The unexpected marriage of hospitality and social distancing.
The new coronavirus is changing everything about how we live in the short-term, and maybe forever too. Travel won’t end, thank goodness—as Ariela Kiradjian, co-founder and COO of the Boutique Lifestyle Leaders Association, says “Travel is what brings our world together, it is how we learn about other cultures and is an important part in people’s lives.” But even though travel will resume, we should not plan for it to look the same. Here’s what to expect in the hotel world.
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Where We’ll Go First
We will go back to hotels, but travel won’t all start up again at the same time. “Certainly, the domestic market will be one of the first to rebound,” says Bill Heinecke, Chairman of Bangkok-based Minor Hotels, which has 540 properties in 55 countries. Remote hotels with lots of surrounding wilderness and fresh air will also be popular. And, for those who can afford it, hotel buyouts will bring a sense of security, whether it’s booking an entire island like Indonesia’s Bawah Reserve or perhaps all seven suites at Thotalagala, a Sri Lankan tea estate.
Lou Eppelsheimer of The Gant Aspen says: “People may feel more comfortable staying in condominium-style accommodations versus large hotels,” as guests can keep fairly isolated with their own kitchens and grocery delivery, such as Mexico’s Vivo Resorts and Grand Solmar Rancho San Lucas. Ultimately, each guest will likely want something different—some will think the personal and more adaptable service at smaller boutique properties is safer and others will want the reassurance of bigger hotels and their brand-wide policies.
Deep Discounts Are Unlikely, but Look Forward to Perks
Most hotels are offering unprecedented cancellation policies. While it might not be a good time to buy plane tickets, booking a hotel stay should come with less risk. Consumers understand that hotels are short of funds and need to pay their staff, but they’ll also remember inflexibility and when hotels seem to be managing their cash flow by holding onto guests’ deposits instead of offering full refunds.
Discounts targeted to specific markets—communities within driving distance, for instance—are likely. But experts say not to expect drastic rate cuts. Eppelsheimer, for example, says, “Hotels learned from the previous recession that rate dumping is not the most effective way to attract new customers. Creating experiences and adding value for the guest is the best way to beat the competition.”
Hotels see that perks are a better strategy to entice us to book. For example, Casa Palopó, a Relais & Châteaux hotel in Guatemala, has an offer that allows revenue to go to staff salaries until the hotel can re-open again—check out their Gift of Giving video to see the people you’d be helping. As a thank you for booking one night, Casa Palopó guests will receive a second night free as well as a relaxation massage. Hotels are also enhancing the flexibility of their loyalty programs, with some hitting the pause button on points expiry dates. Marriott Bonvoy has led the way, extending status earned in 2019 all the way until February 2022.
As Best Western’s President and CEO David Kong says, “Most travelers will be hyper-conscious of cleanliness and they will look for hotels that have stringent cleaning protocols in place.” Best Western is one, with the chain using UV sterilization wands via their 2012 “I Care Clean” program. Additional initiatives, like the Marriott Global Cleanliness Council, will reassure guests that COVID-19 concerns are being addressed.
Hotels will mimic cruise ships with hand sanitizer dispensers in every restaurant and public area. Proof of cleanliness will become more important too. Frances Kiradjian, founder and CEO of Boutique Lifestyle Leaders Association, speculates that new sanitization authorities may be borne out of the pandemic and may certify hotels, as restaurants already are in some jurisdictions.
Enhanced cleanliness is also spurring a trend toward minimalism. In the height of COVID-19, hotels are removing unnecessary items—decorative pillows, extra hangers—from rooms so there are fewer things that could potentially be contaminated and fewer items to clean. This could continue into the future with empty minibars and needing to request extras like robes, pillows, and blankets. Environmentalism will take a hit as hotels provide more single-use items and enclose items like coffee makers in plastic to reassure you that they’re clean.
Hotels hosting health care workers during the pandemic are taking on exceptional levels of cleanliness. As NBC reports, Four Seasons and Hilton properties allow rooms to sit empty for two or three days after a health care worker has used them. While that provides a level of assurance for both housekeeping staff and guests, it won’t be sustainable post-pandemic.
The Burrard is a boutique hotel across the street from a Vancouver, Canada hospital, and they welcome health care staff to pop in for a nap or shower. It’s been so welcomed that medical staff have burst into tears in the lobby and written letters saying “You have no idea how much of a burden you have lifted off my shoulders,” as the Globe and Mail reports. It’s given the hotel the opportunity to change its cleaning regime for the new realities of COVID-19, for example, by first disinfecting guest room doors before they even enter the room for cleaning.
While the pandemic is taking a serious hit on hotels’ bottom lines, many are taking advantage of the resulting low occupancy to tackle projects. To avoid laying off staff, hotels are focusing on renovations, redesigns of everything from procedures to menus to websites, and staff training and development. An example is the Kirkwood Collection’s Garden Street Inn in California’s San Luis Obispo, where staff suggested they do some of the planned renovations to the historic property rather than be furloughed. When hotels return to normal, guests are sure to notice refreshed looks and smoother operations.
Architects and designers are also thinking about hotel spaces of the future. The need for physical distancing will likely continue. This means, as Margaret Heng, Executive Director of the Singapore Hotel Association, describes, that “space becomes more important in hospitality design.” We can expect larger lobbies and restaurants, more elevators, and guest rooms that can better accommodate all of our activities from dining to working to exercising. And how about this for a cool idea: Haven Riviera Cancun has little cupboards so that room service can be dropped off and picked up without anyone entering your room.
Tech will be featured heavily, though it’s not cheap. Given our new germ paranoia, all businesses are trying to figure out how they can reduce touchpoints, minimize human contact, and enhance physical distancing. This is a challenge in hotels, where personal service is a point of pride and measure of hospitality.
Virtual check-ins and digital keys—using your phone to unlock the door to your guestroom—are two examples. Hilton is one brand encouraging guests to use both. Bonus: Your phone can’t demagnetize itself, which happens with many key cards! We’ll see more virtual concierges, such as Ivy, which is used at La Fonda on the Plaza, a Santa Fe historic hotel. Some hotels are implementing check-in via airport kiosk style terminals. But, we question whether it’s better to receive a key from a human being who you’ve seen use hand sanitizer or to touch kiosk screens when you don’t know how often they’ve been cleaned.
Temperature cameras, commonly seen in Asian airports, may become the norm. The Wynn Las Vegas is installing them (as well as discrete secondary screening) so that anyone with a temperature above 100 degrees Fahrenheit can’t enter. PathSpot is a device that scans hands in two seconds to verify if they’ve been washed properly. Several companies promote HVAC technologies to provide cleaner air, though no tests yet confirm whether they work with the virus that causes COVID-19.
You likely know that TV remotes are some of the dirtiest items in hotel rooms. Many hotels are already following Best Western’s lead by disinfecting and bagging them to show they’re clean. Using your own phone to control the tech in your room will become more popular. Viceroy Hotels & Resorts are already using Amazon Alexa in some properties and they’re expanding the use of Volara in-room smart speakers.
There’s also new tech being employed behind the scenes to help hotels use resources more effectively and to improve planning and decision-making. Will Seggos, of Australia’s View Hotels Group, says hotels need new systems to “help us identify guests’ preferences and track food and beverage inventory in real time.” More hotels will follow the lead of the Geronimo Hospitality Group by using ALICE. It’s an electronic platform that integrates staff and guest communications across departments, which means better service with greater physical distancing. Bonus: it eliminates the need for loud walkie-talkies.
New and Different Services
Hotels are changing their services in both the short and long-term. Aside from essential service workers, few of us are overnighting in hotels under lockdowns. Since offices, coffee shops, and co-working spaces are no-go zones right now, many hotels are offering reduced-rate day stays so that guests can get work done in a quiet space or host a virtual meeting.
Take-out meals from hotel restaurants are increasingly popular, and several hotels also created mini-markets to provide household essentials and pantry items to neighbors. The Hilton Pensacola Beach created a Butler’s Pantry food and butcher shop and even has an Instagram contest where locals can send photos of the meals they prepare. Every week someone wins a Chef’s Table dinner to be used once the restaurant reopens.
“Things will never go back to the way we worked before and we need to account for this,” says Heath Dhana of the Elewana Collection of safari lodges in Kenya and Tanzania. “We will still offer the same warm hospitality, but we are working on the changes that need to be made with how we physically interact with one another.” At safari lodges and other resorts where there’s a high level of service, as Dhana describes, “guests hug and embrace their guides; it is an integral part of our culture and heritage to engage with one another and this sadly will need to change.”
Staying on Guests’ Radar
Until travel can restart again, hotels are doing everything they can to stay on guests’ radar and offer a little bit of virtual vacation whenever they can. They’re inviting you to watch a Netflix documentary about your favorite destinations, show you how to make a local cocktail, or even, like Punta Mita in Riviera Nayarit, ship you a beachy 1,000-piece puzzle to help you stay occupied during lockdown. Or, via these Zoom backgrounds, you can pretend you’re relaxing in the Maldives’ Coco Bodu Hithi, Belize’s Cayo Espanto, or Bonaire’s Harbour Village. Or why not book an appointment for an online guided meditation, yoga session, or Ayurvedic consultation with the Inns of Aurora of New York’s Finger Lakes region?
Travelers Will Remember Properties That Stepped up and Helped
As we watch the pandemic take its toll on lives and livelihoods, many guests will look for hotels that made a conscious effort to help their staff and their local communities. That can mean properties that use their gardens to feed staff and provide baskets of food staples, as Playa Viva, an eco-boutique hotel on Mexico’s west coast, is doing. Or, like Secret Bay and Fort Young Hotel & Dive Resort in the Caribbean’s Dominica, supplying no-cost meals to those working to respond to COVID-19. Hotel Metropole Monte-Carlo donated their supplies of masks to Monaco’s health care workers and L.A.’s Hotel Figueroa donated perishables and meals to a women’s shelter. Many restaurants are participating in the international Dining Bonds Initiative—purchase a gift certificate now at a reduced rate and then use it at face value when the restaurant reopens post-crisis.
Value-conscious brands, such as Red Lion Hotels, with many highway and tertiary city properties, are keeping their hotels open to provide reduced-rate rooms for truck drivers, construction workers, law enforcement, and healthcare workers. When travel gets back to normal, we may most want to thank the hotels that became hospitals and that provided places for healthcare workers to rest and keep their families safe during the pandemic, for example through organizations like HospitalityHelps.org.