Hotel Optimization: Insiders talk health, revenue alternatives

As industry events remain on hold and hoteliers seek out best practices to remain solvent, Questex Hospitality Group (parent company of Hotel Management and the International Hotel Investment Forum) and AAHOA partnered to present Day 1 of Hotel Optimization Part 2, a virtual conference with insights from industry insiders on how to survive and even thrive in the pandemic.

Elevating Employee Well-Being

The day’s first panel focused on the mental and physical stress hotel workers are facing, and how this stress is affecting their work performance. 

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Despite stringent protocols in place to minimize employee exposure to the coronavirus, Sloan Dean, CEO of Remington Hotels, said hotel-level workers are struggling. “This marathon of a pandemic has really worn on people,” he said as the panel got underway. “We're starting to see some PTSD effects in the industry.”

The situation is not surprising, said psychotherapist Daniel Fryer. “Worldwide, mental health issues have gone through the roof.” Before the pandemic, he estimated a quarter of people would experience mental health issues during their lifetimes. “That’s one in four of your guests. That's one in four of your staff,” he said. Today, with a pandemic killing hundreds of thousands of people and devastating the nation’s economy, PTSD-like symptoms can be expected in more people than before. “And burnout was officially recognized as a syndrome last year,” he cautioned. “And the more you push people, the more they have to deal with, the more they are going to burn out.”  

Read about June's Hotel Optimization Day 1Day 2 and Day 3

Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts operates in 24 countries, said the company’s VP of Brand HQ Renyung Ho, which makes a brandwide response to different COVID-19 situations challenging. “Some things are very clear, obviously, like [personal protective equipment], sanitization and so on,” she said. “But there are very different regulations.” For example, hotels in the Maldives must have a clinic in every hotel with a doctor who can test guests and employees. In Mexico, the only restrictions are on occupancy rates. “So our approach has been to develop a cross-border framework that we apply in all properties, but also ensuring that we adhere to whatever is locally regulated,” she said. To help employees across those 24 countries feel safer, the company has partnered with accredited experts to share best practices. “Every property partners with a hospital that then gives expert briefings to the associates, who then feel a lot more empowered with that information.” 

Fryer noted that anxiety issues can emerge from uncertainty and lack of control. As such, a good way to minimize employee stress is to reduce uncertainty with clear, honest communication, said AAHOA Chairman Biran Patel. “Communicate with them on a regular basis, make sure that their concerns are addressed, and make sure that they're coming to an environment that they feel comfortable with,” he said. To that end, Dean said that he, Remington’s COO and the company’s head of HR have been hosting weekly Zoom meetings for all associates, including those who have been furloughed. “We've not missed a week,” he said, adding that the leadership team answers questions from the employees. “We had one week where we had over an hour of questions,” he noted. 

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Assessing Alternatives

The day’s second panel, sponsored by Hotel Rehabs, examined how hoteliers are adapting to the lack of business travel in their properties. 

“The most important thing for us initially was, how do we take care of our team members, and how do we take care of our owners?” said Carol Lynch, group VP of sales at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, about the early days of the downturn. With both business and leisure essentially halted in the spring, Wyndham deployed its entire sales team—“we were fortunate to keep almost 100 percent of the team employed,” she noted—and identified who was still traveling and using hotels. At the end of March, she said, health-care professionals were going to cities with overwhelmed hospitals, and the New Yorker hotel in midtown Manhattan hosted 900 temporary nurses. “We were able to house some of the government staff workers, and although it started in New York, we also saw it expand out into other metro cities like Chicago, Atlanta, Houston," she said. "And we still have some of that business today.” Now, she said, the overall traveler demographic may have changed, but the strategy has not. “It was just a matter of identifying what these needs are, and then deploying and activating.” 

Spire Hospitality also had to adapt quickly, said Richard Sandoval, the company’s VP of operations. “All hotels ... recognized [that the] historical share and mix of sales was irrelevant,” he said. “It was more important to figure out who was traveling and how to respond to that.” Beyond the same frontline workers that Wyndham had, Sandoval said the company was able to attract small groups by encouraging front-desk workers to talk with what guests they had. “Everyone's a salesperson,” he noted. “Once we found out what they were doing there, were they coming back, why they were coming back, [we asked] did they have friends? And we had numerous successes across a portfolio of small groups of rooms that generated from a front-desk clerk asking the right question.” The company also had luck renting out parking spaces in its empty lots, or using the spaces for other purposes. “We have an asset that has a COVID testing site in its parking lot,” he noted. “And then with so many restrictions with dining indoors, [we’re] absolutely maximizing any opportunity for outdoor food or beverage space.” 

“Construction, renovation, design and procurement of hotels [have] been affected in a lot of different ways and will continue to be affected as we work our way through this pandemic and recession,” said Chris Winterhalter, CEO and co-founder of hotel renovation and development firm Hotel Rehabs. When some projects have been put on hold and developers are losing their loans, it can be challenging to balance the health and safety of team members and partners and the health of the business itself. But while some projects have paused, others have accelerated. “People who have had capital to continue projects are moving forward, and have been able to do that when occupancy has been down,” he said. As with Wyndham and Spire, being able to adapt quickly has been pivotal. “What are our client's needs?” he said he regularly asks himself. “How can we help adapt to what they need and work through how that impacts our businesses as well?”  

The crisis amplified every hotel’s values as the downturn grew worse, said Sandoval. “That transparency [and] communication really became very fundamental, whether it was communicating with lenders, partners, our team members or guests,” he said. 

Stay tuned for recaps of the next two sessions—Moving Beyond the Hotel Restaurant and Taking Technology to the Next Level—on Monday. Sign up for Day 2 of Hotel Optimization on Sept. 24 here.