Tips on How to Be Among the Last Brands Standing When the Virus is Vanquished...
...or at least in reasonable shape!
By Laurence Bernstein Managing Partner, Protean Strategies | July 12, 2020
In our collective trauma resulting from the physical and economic shock of the Corona Virus Pandemic, some of the basic truths about the course of the disease and the probable response, may have been overlooked. There are three realities which need to be understood in order to be in reasonable shape, from a brand point of view, when the virus is conquered and the world resumes life. Not necessarily life as we know it, but life as we will come to know it.
The COVID-19 Pandemic Changes Everything. Except Human Nature. Which Means, in Effect, it Changes Nothing
This is unfortunate and fortunate. But probably mostly unfortunate, because it portends an end game of no-change, of going back to where the world was. But for once it's not apathy interfering with progress, it's the opposite: emotional enthusiasm.
There has been a generalized acceptance of the idea that nothing will ever be the same, that the lessons we learn from this pandemic are so salient, and the visceral changes to our understanding of our own lives and world are so xxx, that we will adjust to a completely new reality. We wont travel as much (the Zoom-effect), we wont even go to the office (more Zoom-effect, coupled with "the cloud"), we'll be more cautious as a society and as individuals, intelligently planning for unseen yet predictable emergencies. And so on. We'll have a healthier, compelling sense of health-safety that restricts our movements and makes us, if not scared at least reticent, to travel or go out to a restaurant. And so on.
Of course, none of this is true. We know this because we know that as human beings our very nature insists we will not settle for utility over emotional fulfilment. In its simplest terms, in the battle between rational and emotional, emotional always wins in the end.
How do we know this for sure, and more specifically, how do we know this will be true for this epidemic? History has made it clear – we made the same prediction of absolute change, new normal, life-will-never-be-the-same-again in (just within recent memory) in 1992, 2001, 2008. And yet…there are more hotels, more restaurants, more airlines, more resorts, more business lounges, more…the list goes on. In every case, whether by creep or decree, the new-normal ended up looking a lot like the old-normal on steroids.
But history is academic, so let's look at what is actually happening in the here and now. As this article is being written, a number of countries and most states have started relaxing some of the restrictions because the "curve has flattened". No matter that the epidemiologists have made it clear that the flattened curve does not mean the pandemic is over or even nearly over, no matter that it is just as likely or unlikely to catch the virus from others around you, masses of people are flooding to the beaches, malls, stores and (in some cases restaurants and casinos) with hardly a nod to protecting themselves or those around them. Never has there been a clearer display of emotional wants (fun, friendship, freedom) overpowering rational needs (self preservation and protecting others).
Actually, there is another even more striking manifestation of this truth. All over the US and the world, people by the hundreds of thousands have jettisoned any notions of social distancing, so they can express their powerful feelings about injustice. Their new-normal has eclipsed the pandemic's new normal, rendering all our handwringing about handwashing almost moot. Sadly, that new normal too, will revert into the old normal (think: the sixties, the nineties, etc.).
A Treatment or Vaccine will be Developed, Probably Before People Adjust to the New Reality
Never before has so much money been invested in one universal project by so many governments, academic institutions and big-pharma. Obviously, it's justified, but it is truly amazing how much funding this project is receiving. The problem is not the science. Its the reality that it takes time to try and then test the candidate vaccines, and these time frames cannot be compressed.
But when it does happen, much of what we're thinking and doing will become redundant, but the brand effects will live on.
COVID-19 is the Great Equalizer: Like it or Not, There is Very Little Room to Differentiate Based on the Organization's Response to the Virus
That said, the steps taken, and programs introduced by corporations and independent hotels during the pandemic should be designed with a view to positioning the business to take off when it's all over.
There are only four response strategies hotels can take, and most brands and enterprises are adopting all four. This is great, but its important to understand and manage the long-term brand effect of these programs, specifically because the better the hotel implements these strategies, the more generic it becomes. As we will see, in order to maintain competitive and market positioning in the short term, it boils down to how these four strategies are framed for the guest.
1. Cleaning and Sanitizing Strategy
It goes without saying that in order to welcome guests hotels must adopt myriad sanitizing protocols. The breadth of these activities is in fact not optional – every surface guests or associates touch must be consistently sanitized. There may be some latitude in some areas (how often are the elevator buttons sanitized) but there is no latitude in terms of the effectiveness of the products used).
Not only must the operation sanitize everything on the schedule recommended by the health authorities, the guest must know with confidence that the everything they come in contact with is safe – a sanitized surface looks pretty much like an unsensitized surface.
Motels (remember them) had a particularly effective way of telling guests that the bathroom had been cleaned by placing those laughable "sanitized for your protection" banners around the commode and the same message on cardboard caps for the glasses. Essentially hotels are doing the same, but in a more sophisticated way: cleverly worded letters from the Management outlining the safety protocols, or even, as one chain has implemented, sealing the door from the outside with a similar "sanitized for your safety" message.
Rest assured, every website has an eloquent proclamation of their commitment to guest and associate safety, outlining the protocols in place. The problem here is that no matter how eloquent, these things sound the same. They don't make the hotel sound special or different from any other hotel. Nor, for that matter, is there any value in trying to out-sanitize the competition. For instance, using high tech ultraviolet room sanitizers may be efficient for the property, but it is not really going to convince guests that this property is more safe than any other.
Again, spacing is a given and six feet is six feet, so there is not much that can be done to make one hotel's six feet preferable to another. However, there are aesthetic factors at play, so it is possible to do a prettier job of moving the furniture around. Its probably more likely that a hotel can get negative credits for a shoddy job of rearranging the public spaces (e.g. doing literally nothing more than moving chairs away from each other). Or places red tape across chairs with little signs saying "COVID ALERT. Please do not sit here.
It is possible to actually make the lobby or restaurants look better. The true experience of luxury is triggered by the relationship of utility space to "wasted" space. Removing seating and tables can, if done right, give the impression of grandeur. And who doesn't want that.
The key point here is not to try to make it look as though everything is the same except sparser. Boldly opening up the space can enhance the brand and make the guest feel more comfortable, and not the victim of a clinical requirement. But, importantly (and boutique hotels need to focus on this) do not lose the brand cues – make sure that the hotel conveys the same story, although perhaps in a less cluttered sort of way, after the change as before.
There is nothing hotels (brand and enterprise level) enjoy more than decontenting the guest room in the interest of the greater good. It started with towels, moved to sheets and now its open season on decontenting every aspect of the guest experience. And nominally being credited with social conscience for doing it.
Start with the empty room. It makes sense that the less clutter in the room, the easier it is to sanitize and, importantly, give the guest confidence that the room is safe. Just about everything that isn't nailed down can be removed, without impacting the guests primary experience – sleeping.
Guests can be asked, thanks to the miracle of big data, in a very personal way, to bring their own add-ons such as extension cords, alarm clock, radio, etc.
Guests can be asked to download the app to control the TV and in some hotels. In cat, the entire experience can be touch free. Guests can control lights, TV, door locks, blinds, pretty much everything, using an app. In fact, if housekeeping is presented as an opt-in service "(if you need your room cleaned let us know, otherwise we will not enter your room for any purpose until after you leave") the entire guest experience can be person-free.
Removing too much from the experience will add to the sense of sameness, and there will be no touchpoints that can differentiate the hotel. This can be tolerated by a property only if it is a select service category or luxury property. In the former product a "touchless" experience might be perfectly aligned with customer expectations, and in a well-established luxury brand, the change in service, given a good reason and a finite amount of time, will not diminish the brand.
4. Authenticity and Credibility
All this will not achieve the object of positioning the property for the post-pandemic revitalization if guests and associates do not believe the hotel is being honest or sincere. And, of course, if the steps taken to meet pandemic protocols are not believable, guests will find other options even during the pandemic.
Credibility in the area of a person's health is paramount. Travellers are not going to take any chances and will want to be sure that the protocols the hotel claims are in-place and proven effective. Major brands such as Marriott, Four Seasons, Hilton, have developed branded Covid programs, and have co-branded with highly trustworthy health brands (Marriott Global Cleanliness Council includes numerous science and health experts; Four Seasons have teamed up with Johns Hopkins to develop their "Lead with Care" program; Hilton have borrowed credibility from Lysol and the Mayo clinic).
For the many other hotels (yes, there are still hotels that are not Marriott brands), the American Hotel and Lodging Association have developed the Safe Stay program which provides a form of comforting assurance to guests.
Nobody really knows what's coming, but it is most likely that there will be a gravitational pull to the way things were pre-epidemic. Hotels will be tempted to go back to the capacities in the restaurants and public spaces, but also make the new "decontented service style" permanent, increasing margins by decreasing labor costs. This is tempting. But in both cases, it's important to remember that, above all, the hotel business is about people.
Successful operators look for more ways they can make their guests comfortable and more ways they can interact in person with their guests. Don't let the forces of the virus interfere with this fundamental principle.
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