Hotel Casa in Amsterdam is normally open to regular hotel guests during the summer when the resident students leave or go on holiday. But the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 forced its management to adapt to a dramatically new situation as demand for hotel rooms dried up completely. Rising to the crisis, the operator developed a creative community management approach with the resident students staying on and helping to make a virtue out of necessity.
The idea four students had back in the 1950s to create Hotel Casa still stands out as brilliant today. In response to the huge demand for student housing at the time – which persists to this day - they developed what was then called Casa400, a mixed accommodation format where students who lived in the complex during the academic year made way in the summer for regular hotel guests. That strategy to maximise occupancy is still in place. Part of the Casa building is always in use as a hotel, and the additional income from the summer guests allows the operator to keep the student rooms at an affordable rental level during the academic year. But what happened when a global pandemic struck the Dutch capital, at the same time that a major refurbishment of the hotel was taking place? We spoke to community manager Fé la Porte and general manager Jeroen Diepeveen who said that 2020 produced numerous creative ideas despite being a very difficult year. And now social distancing restrictions have been eased in Amsterdam, it would appear that the worst is over.
How exceptional was 2020 for Hotel Casa?
Diepeveen: “Very. Demand for hotel rooms plummeted when the pandemic broke out and many students started asking themselves: what should they do now? We were asked a lot whether they could stay and we decided to let those who wanted to stay to keep their rooms over the summer. In our long history, this is only the second time this has happened.”
La Porte: “We sent out an e-mail with a reply link and we were overwhelmed by the positive response to our offer of staying at Casa during the summer. In the end, we were able to find a room for everybody. This was my third year working here and every year has been very different, including 2020. I am the first person to hold the community liaison officer role and connect daily with students. That is the most challenging, but also most rewarding part of my job.”
How did the lockdown impact the day-to-day running of Casa?
La Porte: “The entire events calendar was cancelled and all kinds of activities fell away. We put a lot of effort into communicating more frequently with the students and behind the scenes I was working more with the Student Housing Team. It was ‘all-hands-on-deck’ and also a very special time as so many of the students stayed on. We kept things buzzing with numerous online events.”
Diepeveen: “Our first priority of course was the health and safety of our guests and workers. The hotel section remained open for most of the time and the students stayed on, so we were able to avoid our own lockdown. But the general restrictions still had a huge impact. We immediately contacted Bouwinvest, among others, to agree on protocols so everybody could live and work safely in the building. Another factor we had to consider was the soft refurbishment scheduled for the student rooms. The plans had already been approved and after consultation we decided to go ahead with this. We also completed a major overhaul of the restaurant last year and were very pleased to realise our ambition of applying circular building principles aimed at reducing waste and recycling all kinds of materials. These days we also donate things students leave behind to charities so that they get a second lease on life. This is all exciting progress.”
La Porte: “During the pandemic a former student, who lived here a few years ago and had subsequently started studying psychology, offered to provide our student residents with special mentoring. He needed to collect points for his studies, but also saw it as way of helping others. A really kind gesture that shows the type of commitment some people feel for Casa.”
Let us return for a moment to the role of community liaison. Why did Casa choose to create this position?
La Porte: “We realised communication between the students themselves and between the students and Casa was suboptimal. Many of these people are young and some of them come from abroad, so often this is their first experience of a big city and studying at a university or college.”
Diepeveen: “It can be difficult to feel at home in this new environment and loneliness is a risk. On some floors there was too little interaction between the students, which can lead to people making a nuisance of themselves or creating a mess, because there’s little sense of shared responsibility. That's why we said: let's try and create a more conducive environment, a community where people give and take.”
La Porte: “We managed to do that with all kinds of connecting events, as well as by creating the Casa pub, which is now a household name in Amsterdam. We offer an open stage where people can act or perform and discovered there’s so much talent in this building. The great thing about this is we provide the facilities; the students do all the organisation themselves.”
Diepeveen: “We also work with ‘buddies’ who show newcomers the ropes. Students get to know each other much better that way and have a great first experience of Amsterdam. They also share that experience with others and become ambassadors for Casa.”
The past year was all about putting our heads down and surviving.
But more and more is possible now, thank goodness.Jeroen Diepeveen General Manager Casa
Summer 2021 has already arrived. What are the prospects?
Diepeveen: “The past year was all about putting our heads down and surviving. But more and more is possible now, thank goodness. We can start using our roof terrace, which is a great additional venue. The restaurant is open again and so is the breakfast buffet. These are all hopeful and positive signs. The hotel’s bookings are rising as well, which is a good thing since we make most of our revenue in the summer. We are fully operational with 518 rooms that can be booked for a period of up to four months.”
La Porte: “I'm already working hard on the events for the autumn, and we continue to monitor closely what the government has to say and any changes in policy. The well-being of our hotel guests and our students remains our top priority.”
Hotel Casa Amsterdam is part of the Bouwinvest Hotel Fund, which is managed on behalf of bpfBOUW, the pension fund for the Dutch construction sector. The Fund comprises a variety of hotel concepts, across different price categories. Bouwinvest had close contact with all of its commercial operators during the lockdown, Mireille Hermsen, Senior Asset Manager Hotel Investments, said.
"It is in both our interests that our operators get through this difficult period as well as possible. We worked together on solutions and, where we could, we offered a customised approach. We don’t only invest in bricks and mortar but also in places where people want to live and work. The well-being of our tenants contributes to the social return our investments make and this ultimately also benefits our financial returns. After all, a building without an occupier is not much use to us. I think the way Casa dealt with the corona crisis was exemplary and the initiatives it took in a very difficult period are testimony to its long-term vision. Casa is really the centre of a community and has succeeded in maintaining its occupancy level while keeping a close eye on the welfare of the students living there. These achievements will further reinforce Casa’s position as a household name in the Netherlands.”