slow but steady recovery of the Los Angeles travel industry — starting with local travel and staycations. 

Hotel Cerro, San Luis Obispo

Hotel Cerro is located in San Luis Obispo, which is about three hours north of Los Angeles, located on the heart of California's Central Coast. San Luis Obispo is a well-known destination for hiking, wine, and relaxing halfway between the bustle of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Tourism spending supports 13.3% of all jobs in San Luis Obispo County, which has traditionally hosted on average about 7.2 million visitors per year, and was growing until the pandemic's travel restrictions impacted the amount of travelers passing through town. 

Unlike Santa Monica's Hotel Casa del Mar which has been open for decades, Hotel Cerro just debuted in January of 2020 — and was almost immediately forced to shut down just weeks later due to COVID-19 safety regulations. 

Hotel Cerro reopened in June with enhanced safety protocols, to offer those traveling through the Central Coast or seeking an escape from city life in one of the most frequently named happiest cities in america. It's an intimately sized hotel, with just 65 rooms. 

When I pulled into the self-parking garage on a Wednesday evening, it was clear that this hotel was full of potential. Now that it's open, it seems to be a stop for locals and visitors to grab a bite to eat at the onsite restaurant Brasserie SLO, or enjoy a signature craft cocktail made from the onsite distillery or rooftop pool bar. 

Upon reaching the lobby, it was clear that this space hasn't seen as many visitors as an urban and historic property such as Hotel Casa del Mar; everything here was clean and new. There were at least four hand sanitizer dispensers just in the lobby, and I checked in using an iPad that was wiped down immediately after I returned it to the desk. 

I was surprised to learn the hotel has been consistently sitting near full capacity on the weekends since reopening in June. It seems many people are seeking relief from the crowded cities SLO sits in-between — SF and LA (it's a happy and relaxing medium for a weekend getaway) — but it does require more time, effort, and planning to get here than Santa Monica. 

This hotel is situated in the heart of downtown San Luis Obispo between Broad Street and Garden Street, making it a great homebase for exploring the shopping and dining experiences of SLO. 

This was exactly the case for the hotel's onsite restaurant Brasserie SLO, which is currently using paper menus, scrubbing the table down between each guest, and outfitting employees in surgical-style facemasks. Visitors can check out the hotel's onsite bakery, which is currently serving sweets at the hotel's restaurant, but has yet to officially open as a freestanding bake shop due to COVID-19 construction delays. 

The next morning, I toured the property and learned about the increased safety regulations at the pool, which is open with fewer chairs to sit in and face mask mandates. 

My tour guide showed me their events space, which is still hosting small, spaced out events that follow county safety guidelines — currently limiting gatherings to 10 people or less. Normally there's also valet, bell service, and room service, but this has been temporarily halted. 

San Luis Obispo is usually a quiet respite from busy city life, but was especially quiet this visit. San Luis Obispo is a college town, and the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students don't normally return to school for another week or so; this year, the students are returning to the area if they have classes that must be taken in-person such as a hands-on science lab, but they also have the option to learn completely remotely. 

My stay at Hotel Cerro was clean, and everyone I encountered was courteous and friendly. San Luis Obispo is definitely a relaxing getaway from busy city life, and this property's brand new amenities cleanliness enhanced protocol made it an enjoyable visit. 

Editor's note: The writer paid a media rate for her one-night stay at the property.

Ultimately, I felt safe at both hotels — and I hope cleanliness measures stick around

After visiting these two similarly marketed Californian boutique luxury hotels with vastly different geographic locations and visitor demographics, I can say that I felt completely safe at both locations. 

Neither experience — urban or rural — felt cleaner or safer than the other and both are adhering to extremely enhanced cleaning procedures. The service modifications are apparent, but the visitor experience still offers guests the chance to feel like they're on a relaxing vacation. 

The amount of disinfectant, hand sanitizer, and plexiglass barriers that were present in both these destinations was more than I've seen at any hotel in my entire life of traveling. My biggest takeaway from this experience is that I hope these cleanliness practices stick around in some form or another. For example, maybe in two years we won't need plexiglass barriers and facemasks — but we can certainly work towards better disinfecting the tables at onsite hotel restaurants between each guest. 

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