Hotels are cautiously reopening for the summer travel season, but it's anything but business as usual in the hospitality industry.
Last week, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) introduced its Safe Stay guidelines developed under the guidance of an advisory council that includes Accor, InterContinental Hotels Group, Marriot International, Omni Hotels & Resorts and Walt Disney. Now, the health and cleaning guidelines are being adopted by thousands of hotels, with many choosing to go beyond its recommendations.
Arriving by air? There's a chance your hotel has started cleaning the area around you before you're even left the airport. Sandals Resorts identified 18 key touch points — or points of high contact — for extra cleaning, starting with airport lounges and vehicle transfers. Many hotels are increasing the frequency of airport transfers to reduce the number of passengers in each vehicle too.
If you're arriving via your own car, don't assume a valet team will be waiting out front, as many hotels like the Hotel Crescent Court in Dallas, Texas are suspending the service. Other hotels are keeping it and disinfecting the vehicle between drivers.
Bell hops — where are the bell hops? Be prepared to carry your own bags. Camelback Resort in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains has suspended its bell service, though guests can use bell carts which have been sanitized after every use. Its hotel employees aren't opening car or taxi doors upon arrival either.
Don't be alarmed if you're stopped at the hotel's front door for a wellness screening and temperature check. This is what Camelback is doing. The resort — which is scheduled to reopen on June 11 — is also asking guests to use hand sanitizer, wear a mask and comply with six-foot social distancing policies.
Next, you reach for the front door, and — there's no handle? It's been removed to eliminate a major touch point. How about a welcome drink? No dice. Instead, you'll be provided with branded PPE (personal protective equipment) upon arrival.
Inside the lobby, you will likely find your favorite hotel looks different. Aesthetics are taking a backseat to safety with social distancing signage displayed throughout hotels, hand sanitizing stations placed every 50 to 100 feet and furniture removed to discourage congregating. Floors may be marked to encourage one-way pedestrian flow between entrances and exits.
To check in, there is a good chance you'll avoid the front desk entirely. Hotels, such as the The Wayfinder Hotel in Newport, Rhode Island, are offering curbside check-in while major hotel chains are transitioning to "digital keys" which allow you to check in and out (and pay your bill) via your mobile phone. This eliminates the need for magnetic key cards (which must be sanitized after every use), queuing with other guests and interacting with the front desk staff.
Hilton has introduced contactless check-in and check-outs at more than 4,700 hotels around the globe, including its Waldorf Astoria and Conrad Hotels & Resorts. The new technology will require enhanced communication with guests, many of whom are accustomed to heading straight to the front desk, which is exactly what hotels want to avoid.
Front desk staff will still be present — likely standing behind a plexiglass partition — and sporting new accoutrements to their impeccably polished attire: masks and gloves. Chip and pin readers will be used to avoid the need to pass credit cards for payment, an act the AHLA recommends should result in an employee washing their hands "for at least 20 seconds."
The front desk, even if not used much, will be cleaned at multiple points throughout the day, as will elevator buttons, public bathrooms, vending machines, ATMs, handrails and seating areas.
Staff may no longer escort you to — or show you around — your room, and elevators are being limited to just the people in your party. The latter may not be as hard as it sounds, as more hotels are instituting maximum guest occupancy rates, such as the Relais & Chateaux hotel Eden Roc Cap Cana in the Dominican Republic which will operate at a maximum of 30% capacity, while European luxury hotel brand Rocco Forte Hotels is limiting the number of guests per floor.
On the way to the room, you'll likely pass more cleaning staff than in the past — for good reason.
"Hotels will have more visual cleaning staff and sanitizing stations. Housekeepers will move from behind the scene to front and center in hotels," said Tony Kim, assistant professor at Hart School of Hospitality, Sport and Recreation management at James Madison University, noting the mere presence of cleaning staff will make guests feel safer.
Changes to your room may be apparent before you even enter. Hilton is applying a seal on guestroom doors to indicate they haven't been accessed since they were last cleaned.
The room itself may look strangely bare. Why? Items that are difficult to disinfect are missing, including decorative pillows, bed scarves, notepads, pamphlets and pens. Minibars — they're gone too, though they may be replaced in another way, such as the pop-up bodegas being installed at the front desk of Kimpton luxury boutique hotels. Other items, such as robes, will be available upon request.
On the upside, a welcome drink and cool hand towel may be waiting for you in your room, as Sandals Resorts are doing. Many hotels are giving guests in-room personal safety kits stocked with masks, disinfectant and wipes.
Guests at luxury, all-inclusive AMResorts in the Caribbean and Central and South America will find pillows, blankets and in-room tablets sealed in vacuum packaging. Remington Hotels — a Dallas-based hospitality group that manages select Sheraton, Westin and Marriott hotels among others — is testing Germ Guard, a single-use preventative sleeve that slides over remote control devices.
Daily newspaper deliveries are going digital with electronic PressReader access that customers can read on their personal devices. Similarly, face-to-face concierge services are moving to text messaging through software such as Kipsu and Whistle.
None of this — not one part — will come easy for hotels.
"Hotels have always focused on personalized service and providing a warm, welcoming environment for its guests," said Kate Walsh, the dean of the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. "The challenge for hotels will be to convey the essence of hospitality when we socially distance and disconnect guests from the staff."
Perhaps one of the biggest changes will be to housekeeping services. Room cleanings will be more intense but conducted less often, at least for guests staying multiple nights. Unless specifically requested, most cleanings will be done after guests leave. Some hotels, such as Best Western, are waiting 24 to 72 hours to enter a room after guests have left.
Room cleanings are now concentrating on high-touch points, such as door and furniture handles, faucets, light switches, remote controls, thermostats, clocks and hangers. Used towels may be placed outside the door for pickup and replaced with a sealed bag of fresh ones, again found outside the door.
Major brands such as Hilton and Marriott are turning to electrostatic sprayers and ultraviolet light technology. Sandals Resorts are sanitizing air ducts upon each departure and steam-cleaning room carpets every week.
The Westin Houston Medical Center was the first hotel to deploy robots to disinfect guest rooms and communal areas. Made by San Antonio-based Xenex Disinfection Services, the germ-zapping robots are designed to kill bacteria, fungi and viruses using UV light. They have been shown to destroy coronavirus, the company says.
Amani Roberts, co-director of Cal State Fullerton's Center for Entertainment and Hospitality Management, believes hotel food and beverage outlets and banquet facilities will be affected more than any other area.
"I personally think buffets will no longer be in existence, which will increase food costs for hotels," he said.
The AHLA recommends limiting buffets, but if offered, serving them via a masked attendant. Remington Hotels are moving away from buffets to open seating arrangements in outdoor areas.
"Many restaurants in a hotel will either remain closed or limit the capacity. If remaining closed, hotels will offer room delivery service — some via a robot-delivery system — or quick grab-and-go service," said Kim. "If hotels decided to open, they will limit the capacity by removing some tables and chairs and installing partitions for communal tables."
Hotel restaurants are moving to paper and digital menus, the latter located on walls or via customer's mobile phone, with a renewed reliance on single-use plastic and paper products. Bar stools are being removed to provide space between customers. Payment will happen table-side at sanitized mobile credit card terminals, like that at the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown.
Other hotels are getting creative. Room service menus are being expanded, delivery is moving to "knock and drop" at guest doors and ordering is done via customers' mobile phones, such as that offered at over 3,200 Marriott hotels. The Palms Turks & Caicos is introducing family-style in-room dining menus, and the historic Washington School House Hotel in Park City, Utah, has started a new "Anyplace Dining" option where guests can eat in quiet parts of the hotel, by the pool and in the private garden.
Many sports and recreational areas are closed or operating at limited capacities with enhanced cleanings. Some hotels are limiting pools to half the normal number of people allowed.
"Similar to guests making a massage appointment, hotels may now require advance-timed reservations for using the tennis court, pool, spa and other amenities," said Rob Karp, CEO of luxury travel agency MilesAhead.
That's what Maine's Kennebunkport Resort Collection decided to do when it made the gym accessible by reservation only. It's cleaning the gym before and after each guest and introducing in-room fitness options. Other hotels are allowing guests to use bikes, beach chairs and umbrellas but are cleaning them after every use.
Guests will never see some of the biggest changes happening in the hotel industry, which begin with stringent employee safety and sanitation training. Cleanings will be supervised by staff whose jobs are now devoted to overseeing that stringent protocol is being met. By September, every Hyatt hotel will have at least one person trained as a hygiene manager.
Staff temperatures will be taken prior to every shift, with many required to wear protective gear at all times. Sandals Resorts are not allowing staff to wear uniforms while traveling to and from work and are increasing safety protocols for its suppliers too.