The travel industry at large has to confront the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, developing innovative ways to come back online during a time when social distancing is paramount.
Hotels have had to reassess practices – even signature hospitality amenities like breakfast buffets – and guarantee new levels on cleanliness in rooms, lobbies, spas, and restaurants in order to drive consumer confidence.
Since the pandemic has brought leisure travel to a standstill in March, hotels are now looking toward recovery, and what exactly that looks like in a post-coronavirus world. How to handle room service, luggage deliveries, buffets and more all have to be reimagined. That can be a particular challenge for certain brands or sectors, like the midscale economy brands that serve continental breakfast.
“Social distancing is a new term in our culture, and we can expect hotels to support the concept of social distancing by altering the gathering spots on their properties,” Dr. Alan Fyall, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs within the College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida, told Travel Market Report. “Expect redesign of queuing areas to allow guests to maintain an appropriate distance from one another. Self-service areas like continental breakfast bars will likely be staffed with servers to reduce possible contamination.”
Hotel occupancy in the U.S. plunged 70% from the prior year to a mere 21% for the week of April 5-11, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA). The lodging sector is on pace to lose $500 million in room revenue per day.
Certain markets are starting to slowly come back, such as Florida and Georgia. Industry leaders expect that as demand slowly returns, it will be first with the drive market, feeling more comfortable in their own cars than airplanes.
The new normal
Hoteliers will have to reassure their guests by implementing specific guidelines and procedures. Large hotel chains have put out their own versions of new cleaning and safety protocols, but they all contain to some degree heightened cleaning precautions, mandated distances, and requiring employees to wear protective face masks.
“In the short term, traveler behavior will be guided by multiple factors, including safety standards, reservation flexibility, drive-market accessibility and wide-open spaces,” said Matt Owen, Vice President of Communications for Salamander Hotels & Resorts.
“The entire hotel industry has had to pivot and adjust to new health guidelines, especially with regard to physical distancing,” he said, adding “at Salamander we’ve re-written an enormous amount of standard operating procedures.”
Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas, for example, has proposed using thermal cameras at entrances and testing guests who register a body temperature of more than 100 degrees in a private area. To encourage social distancing, restaurant tables and slot machines will be spread out.
Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson said guests should expect a new hotel experience at least until a coronavirus vaccine emerges. “I think in the early stages, so think maybe the next year or so before we have a vaccine, there will be clear operating implications in the need to protect associates and the need to protect guests,” Sorenson said on Bloomberg’s Leadership Live with David Rubenstein.
New technologies will come into play.
Marriott is testing ultraviolet light for sanitizing keys for guests and devices shared by associates, and using electrostatic sprayers with hospital-grade disinfectant to sanitize surfaces in guest rooms, lobbies, gyms and other public areas.
For its program, Hilton partnered with the company behind Lysol, Reckitt Benckiser, to develop new standards. Hyatt’s plan involves an accreditation program, which can assure guests upon entrance that the property is sanitary and safe.
New policies and procedures will also be used to reduce personal contact with hotel staff whenever possible, Dr. Fyall said. “In this area, technological solutions will likely change service delivery. Locking systems already exist, which allow guests to use their smartphones as room keys. Apps on these same smartphones support the possibility of remote check-in and remote ordering.”
Hilton has said it will expand Digital Key capabilities to include common doors and other access points. Hilton guests can already check-in and access their room key on their apps, eliminating the need to stand online at the hotel’s front desk.
As part of its program, Best Western Hotels & Resorts will remove all unnecessary items from guest rooms including decorative pillows, bed scarves, paper notepads, and pens.
The luxury segment may provide travelers with some added securities, as no stone is left unturned. Additionally, high-end suppliers, from hotels to cruises, already provide more space for guests.
“Following this period of social distancing, hoteliers need to take into account that travelers’ behaviors will be forever changed and I expect consumers to seek out more off the beaten path experiences, private accommodations and adventure activities where they are able to be outdoors and surrounded by open air,” said Hans Pfister, president and co-owner of the Cayuga Collection.
Valuing the travel agent distribution channel
Times of crisis lend itself to change.
If it’s one thing the hospitality industry can do during this time, it is to reevaluate their core business and what kind of distribution they want to have.
“Our advisors are the ones that got people home when there was a travel ban,” yet the OTAs have been valued by suppliers in recent years, said Samantha Jones, senior vice president of hotel programs at TRAVELSAVERS. “The agency community has been undervalued and now is the time to reexamine that.”
As weary travelers dip their toes back into travel, it is advisors that are going to instill that confidence in booking their next vacation. The hospitality industry should hold advisors in such regard.
Jones also noted that travel advisors “are the ones delivering the customers,” who often end up being repeat guests, compared to the one-time bargain hunters on Expedia or other OTAs.