COVID-19: Self-Regulation Can Help Stimulate Recovery
By Robert Post CEO, Knowland | June 28, 2020
To many of us, it seems a lifetime ago when the world essentially shut down and that was only a couple of months ago! As people around the world strive to begin to regain some semblance of normality, hotel executives are still developing alternate lines of cash-flow, staff reductions, and re-prioritization.
However, we all know to more than survive, we must chart a path forward for doing business again in a post-COVID-19 world. That means taking control to define our rules of engagement vs. waiting for a government-issued "all clear" to resume business. That is not a realistic approach, so how do we in the hotel industry take the first steps to lead into our "new normal"?
Hotel recovery requires two basic factors:
- Safety and cleaning guidelines that ensure guests and employee health and drive consumer confidence and demand.
- Relaxation of the gathering restrictions on group size and social distancing to enable travel and meetings in a responsible manner.
These factors go hand-in-hand with the assumption that the spread of the virus is no longer advancing and our behaviors have controlled the spread; however, you cannot get #2 without #1.
Government officials and health regulators need to see a proactive industry, leading by putting the safety of guests and employees first and acting as a "good faith partner" with them in solving this public health challenge.
The creation of a "Hotel Recovery Playbook" does just that based on one primary premise: SAFETY - for guests, associates and for the public at large. Safety protocols, and the potential levels of risk, must be developed as a multi-layered defense with the knowledge there will be no immediate panacea, no testing regimen that is going to work flawlessly. We must view it as an adaptive response. This adaptive response has two key goals:
- Convince customers to return to our places of business by providing a tangibly safe environment, not just window dressing.
- Convince local health authorities we have an established "playbook" in place to keep the public safe and/or report a potential problem while becoming partners in the solution of managing the virus.
Major chains like Accor, Marriott and Hilton have published some first attempts which are useful, but not necessarily enough because ultimately, we must convince the public it is safe, even preferable to stay with us. While the chains can make pronouncements, we also know the makeup of our industry requires franchisees to figure out how to coordinate the hard work needed to effectively manage these tasks in today's reality and communicate it to customers in a way that is authentic and believable.
Initial Steps for Ensuring Safety and Instilling Confidence
The past has shown us that transient business travelers will be the first to return to your hotel and will be significant in helping to build your occupancy. But what is required to attract them and ensure they feel safe? Here are some key considerations for an industry-wide "playbook."
- Safety First
Conducting a full cleaning regimen that follows industry guidelines will be key to ensuring both your customers and your staff are comfortable and willing to return to the property. The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) recently introduced Safe Stay, an industry-wide, enhanced standard of health and safety protocols designed for protecting guests and employees against the coronavirus as the economy reopens. The goal of the program is to ensure greater transparency and confidence throughout the entire hotel experience. The program guidelines are expected to be iterative and will require hoteliers to modify the recommendations based on their specific local market regulation and guest expectations.
- Critical Steps for Health and Safety Consideration
Identify key touch points that are of higher concern, such as check-in areas, lobby/desk surfaces, door handles, phones, remote controls, light switches, and any surface susceptible to "droplet-based" as opposed to "airborne" contamination.
Avoid cross contamination at all costs. Housekeeping can be the number one agent for spreading the disease. Ensure your housekeeping staff is trained and re-trained and knows the proper procedures inside and out. The AHLEI's housekeeping textbook "Managing Housekeeping Operations" co-authored by William D. Frye, Ph.D. provides useful tips to help the industry avoid cross-contamination when sanitizing surfaces beginning with points of entry and exit.
For instance, housekeeping should use one set of color-coded disinfectant rags or wipes (based on the type of surface being cleaned) for each guestroom. Ensure room attendants are spraying the disinfectant onto the rag/wipe and not the surface to be cleaned to avoid short-circuiting internal electronics.
Establish the cleaning frequency and adhere to it. Let your guests see you taking the time to wipe down surfaces throughout the day. It's part of your campaign to "win hearts and minds!" Even create of a checklist for each area of the hotel and consider placing placards in prominent places announcing the cleaning schedule and who to contact with concerns. These small steps will not only instill confidence in your staff but will help when marketing to potential customers as well.
Look to implement a guaranteed wait time window before filling any room and conduct a certified room "wrap." It may also be advisable to avoid any service to the room for a fixed amount of time. Whatever your standard, make sure these steps are documented and communicated to all stakeholders, customers, and employees alike and include them as part of your "win back business" campaign.
Say goodbye to your sleek reception desk and lobby area. The new normal will be highly-visible signage on health and safety practices, personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer displays, and visual cues on where to stand when queuing. You may also need to communicate how many people should be in the elevator or the gym at one time and where they should stand.
Define cleaning and physical distancing protocols across meeting space, pools and outdoor patios, lobby and front desk, as well as back-of-house and staff areas. From shuttles to beach chairs, hoteliers will need to define, post, and enforce guidelines for the protection of staff and guests. Another reality you have to consider is that your staffing cost will climb in 2020 as your adaptive response will likely require people solely to enforce social distancing and audit your cleaning and housekeeping efforts.
Keep in mind that these practices should start and be rigourous, almost onerous, because it is critical to get employees and customers in the mindset that vigilance matters. Practices will need to be dynamic and evolve over time. As we trend into a post-vaccine stage, if our statistics support the claim that we are keeping our hotels as COVID-19-free zones, requirements can ease as hotel demand and occupancy climb.
We are all familiar with the phrase, "the devil is in the details." This is truer now than ever before. In the future, housekeeping regulations will increase, so it will be up to each hotel to take a hard and fast stance to ensure precautions are taken every step of the way. The time to begin implementing these strategies is now.
Technology Can Deliver "Contactless Guest Experience"
Those businesses who took steps to install touchless technology before the pandemic will be ahead of the game. In the long run, this crisis will likely advance the need for technology that does not require the guest to interface by touch or personal contact.
Voice activated devices, motion sensors, scanners and other IoT devices will define the new guest experience standard. Control lights or request towels by voice assistant. Call the elevator by stepping in front of the door. Or check in and access your room with your personal smartphone. These touchless technologies will likely become much bigger for the hotel industry in the near future.
Similar to your sleek lobby, if you've invested in touch screen technology – rip it out. It has no place in hotels for the foreseeable future as it's a haven for virus and impossible to clean often enough.
Develop a Communication Plan to Instill Confidence and Assure Stakeholders
Once you have developed your new cleaning and safety protocols, it will be key to communicate these measures to potential customers. Website marketing and ongoing communication with your local Destination Marketing Organizations is one way to assure your guests of the steps your hotel has taken to properly implement cleanliness procedures.
Step-by-step "precautions" can be spelled out, shared in advance, and provided at check-in to help your guests feel at ease. Also include these protocols in your OTA listing, auto chat-replies, Google listings – anywhere consumers search and book your hotel.
Self-Regulation Puts the Industry Ahead of the Curve
Travel demand will not only require higher levels of confidence when it comes to safety protocols, but also that restrictive government guidelines be eased. This can only happen if there is both public health administration and political confidence that the hospitality industry has taken these precautions seriously and that all is "under control" with a partner that can be trusted.
Only then will restrictions on gatherings be eased and the number of people allowed to be together in a meeting or event be increased. If possible, marketing these efforts also provides your legislators "air cover" to support the easing of these restrictions. The sooner our industry develops and implements these guidelines in the short term, the sooner we can rally together as a whole.
Pull Back, Review and Revise
COVID-19 requires hotels to be even more diligent than in the past. If you don't have a plan in place, or new procedures in development to share with your staff, now is the time to do so. Review the standards you have in place and consider them as the "bare bones" of the new procedures your teams will need to follow. Include all staff in the process to ensure buy-in and self-regulation moving forward and encourage them to be adaptive in terms of process that works vs. not.
From a purely commercial perspective, occupancy, and in turn revenue, will be depressed until there is a proven vaccine; therefore, give up any ideas of returning to 80% occupancy before late 2021. In the interim, the livelihood of the industry depends on common sense and proactive actions that can tip the scales for consumers and policy makers.
Hotels must make good business decisions on the tipping point between sanitization/cleaning costs and opportunity costs of revenue and 'lean into' whatever recovery is there in the marketplace. The investment will pay off in the long term with market share gain and greater repeat consumer opportunity.
A New Day
It will be critical for everyone involved in our industry to pull together and develop new standards that can be shared throughout our industry regardless of location. Through concerted collaboration with industry leaders and organizations such as AHLA, HFTP, IH&RA, and PCMA, we already have a strong network. This provides us with an opportunity to pool our resources, develop new standards and bounce back more effectively.
There is much to be done to prepare not only staff members, but also properties to return to the "new-normal." While we are on hiatus, however, there is no better time to establish new standards and conduct essential staff training in order to prepare them as things come back online and travelers return to the market. As this happens, self-regulation will be a key element in regaining consumer, staff, and policy maker confidence as we enter this new era.
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