I stayed at a new hotel during the pandemic. Here's what it was like.

Shivani Vora for CNNPublished 16th June 2020
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Amagansett, New York (CNN) — In the best of circumstances, opening a hotel tends to be a stressful and money-draining endeavor for any owner, not to mention risky.
Opening a property in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, however, has the potential to unnerve even the most stouthearted businessperson, throwing well-laid plans into total upheaval.
Enter Sylvia Wong, who was preparing for a May 2020 opening of The Roundtree, her brand-new, 15-room property in the tony town of Amagansett, New York.
Located in the heart of the Hamptons, The Roundtree was well-situated for immediate success -- a new design-centric offering in one of the most expensive and chicest summer beach destinations.
"I was very worried about opening during a pandemic, but there was no choice except to go forward and bring my vision to life," she says.
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Owner Sylvia Wong on The Roundtree grounds on Long Island.
Courtesy The Roundtree Amagansett

Just do it

Wong's decision to continue with the debut is an especially bold move considering this is her first hotel venture.
Originally from Hong Kong and now living in New York, she's a partner at the investment firm WTI, which has long been involved in real estate deals. After several decades of traveling internationally for business and pleasure, she became more and more interested in opening her own hotel, although she wasn't set on where.
One day in spring of 2019, she was browsing real estate listings online and read about a hotel for sale in the Hamptons called Gansett Green Manor.
"Next thing I know, I took the [Hampton] Jitney from the city to the Hamptons to see the property that week and knew it was the place for me," says Wong. "It was like a hidden gem in a beautiful area." (The property was funded by WTI.)

Historical context

The Roundtree began accepting guests on June 1, a date when New York was still officially in lockdown and a month after its original intended opening.
Set on two acres of land about a mile from the beach, the property has a rich history dating back to the 17th century. The site was home to one of the founding families of Amagansett as well as a working farm.
Buildings represent the area's storied past, with a cottage that's more than 250 years old and a main building that's close to 125 years old.
Wong completely renovated the hotel while keeping the original buildings intact and gave it a new name.
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Plenty of open spaces make social distancing at The Roundtree a snap.
Courtesy The Roundtree Amagansett

Checking in

The Roundtree is the first hotel I have stayed in since February and the first time I have slept anywhere other than my Manhattan apartment since early March, before the pandemic. I wasn't sure of what to expect.
My trip to the Hamptons coincided with a weekend when outdoor dining was allowed again in its jurisdiction of Suffolk County, and most of the hotels in the area were open and in full swing for the summer season.
In fact, by Sunday of the same weekend, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, upon receiving thousands of complaints of social distance violations in the Hamptons, warned that he would shut down businesses that didn't play by the rules.
I saw people out and about, but most everyone wore masks, and tables at restaurants were spaced more than six feet apart.
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The 15 rooms are all accessed from the outdoors.
Courtesy The Roundtree Amagansett

Minor differences

My question going into the weekend was: How much different would my stay be compared with the hundreds of times I have stayed at hotels all over the world before?
Not so much, as it turned out. In a world where the phrase "the new normal" has become ubiquitous, it almost felt like the old normal.
The staff wore masks, and guests were required to do the same when they were inside. The manager took my temperature upon check-in, a mandatory step for all guests.
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The keychains are an example of The Roundtree's attention to detail
Courtesy The Roundtree Amagansett
Other than that, it was like a stay at an upscale boutique hotel with excellent service and an ambiance of being at a treasured friend's home who goes out of her way to be hospitable and has fantastic taste.

New protocols, homey touches

The aesthetic is minimalistic modern and includes plenty of contemporary art from Wong's global travels.
Plus, amenities such as the minibar, snacks, afternoon tea, evening S'mores, breakfast and laundry for beachwear are included in the room price, and guests get free use of bikes, beach chairs, umbrellas, beach toys and beach bags and towels. Luxurious, yes, but in an understated way.
But for Wong and her employees, offering high-touch service while adhering to protocols isn't quite as straightforward as my visit was.
"I had to make several changes to comply with the new health standards and social distancing restrictions," she says.
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Common indoor spaces are airy.
Courtesy The Roundtree Amagansett

The cost of doing business

Those changes meant more money: Wong won't disclose how much she spent on renovating The Roundtree (the property itself cost $6.1 million to buy) but says that adapting to protocols cost 15% more than her initial investment.
Take breakfast, for example. The morning meal was going to be a buffet where guests could help themselves, but a self-service buffet increases the risk of a potentially sick person infecting the food and thereby other guests.
Now, Wong has extra staff on her morning shift who bring items to tables. And instead of hiring a staff of eight, she had to hire 12. "We need more manpower to deal with the extra work involved," she says.
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You'll find clean lines and lots of bright light in the guestrooms at The Roundtree.
Courtesy The Roundtree Amagansett

Wash and go

Other changes include removable slipcovers on the couches in guest rooms that are washed after every check-out. Guests also have access to a mini Upang sterilizer that disinfects items that all of us commonly use such as pens, computers, phones and books.
In addition, the staff disinfects surfaces in guest rooms and in public areas frequently. They also clean bikes and beach gear including toys, umbrellas, chairs and bags after every guest use, which is labor intensive.
Wong planned to have a beach shed where guests borrow and return these items, but now, employees bring them upon request.

Spacial relations

There are a few aspects of the opening that have worked in Wong's favor.
The property's layout is a big boon for practicing social distancing, for one, because the 15 rooms are spread out among six buildings, and the entry for each room is on the outside -- guests don't ever have to walk in a hallway.
And since Wong's staff hadn't been trained yet, she didn't have to invest extra time and money to retrain them on hospitality in wake of Covid-19. "They learned about the hotel and health and safety protocols at the same time," she says.
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Private spaces abound around the property.
Courtesy The Roundtree Amagansett
If Wong had any doubts about whether people would want to stay in a hotel once lockdown restrictions eased, they're gone now. The property is almost fully booked through August with several of the stays spanning two weeks or more.
"It's shocking in a good way how great business has been," says Wong. "It has been my dream to open a hotel that had elements of all of my favorite hotels around the world, and to see it become a reality during a pandemic is that much more gratifying."