By Alan E. Young
At the onset of the pandemic, the fall-out was immediate; in the span of a few weeks, hotel lobbies and airport terminals that were once bustling with travelers were left empty. Fear and distrust spread quickly, as did the realization that international travel may be off the table for an extended period of time. In response, hotels have been quick to announce big plans for enhanced cleaning and sanitation programs and policies to help guests feel safe enough to return. Every hotel large and small seems to be promoting new practices to reassure guests.
However, hotels face heightened speculation and scrutiny as their cleanliness standards are examined under a microscope of epic proportions. What worked in the past certainly won’t work in the future which now awaits us. And just this week the media has exposed some shocking hotel fails that rattled even the NFL, NBA and beyond! Headlines like “TOP NEWS: Upscale NYC hotels don’t clean rooms, change sheets, and “NFL Players are opposed to mandatory hotel stays during training camp,” and “ NBA Player Shares Gross Photo From Orlando Hotel Room,” are sending shockwaves through the industry.
So, the question becomes, what can hotel properties do to be sure that the pandemic won’t infect their brand and business? Can they win back the trust of guests? Or, is the industry about to collapse under the pressure of heightened guest expectations and negative media coverage?
Epic Hotel Fails Revealed
It goes without questions that guest opinion will always reign superior, and when it comes to personal safety, travelers are interested in proof over promise.
It is precisely for this reason, that the Inside Edition investigation released last week went viral so quickly.
For the investigation, Inside Edition reserved rooms in a select few ‘upscale’ Manhattan hotels, including Trump International Hotel. In each room, a washable spray was used to apply the Inside Edition logo (only visible under UV light) to pillows, sheets and bath towels. The team also sprayed high-touch surfaces in the room, including TV remotes, thermostats, and tables. The next day, under a different reservation, they checked back into the same room to check what items and surfaces had been replaced or adequately cleaned. The results were anything but reassuring.
At one hotel, the still-visible Inside Edition logo indicated that the sheets and pillowcases had not been replaced, although the towels had been. The table was clean, but the remote control was not. The other property provided similar results, as the sheets and pillowcases appeared to have not been changed, nor was the thermostat adequately cleaned/disinfected. At the Trump International Hotel, sheets and towels were replaced, but the table and remote control were not cleaned.
Along the same lines, NBA teams arriving in Orlando for the “bubble” where the 2019-20 season will resume later this month shared their dismay with photos on social media of rooms that weren’t cleaned properly.
Understandably, the broadcast inspired outcry from viewers. If upscale hotels in a city which has been identified as a hotbed for coronavirus transmission aren’t even changing sheets, what measures are really being taken to protect guests and effectively mitigate risk? Just how big of a problem do we have on our hands? More importantly, how can guests trust that hotels are adhering to the promises they promote?
Hoteliers, We Have a Problem
The Harris Poll, which tracks the public opinion on the Coronavirus outbreak, recently revealed that only one-third of Americans (33%) say they’ll stay in a hotel and barely a quarter (28%) will be ready to fly within three months of the COVID-19 curve flattening. The most recent poll also revealed a trend: Americans’ fear of the coronavirus seems to be steadily increasing. In the latest poll, 56% of Americans indicated that they fear they could die from coronavirus. This figure more than doubled from 27% on March 14th.
Hotels are, after all, gathering spaces and the proximity of guests and hotel staff are, in nature, potentially problematic during a pandemic. Without the extensive (and proven) changes to industry best practices and common touch-points, hotels may be viewed as a serious liability.
Over the last few weeks, the NFL and NFL Players Association found themselves grappling with this consideration, as they work to negotiate pandemic procedures for training camp. Notably, NFL players were pushing for no mandatory hotel stays, due to concerns regarding the perceived cleanliness and safety of hotels. Although the NFLPA was pushing for optional hotel stays during both training camp and other periods, the NFL has now announced a ‘Stay-At-Home’ order which prevents teams from traveling to training camp.
A recent poll of Boston.com readers also reiterated these concerns, with dozens of readers saying there’s ‘no way they’ll stay in a hotel this year’ because of the global health crisis. While several answered with a succinct “No,” others explained why, many citing cleanliness as a top concern. The writing is on the wall: hotels are not viewed as a safe environment amidst an ongoing pandemic, and many prospective guests are actively avoiding them. One reader wrote, “You won’t see me in one this year. Unless I’m cleaning and disinfecting my own place, I can’t really feel confident that hotels are fully cleaning properly.”
Looking to the Future
In late June, Tripadvisor launched a suite of ‘Travel Safe’ tools aimed at helping consumers find and validate health and safety information in relation to prospective travels. Tripadvisor made these features available in 49 markets, with over 13,850 properties opting in.
Unsurprisingly, their findings revealed that more than 9 out of 10 travelers indicated cleanliness as the most important factor in selecting accommodations. Many of those prospective guests, it would seem, have a vested interest in the implementation of industry cleanliness or sanitization certificates.
This should come as no surprise; after all, consumer confidence has faltered, and rightfully so.
And going one step further, in response to the Inside Edition story, San Francisco city officials recently voted in legislation to mandate new cleaning standards for hotels. Enforcing it is pretty radical in that employees who complain about health risks can sue management for up to $1000 without retaliation plus fines as well. Other cities and states are sure to follow and it won’t be long before there are lawsuits and insurance companies requiring accountability.
Expect a Change
Although we were quick to draw parallels between the emerging coronavirus pandemic and past global events, this experience has proved to be precisely that — unprecedented.
The truth is that this crisis is not going to just pass in a few months, and there is no going back to the way things were aka, normal. The reality is the USA will be one of the last major countries to get everything under control and that won’t happen till at least the end of this year or early next year.
However, the pandemic should not act as the catalyst to the destruction of the hospitality industry; but it should act as the catalyst to innovate, collaborate and learn.
So, what does that mean?
It means that now is the time for hotel companies of all types to revisit basic assumptions and gather real feedback from guests on how they are doing and what they expect. It is time to get a pulse on shifting consumer impressions, fears, behaviors and priorities to determine what it will take to win back guest confidence. It is time to listen and to act.
As we look to the future, it becomes increasingly obvious that hospitality will only be able to recover if they are continually keeping their finger on the pulse – scanning the evolving business and societal new requirements and be ready to adapt to this ever-changing landscape.