Light at the End of the Tunnel
By Daniel Hostettler President & Managing Director, Ocean House Management | May 17, 2020
Here we are starting our third month of the Covid crisis, the biggest global event since the World Wars and certainly the most damaging blow to the hotel industry in the course of my 25-year career. North America has been particularly hard hit, shut down, and shrouded by a thick fog of tragedy, uncertainty and doubt.
But now, hopefully, that fog has begun to lift, allowing intermittent glimpses of the road ahead. I would like to share my four-pronged approach to mitigating the effects of the crisis and some thoughts about what the future has in store.
1. Staff Support
It might seem counterintuitive at this time of deep crisis, but the most important consideration for hoteliers, particularly those working in the luxury sector, must be to protect their hard-won reputation and brand. And that starts with protecting its most valuable asset: its staff. The hotels that rebound fastest after the crisis will be those that open undiminished, offering the same consistently high levels of service they always have.
Our goal at OHM has always been to be an employer of choice, with the ability to attract and retain the best staff. And, from the beginning, we have viewed the Covid crisis as an opportunity to further that reputation. When we closed our three properties, we were forced to furlough the majority of our staff, retaining only the core senior management team. But we have made sure that those managers furloughed receive all the benefits to which they were entitled plus a stipend that makes up the difference between unemployment benefits to their full wage.
2. Staff Engagement
Financial support is only part of the picture. To make our 250 staff members feel informed and engaged, we hold weekly Zoom meetings and encourage everyone to dial in. These calls detail the developing situation, outline what we expect to happen both in the near future and in a longer timeframe, and relay what progress the sales team is making with future bookings. For those who cannot attend the meeting, we record the call and post it on our staff website. And then we follow up with a weekly email that outlines the main points.
Beyond keeping open clear lines of communication we engage our staff in a number of creative and ever-changing ways. One program that gets a lot of positive feedback is our free haircutting service. Our hair salon opens two days a week and our resident hair stylist gives haircuts to anyone who wants one. Every weeknight we offer some other form of contact. Five nights a week our sommelier staff hosts a virtual happy-hour wine tasting. Two nights a week, Trisha Kennealy, the tireless owner of the Inn at Hastings Park, taps into her experience as a trained Cordon Bleu chef, and hosts a virtual family cooking show from her kitchen in Maine.
3. Community Care
Since no hotel exists in a vacuum, supporting its surrounding community is both an ethical and sound-business imperative. At OHM we take that responsibility very seriously. One of our current programs sends a food truck into the town of Westerly during the week to provide free meals to families. On Easter Sunday it went out with an Easter Bunny and fed 300 people. The truck is manned entirely by volunteers from the kitchen staff and other departments, including myself.
Every Easter Sunday, The Ocean House traditionally hosts a huge breakfast and lunch attended by guests and walk-in visitors from the neighboring area. This year we couldn't keep the tradition, so we did the next best thing: we made up lavish boxed lunches and took them out to guests as they sat in their cars. People loved it! We did 300 boxes.
4. Prepare for Reopening
One thing that surprises me is how many hotel executives are just sitting back passively and letting this crisis happen to them. At OHM we take the long view, seeing it as an opportunity to make changes and improvements and, most important of all, prepare to open at same peak level and with the same exacting standards we maintained in the days before Covid.
We understand that people are seeking safety, trust and flexibility from their travel destinations. We are fortunate to have such beautiful properties and settings. We hope to reopen our hospitality operations with a plan that puts the health and safety of our guests and associates first, including appropriate social distancing and sanitizing processes. We are targeting early summer for our Rhode Island properties including Ocean House, Weekapaug Inn and Watch Hill Inn, pending guidance from the State government and authorities.
We are consulting with leading authorities in health and epidemiology and are following CDC and state guidelines. As a result, we have developed a Covid Clean Plan with protocols in each of our departments.
The Ocean House, a Forbes 5-star resort in Rhode Island
The number one priority for Ocean House Management Collection is the health and safety of our guests and our associates. Our plan includes new standards and processes for areas touched by guests and associates. Examples include:
- Each of our associates have signed a "heath care commitment" (like many hospitals), including temperature taking, hand washing and other health practices.
- All associates will wear masks and gloves.
- For accommodations, we have relaxed our cancellation and change policies to remain flexible.
- In an abundance of caution, we will leave hotel rooms and suites left empty for 24 hours between check out and check in whenever possible. Experts tell us that more than 90% of virus on surfaces will be killed during that time.
- Hand sanitizer wipes will be in each guest room for personal use throughout the stay. Masks and gloves will be available for guests.
- For dining and events in public areas, reservations will be required, so that we can appropriately plan on seating that meets appropriate social distancing guidelines. To ensure a pleasant and safe dining experience, table spacing has been adjusted to allow for six feet between tables. Enhanced food and beverage safety guidelines are being followed and surfaces are sanitized with increased regularity. Menus will be used once for guest use, or will be displayed for viewing.
- Outdoor activities will be available with an advanced reservation and appropriate social distancing. Beach seating will be configured to allow for at least six feet of separation between groups of guests.
- Arrivals will be spaced out to allow for individuals guest check-in. Guests will be greeted at the Front Drive. Our bell valet teams will use disinfectant wipes.
So what does the future hold? For the hotel industry as a whole, it's difficult to make broad predictions because recovery timetables will vary location to location, there is no end date for the crisis, and the news is changing so rapidly. All we know for sure is that the next six months are going to be tough, reducing annual budgets by at least 35% and, in some cases, a lot more.
Drive markets will rebound faster than fly markets. City hotels will come back slower than rural ones, at least until the business sector picks up. The luxury sector will do better than the mid-and budget-sectors because affluent travelers have the time and accessible funds. Home and villa rentals will do well, as will the larger suites, as families who have been separated during the crisis come together in multi-gen groups.
At the beginning, government limitations will dictate room capacities and group sizes. These limitations will be gradually relaxed as the virus recedes. Group business and banquet business will be impacted, and hotels will have to rethink their group minimums. Any attempt at enforcing pre-Covid cancellation policies will only have a momentary benefit since guests will leave and never come back.
In closing, I want to stress that it's not all bad news. After the 2008/09 recession, the hotel industry enjoyed an excellent 2010 thanks to the pent up demand. There is every indication we will see the same boost this time, particularly for those hotels that get creative and think outside the box.
What's next for OHM? Like all hotels, we are waiting for an all-clear from the state authorities, but we're not standing still. We're preparing our teams and consistently communicating with our associates, guests, prospective guests, club members and our communities.
Our goal isn't simply to be ready for re-opening. It's to be the first choice for returning travelers, to be a safe yet refreshing escape from the trials of the last few months and, as always, exceed the high expectations of our brand.
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