As hotels adjust to new normals in the wake of COVID-19, new expectations will guide how they operate and serve their clientele. At a virtual roundtable sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and NeoSan Labs and hosted by Hotel Management Senior Managing Editor Elaine Simon, four industry insiders shared their thoughts on what hotels can do to keep guests safe and comfortable as markets reopen—and long after.
The guest experience, said Lisa Borromeo Checchio, chief marketing officer at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, will be guided by what the changing guest expectations are, starting with incorporating cleanliness and safety into the brand’s marketing. “We're seeing the call volume to our hotels, and to our call centers, increase with that exact question: ‘Can you tell me about the safety protocols and cleaning protocols in this particular hotel?’” As such, hoteliers can get a good sense of what matters to their upcoming guests and proactively share what their policies are. “We are responding to what they are asking for,” Checchio said. “They're asking for social distancing. They're asking for certain supplies, and we have drop-shipped these supplies into the hotels directly ... such as hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes and masks, so that they are there and available when the guests arrive.”
Acquiring these supplies can be easier with a large company’s procurement capabilities, she added, and individual hand sanitizers can be part of the guestroom amenity kit alongside shampoo and conditioner. “These visual cues that will now be brought to the forefront in the hotels are really meant to be there to give our guests a sense of security, a sense of safety that they’ve come into a safe place,” she said.
The industry, said Remington Hotels President and CEO Sloan Dean, is dealing with three types of customers: Those who want lots of visible evidence of sanitary standards, those who are annoyed by any evidence of adhering to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines—and those who fall somewhere in between these two extremes. “We're in this awkward period where we have to service all three [kinds of] guests,” Dean said, adding that much of the conflict can be avoided in the prearrival process through clear communication. “Whatever you're doing, make sure that it's consistent, it's visible, and it is also well done—and maybe add a little bit of levity,” he said. To break up some of the tension among the three groups, a hotel might make their signs to encourage social distancing a little bit funny, he suggested. “That's the kind of delicate balance that you have to do.”
In the meantime, he said, Remington requires every associate to be temperature-checked upon arrival, to wear a mask and (for certain jobs) to wear gloves. “That's just what the expectations are for the foreseeable future," Dean said. Limiting capacity in public spaces makes sense, he said, but unless the virus can pass through a packaged terminal air conditioner or heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, limiting room availability won’t mitigate contagion.
While some guests may not want to see any reminder of the pandemic—like employees wearing masks, for example—Andrea Stokes, practice lead, hospitality at J.D. Power, doesn’t see the need for such a delicate balance. “In this case, it's probably safe to go above and beyond in terms of establishing that guest confidence and maintaining the trust that they have in the brand,” she said.
Every hotelier, said Ramya Murali, principal, strategy and operations at Deloitte, needs to consider how to apply new standards around cleanliness and safety in a way that is consistent with the hotel’s brand. “There are expectations that guests have, whether [staying in] economy and budget hotels all the way to luxury hotels,” she said. “It is going to be incredibly critical to ensure that you are meeting guests where they're expecting you to meet them.” Certification can also be helpful in the decision-making process, Murali added.
Business as Unusual
Guests will still want all of the amenities they’ve come to expect from a hotel, Checchio noted, but some of those amenities will need to be adjusted to maintain safety standards. Lawn chairs may be spaced 6 feet apart or all food may come from the pool bar because the restaurants aren’t open yet. “We've got a limited menu and limited staff because the restaurant density requirements are still 50 percent capacity,” she said of some properties.
Some changes may be welcomed, Stokes suggested. As the weather gets nicer, she noted, hotels may move more experiences outdoors: “There are a lot of ways hotels can amplify that experience, make it fun, make it something guests will actually want to do, want to enjoy on property.” Some of Remington’s properties are moving their restaurants onto the patios and are looking to expand the lobby footprint to the outdoors as well, Dean noted.
It is important that hoteliers explain these adjustments to their upcoming guests, Checchio added, since unprepared guests may be angry if they see fewer chairs by the pool—and, worse, may ignore the social-distancing guidelines.
Social distancing and worries over communal surfaces may encourage increased development of Internet of Things adoption with smart lights and smart thermostats that guests (and hoteliers) will not need to touch in order to operate. Keyless entry also will become increasingly popular with guests who don’t want to touch a plastic card or talk with a front-desk agent face-to-face. But, Dean noted, the cost to install proper IoT devices and systems is pricey, and funding likely will be tight for a while.
Murali noted that many hotels on the lower end of the chain scale may not be able to install high-end technology at all, and guests may not expect IoT in these properties, anyway. “A lot of the more technology-advanced solutions are nice to have, but I don't really think they're the things that are going to impact guests' decisions right now,” she said.
While Dean suggested publicly shared cleanliness standards would help boost hotel loyalty over home-sharing platforms, he also said the economic downturn might drive more travelers to online travel agencies. With business travel slower to return than leisure travel (and nationwide unemployment currently at about 25 percent), consumer confidence is struggling. “So price is going to have more of an influence on consumer behavior than we'd like to think,” he said. “And so that will lead people to OTAs.”
“Hotel companies—just like companies and other industries with loyalty programs—are having to think a little outside the box about the benefits and offerings that they're using to keep their customers engaged,” said Murali, adding that “touch points that are outside of the stay experience” will become an increasingly vital part of the guest relationship. “Are they interacting with them more in the context of everyday life, more in the context of things that they're doing within shorter distances, whether it's food and beverage or other experiences that you might have in your local community?” she asked rhetorically. “The big companies [are] thinking more expansively about how they can think about the benefits and the connections that they can offer their most loyal customers so that they're staying connected to them for—eventually—when the market starts to pick up again.”
As travel numbers tick back up, Dean expressed concern that many hotels will see too many guests book stays with loyalty points. “That's going to put undue [average daily rate] pressure on hotels as they recover,” he said. “That's a concern of mine.”
In addition, the cash and liquidity crisis caused by the downturn might drive independent hotels into the arms of larger brands as they refinance, he said, as loaners feel more comfortable with known names behind a loan. “I think you'll see a lot more conversions.” Checchio agreed, noting the increase in conversions after the downturn of 2009. “We were able to convert a number of independents to brand flags,” she said, citing procurement, distribution and loyalty programs as appealing in uncertain times. “It is going to be important for [hoteliers] as they come out of the recovery.”
Signs of Recovery
Business travel, said Stokes, will take longer to return because much of it involves conferences and conventions. “There's nothing that can really replace in-person business meetings—conventions and having conferences and gathering your staff and employees for trainings at a hotel,” she said. As offices open up and more people are able to safely work in the same room, she suggested, more in-person events may attract business travelers again.
Murali agreed, suggested that recovery would be like a ripple effect. “I would look at small to midsize meetings, big sporting events and festivals and gatherings and use those as bellwethers to how the large corporate and business meeting category will continue to evolve over the next 18 to 24 months,” she advised.
“It really all comes down to being able to operationalize what we can offer to the best of our ability,” Checchio said of the next normals in hospitality. “It may look different than it did a year ago when guests may have come for Memorial Day weekend, but it is still being delivered in a way that meets their expectations … I think we will get a little bit of a pass because guests understand that this is a new environment.”