Deep cleaning, co-living, kids’ games: Israeli hotels pivot to survive pandemic
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Deep cleaning, co-living, kids’ games: Israeli hotels pivot to survive pandemic

Mamilla, Hotel Montefiore and the Brown Hotels are working hard to figure out a way to keep the doors open as overseas tourist trade grinds to a halt

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Masks and hand sanitizer are now the norm at luxury hotel Mamilla in Jerusalem (Courtesy Mamilla Hotel)
Masks and hand sanitizer are now the norm at luxury hotel Mamilla in Jerusalem (Courtesy Mamilla Hotel)

It’s probable that the Piero Lissoni-designed lobby of the Mamilla Hotel, with its ultra modern aesthetic and untreated sheet steel staircase resembling a giant origami sculpture, has never been quite this quiet.

Then again, it’s only been about six weeks since the five-star hotel designed by Moshe Safdie reopened its doors after being forced to shutter because of the coronavirus pandemic.

With 20 percent occupancy in the 210 rooms spread out over approximately 15,400 square meters and eight stories — along with steep discounts for the luxury hotel (August rates of NIS 1850 per night, September rates of NIS 1550 midweek and NIS 1850 weekend) — this may be the best time to stay at Mamilla.

As long as you’ve got your mask on, that is.

“This is about going on vacation with a lot of rules, and that’s hard for Israelis,” said Orly Cohen, general manager at Mamilla. “We had to be very creative to see how to make it work.”

This summer, that included implementing a serious cleaning regimen.

The ultra modern lobby of Jerusalem’s Mamilla Hotel, which reopened July 1, 2020 after being closed for the coronavirus (Courtesy Mamilla Hotel)

Before reopening, the hotel staff created hygiene kits for each ultra-modern Mamilla guest room, including disposable masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, replaced glasses with plastic cups, limited the number of riders in each elevator and created a sanitation bar at each floor.

They also upped their room preparation routine, including carefully wiping down door, closet and window handles. Only senior managers can sign off on a room that’s been cleaned.

It’s housekeeping in the time of corona.

At Hotel Montefiore in Tel Aviv, where there are only 12 guest rooms and a popular restaurant on the first floor, manager Rhona Cartner has been pitching in on the extensive room cleanings.

“I’m often alone here these days, and it feels like you’re at my house,” said Cartner, who has worked at the hotel for eight years. “I’m here every day in this coronavirus phase, handling nearly everything, from reservations to yes, cleaning.”

The facade of the Hotel Montefiore in Tel Aviv, which has worked hard to pivot to coronavirus status in the summer of 2020 (Courtesy Montefiore)

Montefiore brought down prices from NIS 1580 ($464) a night to NIS 950 ($279) during the week, including breakfast (available as room service), and NIS 1330 ($390) on Thursday and Friday nights. There are also package deals, with overnights that can include dinner or a massage or both.

“We’re starting to understand that tourists won’t be coming back for a long time,” said Cartner. “We’re doing anything we can to leave it open and have people come and enjoy. This place has never been closed, ever. We’re always open, even on Yom Kippur.”

It’s all hands on deck at this jewel of a boutique hotel, located on a busy side street where buildings built in the Eclectic and Bauhaus architectural styles abound — including the Hotel Montefiore itself, built as a private residence in 1922 and repurposed by the R2M Hospitality Group. Each of the welcoming rooms include a wall of well-stocked bookshelves, leather club chairs, and classic black-and-white tiled bathrooms.

The hotel is still buzzing despite the coronavirus, with customers lining up for lunch at the restaurant, Herzl 16, which has been adjusted to accommodate fewer tables. There is extra outdoor dining space in the alleyway, which was previously used for valet parking — now, they’ve cleaned it up, thrown down rugs, and opened up umbrellas.

The Hotel Montefiore in Tel Aviv turned their parking lot into an outdoor dining space for their in-house restaurant during the coronavirus (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Guests have to sign a health declaration before reserving a table, and have their temperature taken upon entering the restaurant. All staff wear masks at all times.

It’s a similar coronavirus procedure at Mamilla, where every staff member is wearing a face covering.

Mamilla has also been flexible with its dining areas, utilizing the spacious Happy Fish restaurant for breakfast, using the outdoor Mamilla Rooftop restaurant for dinner.

“We’re trying to spread guests out as much as possible,” said Cohen.

No table is set before a guest sits down, in order to avoid having different guests accidentally touch one another’s dishes. Menus are printed out each day and handed out to each guest, and at breakfast, guests are asked to wear disposable gloves if they want to serve themselves from the ample buffet.

The dramatic, dark blue-tiled indoor pool is open, as is the rooftop sundeck, with its comfortable chaise lounges and panoramic views of Jerusalem.

The empty sundeck at the Mamilla Hotel, which reopened on July 1, and is slowly trying to access Israeli guests (Courtesy Mamilla Hotel)

“We’re doing well on weekends, and I think we’ll get to 50% occupancy in August,” said Cohen, who’s been planning packages with guest chefs and has been able to bring back a third of her staff. “Word of mouth brings guests, they’re our best ambassadors.”

Pivoting is the name of the game in the hotel business these days, at least for those hotels that have been able to reopen. Not all have tried or been successful. Mamilla’s next-door neighbor, the usually popular David Citadel, only reopened August 6, and stood quiet and dark until then.

The Brown Hotels collection, owned by hotelier Leon Avigad and his life and business partner, Nitzan Perry, and known for their chic, trendy urban properties, has been reeling from the effects of the coronavirus, which hit right as the hotel chain was growing from 15 to 21 hotels, including properties in Athens and Croatia.

“All of a sudden, we were at a total freeze,” said Avigad. “There’s no textbook to tell you what to do in this situation.”

Five months later, the chain has received no assistance from the government, said Avigad, and has 15 hotels to fill with guests. They went down from 600 staff members to 14 during the forced closure, but are now nearing 100 staff rehired for half of their hotels.

Leon Avigad of the Brown Hotels Collection pivoted several of his 15 hotels to accommodate tourism realities during the coronavirus, and turned one into a Tiktok hotel for parents and kids, with an Israeli Ninja space, among other activities (Courtesy Brown Hotels)

It’s a lot to worry about, and when Avigad couldn’t fall asleep one night, he created a spreadsheet matrix “to organize the balagan,” he said, using the Hebrew word for a chaotic mess.

He ranked each hotel according to relevance to the Israeli market, rent, length of contract, investment and debt, and the ranking ended up being pretty much the same as his gut instincts regarding each hotel.

He was thinking about which hotels Israeli guests would want to visit, and the different types of Israeli tourists, whether couples or families, traditional or funky, and in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Then he created their pivot products according to those instincts and factors.

“We created concepts that our guests would appreciate,” he said. “I was 100% into what the guests are able to pay and not what I need.”

Co-living has never been sweeter than during the coronavirus crisis, at the Dave Gordon Hotel from the Brown Collection (Courtesy Brown Hotel)

The first was co-living at the Dave Gordon hotel, where university students and younger types can now pay from NIS 3,200 a month for a short-term lease in a stylish space with great service.

“We’re not making any money, it’s just paying the rent for us, and in some cases, not even doing that,” said Avigad.

Another pivot is the Tiktok at the Brown Seaside Hotel, where a family of three gets a hotel room for NIS 650 a night with free activities for kids — teens, really — including gaming, Xbox, Nintendo, and Israeli Ninja. It’s also just meters from the Gordon Beach and includes breakfast from Arcaffe.

“It’s all good, we just need more guests,” said Avigad.

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