Hoteliers Share their Strategies for Navigating the COVID-19 Pandemic
As I’ve reviewed the “Commitment to Cleanliness” tomes released by major hotel brands and management groups over the past month, I’ve been impressed by the dedication and attention to detail from the teams’ that put each together. Operating under extreme pressure as many of their colleagues faced furlough, they’ve outlined cleaning solutions and processes that will indeed make their guests feel more comfortable and mitigate risks to the health of both their staff and guests. These commitments create a new baseline standard — like air conditioning or hot water — without which it’s not plausible to label a building with the term “hotel.”
While cleanliness is table stakes, it may still be insufficient. No matter how frequently devices and surfaces are sanitized, travelers will remain fearful of cross-contamination for some time. That means, hotel guests will think twice before standing in lines at the front desk to receive a physical room key; touching light switches, thermostats, phones, tablets, and TV remotes in rooms; and even placing orders from physical menus in the restaurant and paying for their meals with credit cards.
So, what’s the alternative? I recently reached out to a few of our customers to find out how COVID is affecting their operations and how contactless technology is helping them to reopen and get ready for the new world. Here is what I learned . . .
Motif Seattle by Hyatt
With safety and the wellbeing of its guests, customers, and colleagues a top priority, Motif Seattle, a chic, upscale boutique hotel with 22,000 square feet of meeting space suspended normal operations mid-April due to COVID-19, but the hotel, along with its award winning rooftop bar and restaurant Frolik Kitchen + Cocktails, is scheduled to reopen in July. General Manager Steve Sasso had this to say:
“When we re-open our doors this month, we will continue to follow Hyatt’s Global Care & Cleanliness Commitment which builds on existing rigorous safety and cleanliness standards. Adherence to procedures and protocols developed in consideration with guidance from the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, and local and government requirements is key to delivering a top-notch experience and environment. As part of Hyatt’s Global Care & Cleanliness Commitment, Motif Seattle will have a colleague on property trained as Hygiene & Wellbeing Leader who is responsible for the hotel adhering to Hyatt’s new operational guidance and protocols. This Hygiene & Wellbeing Leader will help maintain the hotel’s mandatory GBAC STARTM accreditation, including a cleaning, disinfection and infectious disease prevention program that will focus on establishing hotel environments that are sanitary, safe and healthy.
At Motif Seattle, the wellbeing of colleagues is core to advancing care for guests and customers. In response to COVID-19, Hyatt has also reimagined the colleague journey at all Hyatt hotels, including Motif Seattle to include new work procedures, colleague resources, and reorientations to ensure colleagues’ safety and wellbeing. Daily colleague surveys have been introduced to measure colleague comfort and wellbeing, enabling hotel leaders to address opportunities, adjust as necessary and meet colleagues’ needs in real time.
Additional efforts being implemented at Motif Seattle include frequent cleaning with hospital-grade disinfectants on all high-touch surfaces and areas; enhanced food safety and hygiene protocols for restaurants, room service, and group meetings/events; prominently placing hand sanitizer stations throughout the hotel’s public and employee areas and entrances; ensuring that employees wear protective face coverings; and providing social distancing guidance in our public areas.
Two years ago, the 319 room Motif Seattle was the first hotel in the world to have a full-deployment of Volara-powered Amazon Alexa devices in all of our rooms and we have found this to be well received in Seattle, one of the nation’s fastest growing tech hubs. As travelers seek out a more holistic approach to their safety and well-being, it is expected that more travelers will embrace contactless technologies than ever before. While we have always had strong engagement from our guests when it comes to the use of our in-room voice technology, we expect this to increase. Whether it’s redesigning our food and beverage offerings in our rooftop bar and restaurant with 4,000 square feet of outdoor space, announcing a new Visiting Artist, Todd McKinney for 2019 through 2021, or recording fun messages for guests and staff using our voice technology, Motif has been able to creatively distinguish itself from others these past few years helping us to become a more formidable market leader.
We have found our Volara-powered Amazon Alexa devices to be a market differentiator and we cannot wait to reinforce its benefits as travel resumes. We believe guests will embrace the convenience and simple use of turning on the TV or requesting extra towels, all without having to touch a telephone or remote control. The industry has already seen an increase in the successful roll-out of contactless engagement like mobile check-in and guestroom key access. Hyatt continues to be a leader in balancing new technology with the need to provide personalized, intuitive, and caring service in a safe and clean environment.”
Hotel Zetta San Francisco by Viceroy Hotel Group
Hotel Zetta located in San Francisco’s SoMa district, just three blocks from Union Square, remained open throughout the pandemic to provide accommodations to essential travelers. General Manager Mark Beevor said guests are getting increasingly comfortable with voice technology, and the property’s management company plans to invest in more technologies that are high tech, just not high touch.
“Viceroy Hotels & Resorts has always strived to create the best experiences for our guests. Now, more than ever, we’re taking that to heart, and we’re relying on the Viceroy Promise of Cleanliness to bring business back. While we have a Health & Hygiene Ambassador for the property and a Safety Committee responsible for training and implementing our cleanliness program, it’s going to take even more to make travelers feel comfortable that our hotel is COVID clean — it’s going to take technology. Thankfully, we added Volara’s voice-based guest engagement solution to rooms a year ago. Even with low occupancy, we are finding that guests who would not have used the device in the past are now more open to exploring voice-on-command experiences because they don’t want to encounter staff or touch in-room devices.
Today, Hotel Zetta is one of 14 hotels in the Viceroy management portfolio to pilot a new mobile check in and mobile key program. As a relatively small hotel, pre-COVID it didn’t make sense for us to make the investment; post-COVID, those contactless technologies will be transformative and quickly help in attracting more guests. We are also looking at QR code technology for room service and restaurants. Rather than requiring guests to touch physical menus, they can take a picture of the web based QR code that will upload the specific menu they wish to view. Orders can then be placed directly from guests’ smartphones, so they don’t have to touch menus that someone else just used. They can even pay the bill with a digital wallet or payment app.
So, while COVID is forcing our hand, it’s also pushing us — as operators and an industry — to be better ambassadors of hospitality.”
Fenway Hotel by Marriott Autograph Collection
On the opposite coast in Dunedin, Florida, Mainsail Lodging & Development’s Fenway Hotel has remained open. The property has been operating at reduced capacity with a skeleton crew enabling “staycationers” to get away responsibly. Mainsail Lodging VP of Operations Tom Haines shared with me how his property is leveraging previously unused areas of the hotel to provide socially responsible entertainment and drive revenues, while contactless technologies are putting guests’ concerns over cleanliness to rest.
“Fenway Hotel has a historic lawn that serves as a playground for compelling activities for both our guests and locals. Pre-COVID, we used the outdoor space to hold Tai Chi and morning yoga classes or as a place where guests and the community could sit on lawn chairs and enjoy the sunset. Post-COVID, this space has become a gathering place that easily meets social distancing requirements. We booked live music on the lawn and added a bar for everyone to enjoy. We shifted some of our indoor restaurant to the outdoor veranda, put table seating around the pool, and turned our 2,000 square foot ballroom into a lounge to give people more space to be socially distant. Our rooftop bar has become such a popular attraction, that when we reach the safe capacity threshold, we put patrons on a wait list and send them to the lawn to enjoy a cocktail until space frees up. It’s become a rich and vibrant scene, with capacity guidelines matching visitor demand.
While we are fortunate to count on the locals for restaurant and lounge business, leisure travelers have full confidence staying with us as well. Guests are separated from staff at check in by plexiglass, and all workers wear masks. As part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, we have some of the most stringent protocols in place of any brand. We even go so far as to seal each room with a tape strip after it’s been cleaned to give guests a visual sense of comfort that no one has entered their space since the room was cleaned, sanitized and disinfected. To take our cleaning program to the next level, we are piloting a new air filtration technology not yet on the market. Until that technology is adopted, we have placed orders for hydrostatic sprayers that charge cleaning chemicals and kill all viruses on surfaces.
COVID has truly changed the way we extend hospitality to travelers. Not only is it holding us more accountable for cleanliness and keeping guests and staff safer from disease, but it’s making hotel operators more comfortable with technology that already exists. Uber Eats, mobile apps, mobile key and voice assistants have all been around for a while, but they hadn’t reached mass adoption — until now. Prior to the pandemic, guest interaction with Volara in our rooms was positive; today it’s phenomenal. Occupancy was higher in February vs. May, yet interaction with Alexa more than doubled last month, and we project it will climb even higher as travel resumes. In the future, we plan to add contactless voice technologies to projects wherever possible, like Google Assistants in rooms at Epicurean Atlanta Midtown, opening 2021, considering Google will be a tenant in the adjacent office building. Also on our radar, is QR code technology which allows guests to control functionality in the room, order food, and process payments from their smartphones.
We have only begun to scratch the surface with contactless technologies. I’m eager to see what’s coming next and how it will enhance the guest experience in the future.”
From my conversations with our customers, it became clear that to thrive over the coming years, hoteliers must implement solutions that engage with guests in the way they are most comfortable, which today requires a contactless journey through the hotel and an ultra-clean environment in which to stay. The leaders in this industry, many of whom I’m proud to know as customers, are redefining their hotels through this pandemic and their new offerings will make us all want to travel again.
About the Author
David Berger was the first to conceive of, develop, and deliver a viable hotel voice assistant. He is the Founder and CEO of Volara - the voice hub for the hospitality industry - which today enables hotel guests to get what they want, when they want it, just by speaking in their guest room.