Pittsburgh-area hotels find niche in oil, gas workers

To endear a hotel to the oil and gas crowd, give them a place to eat and sleep at all hours of the day, a place to wash their boots, a warm place to smoke in the winter and a cold beer once in a while.

So goes the formula developed by Tejas Gosai, president of the Washington, Pa.-based business Shale Hotel Inc. The company is managing two hotels geared toward oil and gas workers, building two others and preparing to turn the Monroeville Holiday Inn into an industry destination for workers summoned here by the Marcellus Shale, the natural gas deposit underlying much of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Gosai represents a group of four doctors, among them his father, who bought the 187-room Monroeville hotel in June. His goal is to replicate there what he has helped to do in Bentleyville — attract at least half of the guests from oil and gas fields.

The Gosais have been in the hotel business for a dozen years. Kam Gosai, a practicing physician in Washington County, co-owns the Holiday Inn Express and the Best Western Garden Inn in Bentleyville.

These hotels weren’t built for oil and gas workers. They’ve slowly shifted in that direction over the past several years.

Consider the food, which, seemingly, never stops.

Breakfast begins at 3 a.m. and guests rushing out the door to a job are given bags so they can toss in a breakfast burrito and be on their way. The early meal is served until 10:30 a.m.

At 1 p.m., soup and popcorn start in the lobby. Two hours later, another breakfast shift begins for those just waking up.

In the evenings, there are happy hours and wine, beer and cheese receptions. On occasion, there’s barbecue from Hog Father, an industry favorite.

Outside the hotels, Tejas Gosai has plopped a few heating lamps and winterized chairs to accommodate the smokers.

When he heard that a nearby hotel was asking rig workers to leave their mud-coated boots in the lobby, Mr. Gosai rebranded the Bentleyville Best Western as the “The Best Western Garden Inn where you can wear your boots.”

But he has also installed boot-washing stations outside, where workers returning from the field can hose off their gear.

Behind the scenes, the hotels’ operations have changed as well.

While at most hotels the housekeeping staff works a morning shift, at Mr. Gosai’s operations they work all hours with their shifts staggered to accommodate the workers’ unorthodox sleep schedules.

Then there’s the issue of bed bugs. It hasn’t been a problem, Mr. Gosai prefaced. But when serving a population that moves from one hotel to the next, he figures it’s only a matter of time.

Anticipating that, he required everyone on the housekeeping staff to take a course in bedbug inspection. And for good measure, he pays for monthly visits from a New York-based dog trained to smell bed bugs and ticks.

As the two older hotels adapt to the industry, the ones in progress are being created with it as the target. On Racetrack Road, an 86-room Studio 6 Extended Stay motel and a 79-room Microtel Suites and Inn by Wyndham are in staggered states of completion.

At the Studio 6, Mr. Gosai has sacrificed a guest room to build a mud room — a place where workers will be able to use their room key cards to open lockers, toss their work clothes in and step into the hotel with clean shoes.

According to Smith Travel Research Inc., a Nashville, Tenn.-based hotel consulting group, Washington County hotel occupancy rates have increased from the mid-50 percent level to the low 70 percent range between 2007 and 2013.

Major chains took notice. In 2011, Marriott created a website specifically for the oil and gas industry in the region — marcellusshalepahotels.com. The Shaner Hotel Group did the same with marcellusshalehotels.com.

John Casuccio, general manager at AIReS, a relocation company in Robinson, said the influx of Marcellus professionals in need of temporary housing has put pressure on extended stay hotels, and spillover from those, in turn, has driven up occupancy rates at regular hotels and motels.

“In that specific market, you’re in the fortunate position that your guests don’t have a lot of choice,” said Jan Freitag, senior vice president with Smith Travel Research. “For now, people are pretty happy to just have a room, period.”

Hotels start to differentiate themselves when they pay attention to the idiosyncratic needs of the industry, he said.

“What’s very crucial is, if they get off work at 8 a.m., that [their] room can be made completely dark,” he said. Hotels can even try assigning rooms to rig workers with their work schedules in mind. That way, people in adjacent rooms are asleep at the same times.

Southwestern Pennsylvania’s hospitality industry is peppered with nods to the oil and gas crowd.

The Bottleshop Cafe in Bridgeville stocks Texas beer and Tito’s vodka. Sometimes it tunes the TV to a Texas Rangers game.

At Palazzo 1837 Ristorante in Washington — where shale mosaics decorate the walls — there’s a drink named the Marcellus Shale. It’s cloudy, like frac water, but tastes like orange liqueur and bourbon.

Mr. Gosai, too, plans to dream up oil and gas drinks for the Monroeville Holiday Inn’s bar. He’s thinking “Shale shots.”

At the moment, the Monroeville hotel isn’t an oil and gas destination. It’s also not in a heavy drilling area.

But it has good highway access and it’s a safe bet the venue will be used by one of Mr. Gosai’s other businesses, like Washington, Pa.-based Shale Media Group, which runs several news aggregation websites, does marketing and public relations, and puts on a monthly energy networking events.

“We’re still figuring out what we have to do [in Monroeville],” he said, but the plan is to recreate the Washington County model there and anywhere else that his hotel interests intersect with oil and gas.

“I don’t think of hotels as a business. I think of them as a science,” Mr. Gosai said. “If you put up a bird feeder, as long as you just put some food in there, birds are going go in there.”