Hotel stays, as we know it, will take a long time to return

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Goodbye, buffet breakfasts and bellhop service. Hello, temperature screening and check-in without a key.

Although pandemic-era policies are still being implemented at hotels across the globe and will undoubtedly differ widely, it is safe to assume that the next time you check in anywhere, you are likely to see major changes.

Evident changes

Hotel stays are likely to be a stripped-down affair for the foreseeable future, until a vaccine, widely effective treatment or instant testing for coronavirus is available, particularly in higher-end hotels where personalized service and amenities have long been part of the draw, experts say.

In hotels, there may be less communal access, “so no buffets, no minibars,” and many of the “high-touch elements of luxury” could be suspended, such as spa treatments and bellhop and valet service.

Guests would like check-in and checkout keyless and contactless and few personalized interactions. “We’re going to want to strip those away and basically walk into the hotel, go up the elevator by yourself, enter your room without having to touch anything with some comfort that the service provider has completely disinfected that space prior to my arrival,” clarify experts.

As demand creeps up, the hotel industry is trying to reassure potential guests that they’ve put additional measures in place to protect against coronavirus transmission as countries start to reopen.

Hygiene – top priority

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Hygiene will be of utmost importance. Hotel associations have released guidelines for the industry while hotels themselves are coming up with innovative ways to ensure the safety of guests. For instance, the American hospitality giant Hilton Group is exploring the use of electrostatic sprayers which uniformly mist disinfectant across wide areas and ultraviolet light to sanitize surfaces and objects.

Marriott has already announced that it will use electrostatic sprayers to clean guest rooms and public areas and is testing ultraviolet light technology. Marriott and other brands will also be removing furniture and reconfiguring many areas to facilitate the six-foot social distancing space prescribed by health officials. The brand is considering acrylic glass barriers at front desks to separate guests and hotel staff.

Guests in more than 3,200 Marriott hotels worldwide can use their phones to check in, access their rooms and order specially packaged room service delivered to their door without contact.

Masks and gloves for staff will be ubiquitous at all hotels and hand sanitizer while disinfectant wipes will be the latest additions to public spaces and personal care amenity kits.

The six-foot rule

Many hotels underline the six-foot rule of social distancing with markings to indicate proper spacing at front desks, in elevator lobbies, coffee shops, entertainment venues and more. Employees will use every other workstation to properly distance and slot machines, restaurant tables, pool loungers and more have been spaced to comply with the rule. No more than 4 guests will be allowed in an elevator at a time.

Screening guests

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Temperature screening for guests and employees is one line of defense in detecting possible infection, but it’s unclear how widely it will be implemented in hotels.

Thermal scanners could be placed at every entry point “allowing discreet and noninvasive temperature checks”. Other measures suggested by industry experts include a single point of entry for everyone where each person’s temperature is checked and questions are asked by nurses staffing the entry 24 hours a day.

But asymptomatic transmission means that strict social distancing is also required, and experts predict that best practices in screening at hotels could evolve with the availability of rapid diagnostic testing.

Longer turnaround time

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Rudy Tauscher, general manager at the luxury hotel and resort chain Four Seasons, has been at the forefront of that hotel’s hosting of health care workers. He has been wondering how the traditional guest experience will change.

“Is there a different time, for instance, between check-in and checkout? Very often hotels have a turnaround where you check out in the morning and in the evening, the room is occupied again. Would there be an extended period of time of let’s say, 24 hours?”

Cost structures and operational models would have to be considered, he said. A cleaning protocol designed by International SOS involves leaving rooms empty for long periods between a series of cleanings to make sure that any contamination is eliminated. Social distancing measures, reduced capacity public spaces and redesigned restaurants, bars and fitness facilities are among the changes that the International SOS proposes.

The COVID-19 upgrade

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Many of the public spaces and amenities of a hotel would require an upgrade for the age of coronavirus.

Room service may be maintained, since there is more control over who touches what but buffets are definitely a no-go. In the near future, prewrapped, grab-and-go offerings are likely to be the alternative.

High-touch public areas such as spas and gyms, where it’s also difficult to social distance,  pose a “really, really high risk for transmission,” with lots of handles and doorknobs that would need very attentive cleaning.

These new measures will certainly affect hotel owners’ out-of-pocket costs, experts predict, but whether guests will see those costs in room rates is unclear. Yet it is very evident that hotels have a huge responsibility ahead and they are going to great lengths to reassure guests. How quickly that confidence returns remains to be seen.