There’s no question the hospitality industry was one of the hardest hit by – and continues to feel the effects of – the pandemic. As of June, the American Hotel & Lodging Association reported $35.2 million total state and tax revenue loss from drop in hotel operations and occupancy in Rhode Island. But the impact extends far beyond the individual hotels and restaurants.
“I think people often forget the importance of a bustling downtown, especially in a state capital,” says Bradly VanDerStad, executive director at Providence Tour Company. “Downtown Providence is a reflection on the economic health of the rest of the city, and the rest of Rhode Island. It is often our first impression on students, convention guests, visiting politicians, tourists, and artists.”
VanDerStad is one of the co-founders of the Downtown Hospitality Group, an organization started by local business people this past summer. “We came together out of necessity,” says VanDerStad, who points out that there is no grassroots group representing the direct interest of downtown business owners. “This runs contrary to how people tend to think of downtown. The running perspective is that downtown gets all the resources and all the advocacy -– not quite!”
VanDerStad – alongside John Philippides (Yoleni’s), Louis and Ruth Ferrazzano (Murphy’s), David Bertolini (Providence Coal Fired Pizza, Union Station Brewery, Barnaby’s Public House), and Anthony Santurri (Free Play Bar Arcade) – banded together and crafted their mission: To build productive partnerships, amplify community voices, and advocate for a better business experience in Providence. The “better business experience” word choice is key, VanDerStad explains, because it’s holistic and includes owners, consumers, residents, and other stakeholders in the success of downtown. They collaborate with entities like the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau, Providence Foundation, and Downtown Improvement District, plus partner with the City Council and the Mayor’s office.
“Inherently, of course, business owners are busy,” VanDerStad acknowledges. “They need a group that can help find solutions to persistent problems and build strong relationships with changemakers at City Hall, without being too demanding of their time. That is our charge.”
The DHG already has a few successes under its belt, the first being a break on license fees. The group met with Mayor Elorza and explained that restaurants paying licensing fees based on diner capacity, which was then limited, were essentially paying for a license they couldn’t use. Elorza agreed to businesses paying installments on their licensing fees over a six-month period instead of a lump sum, leaving more cash in the accounts of struggling small businesses.
Most recently, the DHG also discussed a cap on restaurant fees to third-party delivery services like Grubhub, DoorDash, and UberEats. Previously, commission fees ran as high as 30 percent of the food order; as of this month (or shortly after) the cap will be lowered to 15 percent, putting thousands of dollars back into Providence restaurants.
These kinds of solution, says VanDerStand, represent the core of DHG, which understands that the City doesn’t have an endless supply of money, but also that there are easy ways for it to support the business community. Other initiatives in the works include more racks to accommodate biking downtown, better signage, and exploring ways to partner with the City for a shop local program.
“Groups like ours operate at the service delivery point, and have the indisputably most informed perspective on what city leaders need to do to support the local economy. Cities like Providence rise or fall depending on the strength of its grassroots institutions,” says VanDerStad, “and the DHG and others like it are essential to Providence’s success.” To learn more, visit DHGPVD.com.