Life with COVID-19: Mountain Lake Lodge makes changes after heartbreaking closure in early spring

"It feels like it died," general manager, Heidi Stone described what the resort was like during the pandemic shutdown.
Published: Jul. 9, 2020 at 5:48 AM EDT
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GILES COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ) - Over the past three months, daily life during the pandemic has changed dramatically. Even now as states reopen and businesses bring employees back to work, many industries will not go back to their pre-COVID ways of operating.

The leisure and hospitality industries were among the hardest hit of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the national hotel industry has already lost $38 billion just in room revenue since the pandemic began in mid-February.

In fact, 86,821 hotel jobs were lost by the end of March just in the state of Virginia, according to AHLA.

“It was just devastating,” said Landon Howard, president of Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge.

He added southwest Virginia saw nearly a complete stop of travel.

“There was no one staying in the hotels, many of the hotels laid off a majority of their staff,” Howard said.

Mountain Lake Lodge in Giles County was no exception.

“Cancel. Cancel. Cancel. Cancel.”

General Manager Heidi Stone said the thriving resort became a ghost town overnight.

“To see it disappear right before your eyes, it feels like it died,” she said.

The sight was hard to comprehend.

“This place is meant to have people in it,” Stone smiled. “You know, it’s meant to be alive. When you’re here, it’s like a living, breathing... it’s just heavenly.”

By Memorial Day weekend though, heaven had returned to earth.

“It seemed like we kind of went from zero to 100 miles per hour overnight,” she laughed.

Stone showed WDBJ7′s Katey Roshetko around the property, 2600 acres of beautiful mountain landscape. She explained how they’ve had to adjust in this COVID-19 world.

“In a resort like this, it’s all about bringing people together. It’s always about making connections.” Stone explained. “COVID is against everything we try to do in the hospitality industry.”

The staff at Mountain Lake adapted to the new way of life, putting out hand sanitizers, wearing masks, building Plexiglas barriers, and taking on extra cleaning.

Inside the lodge, Stone pointed out how different the dining room looks compared to the way it did pre-COVID.

“We’re at 50% occupancy. We literally took the 6-foot measuring tape and went between each table.”

She also said rooms have a 24-48 hour window between when housekeeping and new guests arrive.

But at a resort like this, there’s even more room to social distance between families.

“Over half of our accommodations are outdoor entry,” Stone said.

One thing Mountain Lake Lodge decided not to do is convert to key-less entry where guests get a code sent to their phone in order to avoid interacting with hotel staff.

“We didn’t feel like that was the experience we wanted to convey,” Stone said.

And it turns out that's the experience people want.

“They do want to see people with their dogs and their kids,” she smiled. “Everyone is just so happy, so happy to be here.”

So the hospitality industry in Virginia's Blue Ridge is starting to make a comeback.

“We’re hearing hotels now that are running 50-60% occupancy,” Howard said.

“We can’t keep up with the phone calls right now,” Stone laughed. “People are wanting to come, wanting to stay. They feel like they can come here safely.”

Proving that perhaps COVID-19 was about bringing people together all along.

When asked what was the biggest lesson stone has learned from the pandemic, she said with misty eyes, “People are resilient.”

Since reopening, Mountain Lake Lodge has run into a problem they didn’t expect. They don’t have anyone applying for open positions. Stone said they have about 20 to 25 various positions available, and is encouraging any one of the 40-million people without jobs in our country to come work at the lodge in beautiful Giles County.

Copyright 2020 WDBJ. All rights reserved.

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