Hotel Facilities, Services & Design Trends in the Post-COVID Era
By Mandeep S. Lamba, MRICS President - South Asia, HVS | June 28, 2020
The impact of the coronavirus on the global population, which, on last count, had spread to over 200 countries, is expected to be far in excess of any other catastrophic event the world may have witnessed in the last 100 years. Aside from the economic devastation and the loss of lives across the planet, the contagion is going to leave a lasting scar on the human race.
While the extent of global financial distress is still uncertain on account of its enormity and the virus being nowhere near control, what is certain is that the world will soon be grappling with several changes of a permanent nature that will become the "new normal." These will be in the form of products, services, and the several life choices we make in our everyday life as we gradually, over time, put the memory of this pandemic behind us and move on.
From offices to homes, shopping malls, cinemas, aircrafts, hotels, and restaurants, among others, our individual outlooks on life are all in line for a review that could change all (or at least most) of our activities in manners we could have never imagined. An already "on steroids" technology wave that we, the living, were trying to deal with, could now force us into a different normal.
Having been locked up at home for over six weeks, with at least another two to go, and having read, heard, and spoken endlessly about the survival and revival of the hospitality industry, which has been my provider for all my working life, here are some trends and changes that will likely be seen in hotels across the world.
The Death of Front Office
I think we can safely start writing the obituary of the traditional Front Office department as we knew it. The reception/front desk, bell stand/desk, and concierge may soon be dead and take rebirth as an invisible virtual "help desk." Check-in/out services could be through online links, accessed via email or phone, or via self-check-in kiosks for walk-in guests. Guest room locks could no longer require key cards to operate but may use a QR code instead, which would be sent to the guest's mobile device to allow access to the room.
The bell stand/desk may become redundant as most travelers will carry their own bags, and for groups or for any specific requirement, the service may need to be pre-booked. Enquiries for the concierge may be on the hotel's app, with responses provided by chat bots. If a guest still requires a human interface, the help-desk concierge could respond to any such queries; the help-desk operations could be outsourced and operate from a call center.
The New Contactless "Chat" Rooms
In keeping with the contactless requirements with which many hotels are now seized, hotel rooms may soon have the ability to "chat" with their occupants through the famed Alexa, Siri, or Google assistant variants, which may soon become a standard feature. While hotels were evaluating these technologies even earlier than the onset of the pandemic, it is almost certain that we may see their implementation very quickly given the changed world in which we are all living.
All in-room functions and service requirements, from operating the curtains, lights, air conditioning, and television to ordering a meal from in-room dining, could be done through a virtual assistant and chat buddy, thus leading to an almost contactless stay. Operating the room lock could be through an RFID or QR code on a mobile device, which would unlock the room from within or outside. Room telephones may become obsolete, with the mobile phone and the virtual assistant (e.g., Alexa, Siri, or Google) becoming the communication tools used to send and receive messages.
All service menus may be available on the guestroom TV and mobile app, which would be fully integrated with the virtual assistant in the room. Bathroom amenities may include sensors for the fixtures, such as the sink, bathtub, shower, commode, and soap dispensers, in keeping with the need to deliver a largely contactless stay.
Restaurants Get "Smarter"
Restaurants in general may end up requiring larger areas to seat fewer people, with an increase in the spacing among the tables. All menus and ordering could become digital and/or through the mobile app, thus removing the need for printed menus permanently. Orders placed on a guest's mobile device will go directly to the kitchen ordering screen. Food may be largely pre-plated, and the cutlery may arrive in a sealed cover duly sterilized in the hotel's own autoclaving machine. Payments for dining could be made online or via the hotel's mobile app.
Heart of the House
A specially created treatment area fitted with Far-UVC light (a technology currently being extensively tested and used by hospitals selectively) could become the isolation and holding area for all goods and supplies to be sanitized and certified before entering the hotel.
Employee biometric attendance could be replaced by unique employee QR-code technology on mobile phones, which would both mark attendance and define access control for each employee. Staff locker rooms could become larger to reduce density, especially in Asian countries where staffing levels tend to be higher and locker rooms can often get very crowded. Lockers could be digitally operated with the employee QR code. Staff restroom facilities could have auto-flushing WCs and urinals, as well as sensor-operated taps, showers, and soap dispensers.
Autoclaving machines, which are an essential equipment for hospitals used to sterilize doctors and surgeons operating tools, could now become part of standard hotel equipment used for sterilizing all cutlery, glassware, and kitchen tools. Wearing of gloves and masks could become a permanent feature inside kitchens, laundries, and areas dealing directly with any guest or employee contact goods and supplies.
Hotels could offer only on-demand, housekeeping services in guest rooms. Most business guests, where the duration of stay normally ranges from 1.5 to 2 days, may opt out of any cleaning services through their stay to avoid any non-essential intervention to their room. Turn-down services, even in luxury hotels, would not be part of standard procedures, but available upon request. Even in leisure resorts, guests may want a much-reduced frequency of cleaning services and linen change than customary today.
Having a robot deliver in-room dining meals could no longer be an imaginary future trend. We are likely to see the start of this in some locations in the coming year, and it could become common place within the next two to three years, as the technology rapidly ramps up on increased demand.
In-room dining may become more popular in the near term, as guests avoid crowded spaces. This could further be enhanced by meal-delivery robots. In-room dining menus could become more elaborate to provide a larger choice than traditionally available today, with a higher focus on healthier options.
A new generation of contactless vending machines for ice, food, drinks, and hot beverages placed in dedicated, dispensing zones on each guest floor could now be a standard feature even in upscale and luxury hotels.
In-room tea and coffee machines may soon be part of folklore. Duly autoclaved coffee and tea mugs with sealed covers could be placed in rooms, which could be used to buy drinks from the contactless dispensing zone down the corridor from one's room.
Hotels need to get ingenious and reimagine food and beverage service options to build food delivery into a substantial part of their business. This could be an important opportunity given the available infrastructure and the customer perception that hotels place much higher attention to hygiene and sanitation than standalone restaurants or delivery outlets.
Smart TVs could feature a host of gaming and entertainment apps besides all the popular streaming services and could include video conferencing options such as Zoom and Facebook Messenger. Physical newspapers may become extinct in hotel rooms, lounges, or lobbies; thus, newspaper delivery to in-house guests could be in the form of e-newspapers on a mobile device. The hotel's proprietary app would provide direct links to cab services, movie and theatre tickets, travel portals, restaurant booking services, and other such requirements that a guest may have during their stay, converting the concierge desk's physical space into a virtual space.
New Hotel Design
Hotel design could shift towards less community-minded spaces and enhanced technology adaption to reduce costs. Our industry is very susceptible to external events and has been hit hard by every disruptive event.
With the increased focus on technology resulting in lesser requirement of space and reduction in staffing requirements, Gross Floor Area (GFA) per room, which is the measure on how hotels are built, could realize reductions of up to 20%, especially in upscale and luxury hotels, resulting in much lower building costs. The reduced GFA would also require smaller land parcels, further adding to the reduction in project costs.
Lobby sizes may shrink given that several key elements of a hotel lobby, such as the front desk, bell stand/desk, concierge, storage luggage rooms, and back offices, may no longer be required. Hotels could opt for fewer restaurants, particularly in the midscale and upscale segments, with a larger choice of restaurants restricted to the top-end, luxury hotels.
Guest rooms could become more open and less crowded as occupants seek space for their daily yoga and fitness regimes in the privacy of their room. This trend could see exponential growth as the human race is shocked into realizing, like never before, its susceptibility to disease and mortality, with cast, creed, race, region, religion, wealth, education, and wisdom having no bearing. The extra space required will not necessarily come by increasing the size of rooms but by remodeling them. This will happen primarily by reducing the furniture and amenities inside the room. The writing desk, which has pride of place in most guest rooms, could become obsolete. Today's younger traveler is happy to work on a mobile device or laptop while plonked on their bed or sofa chair and almost never uses the writing desk for its intended purpose.
Furthermore, the large wardrobes/closets, which often contain unutilized space, could become modular and efficient in design, taking up much lesser space. Today's Millennial traveler is no longer carrying suits, ties, formal shirts, or dresses with multiple handbags and shoes, which need to be hung or placed carefully in the closet; as such, many travelers do not require large wardrobes. Lastly, the mini bar, which incurs a higher cost of managing than the revenue it earns in most hotels, is finally going to make an exit along with its fancy cabinet as we move towards a contactless room.
Air conditioning in hotels could move from the central air-conditioning system largely prevalent today, which has one central unit servicing all the hotel rooms and public areas, to technologies similar to packaged VRV units, which could allow the hotel to be segmented into much smaller sections easier to isolate whenever hotel operations require to be curtailed.
Extra-fine HEPA filters could be used in all rooms to prevent the passing through of microbes and viruses through the air-conditioning ducts from one room to another. Additionally, the elevators may become larger (but carry fewer people) and would be activated by the same QR code on one's mobile phone used to unlock the guest room.
In conclusion, the unprecedented disruption of our lives and the vulnerability from an unknown invisible enemy to which we have been subjected will alter customer behavior, perhaps like never before in our living memory. Add to this the almost unfathomable loss that the hospitality sector will be burdened with from this virus attack, which could happen any time again in a similar or even more vicious manner. Overall, it is certain that hotel owners, operators, and investors cannot afford the luxury of a status quo.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the general view and opinion of HVS and its employees.
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