Hotels' challenge: Balance hospitality with sanitizing initiatives

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All Room Mate Hotels reception areas will be outfitted with protective screens.
All Room Mate Hotels reception areas will be outfitted with protective screens.

Once a relatively invisible part of the guest experience, health and safety standards have been thrust into the spotlight as hotels prepare to resume operations in the wake of Covid-19.

"Over the past few weeks, we've seen an incredible ramping up of public statements and hotel brand promises," said Kate Walsh, dean of the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. "I think the industry, the big brands and the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) have all caught up really quickly."

Over the past month, the AHLA as well as players such as Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt and Wyndham have publicized enhanced health and cleanliness initiatives, offering details on everything from contactless check-in methods to updated housekeeping strategies. 

Hyatt, for example, has pledged to deploy a dedicated "hygiene manager" at every hotel across its portfolio by September. Both Marriott and Hilton have said they'll be rolling out new cleaning technologies, including electrostatic sprayers (which emit a disinfecting mist) and ultraviolet light. Wyndham has promised to drop-ship face masks and hand sanitizer to its hotel owners at cost. 

Most major hospitality companies have also tapped various medical, hygiene and safety experts to help develop their Covid-19 prevention plans. Spain's Iberostar Group, which plans to start reopening its Portugal and Montenegro properties shortly, recently added infectious disease specialist Sebastian Crespi to its new Medical Advisory Board.

According to Crespi, some of Iberostar's most important protocols revolve around social distancing. That, however, can present a unique challenge to hoteliers, who are used to putting an emphasis on human connection.

"As we open, it will be important, whenever possible, to keep the warmth of the hotel intact, even as we continue to guarantee security," Crespi said.

Balancing safety with a sense of hospitality is also top of mind for many properties in New York, the U.S. epicenter of the Covid-19 crisis.

"There's going to be a huge fear factor to overcome, similar to what happened with 9/11 and the fear to fly," said Vijay Dandapani, president and CEO of the Hotel Association of New York City. "Yes, we need to provide proper, socially distanced settings and appropriate [personal protective equipment]. But it's also important to be innovative and avoid making your space look hazardous. Perception is everything."

Dandapani cited recent efforts by some Swedish restaurateurs to outfit waiters in decorative face masks, designed to better match a venue's theming.

Taking a similar tack is European chain Kempinski Hotels, which debuted its Kempinski White Glove Service health and safety platform last month. While the program's cleanliness protocols are stringent, the company has softened its approach with some luxe touches, providing nonhousekeeping employees with traditional fabric gloves as well as commissioning custom floral-print face masks from Italian uniform designer Maurel.

"For those in hospitality, we all grew up with that classic image of the butlers with gloves, and in a way, this sort of [harkens back] to that sense of proper, formal service," said Benedikt Jaschke, Kempinski's chief quality officer. "And the Maurel masks are quite stylish. They don't look like hospital masks."

Likewise, Spain-based Room Mate Hotels implemented rigorous health and safety measures across 13 of its open properties in Europe and the U.S., many of which are housing medical professionals and essential personnel. The company plans to roll out these guidelines across its remaining 15 hotels as they reopen.

"The measures we've been applying at our hotels have provided a fantastic [learning curve]," said Kike Sarasola, Room Mate Hotels' founder and president. "We've offered [essential personnel] free hotel rooms until June 1. Once they leave, we could welcome clients the very next day, because we don't need to change anything. We can simply apply all the same protocols around security, social distancing and cleaning."

Where Sarasola does see some room for improvement, however, are the methacrylate screens set to be installed in reception areas, providing a protective boundary between staff and guests. To make them more aesthetically pleasing, Room Mate has challenged its design partners to come up with creative screen designs. The screens will be put up to an online vote, with guests invited to select the winning options.

"We knew we have to put these screens at our reception, but why couldn't we do something beautiful?'" Sarasola said. "It costs the same to do horrible, plastic screens as it does to do funky, fun and beautiful ones."

Additionally, Sarasola said Room Mate is working on developing several new face mask designs, each showcasing the brand's signature orange hue. 

"Anywhere that we can add a little bit of creativity, we will," Sarasola added.

According to Cornell's Walsh, creativity will be key as hotels seek to recover post-pandemic, and she predicts hoteliers might have to think outside the box when it comes to offering their usual list of amenities.

"Instead of the fitness center, can a hotel offer a Peloton in the rooms instead?" Walsh asked. "Can a property find other ways to provide important services to guests in the privacy of their room? I think the industry has to think about this in terms of creating new opportunities and services, and sometimes the opportunities lie in the challenge." 

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