Hoteliers say hope is on the horizon and newly implemented procedures and technologies are helping them better protect their people and meet guests’ demands
By Robb Monkman
A new safety culture has emerged in hospitality that places employee protection at the core of operations. Prior to the global pandemic, hoteliers were already rolling out employee safety devices (ESDs) per legislative mandates and commitments to industry programs like the American Hotel & Lodging Assn.’s 5-Star Promise to better protect their people from sexual harassment situations and threats of violence. Today, as hotel employees put their lives on the line to welcome back guests, they are safer than ever before thanks to new policies, procedures, and technologies designed to limit staff/guest interaction, eradicate disease, and dispatch help in an instant.
What does this new employee safety culture look like today? It depends on each hotel company and the location of its properties. Through a new webcast series titled “New World, New Employee Safety Culture” I spoke with hoteliers to find out how their employee safety culture is taking shape. Here is what I learned …
Training and More Training
Ryan Doi, Corporate Director of Information Systems for Prince Resorts Hawaii, said the new employee safety culture at Prince Resorts is centered on training, and safety is not just defined by physical protection, but by providing financial assistance to workers as well.
Operating the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort, and Prince Waikiki, this hotel company holds a mandatory two-hour training class in which all employees are paid to attend. They are taught how to use their personal protective equipment (PPE), how to properly wash hands, and how to use new cleaning equipment. They also learn about the new guidelines in place for social distancing and what to do in case of an emergency, like if a guest or employee falls ill. This is not a one-and-done training program. Doi said refresher training will be ongoing with no end in sight. Also ongoing is the company’s commitment to extending medical coverage to all workers whether they are actively employed or furloughed through the end of this year.
“Everyone is hurting, and our employees are aching to get back to work,” Doi said. “Once they are on premises, we have an obligation to keep them safe. Our employee safety culture includes implementing React Mobile panic buttons (even though we were not mandated by the state to do so), providing mobile check-in and mobile key options to add distance between staff and guests, scanning employees temperatures at the start of each shift, equipping guests with hand sanitizer and disposable masks to use when they are not in their rooms and placing physical barriers at the front desk and concierge.
“We also developed a touchless check in where no credit cards are touched by staff and there is no transferring of materials,” he said. “While we prefer that guests handle their own luggage, assistance is provided upon request and baggage carts are sanitized before and after each use. We also encourage self-parking to protect our valets. We invested in electrostatic sprayers, in-room tablets, and technologies that enable guests to control the room environment through their phones or by a sanitized TV remote. We removed any unnecessary high-touch items from rooms and enhanced in-room dining for touchless food and beverage delivery. More importantly, from the moment a reservation is made, we communicate our safety procedures to guests making them aware that our employee’s protection is a top priority. Hawaii has some of the lowest COVID-19 cases in the United States, and we plan to keep it that way.”
For The Gale South Beach, a Hilton hotel, reopening was a roller coaster of uncertainty. General Manager Kevin Waldstein said at one point, Miami was the “Epicenter of the Epicenter.” As a result, the hotel’s operator, Menin Hospitality, put employee safety at the epicenter of operations. To get employees eager to return to work, associates needed 100 percent confidence that they would be protected from virus spread. With Miami being a “party city,” Waldstein said social distancing could be difficult, so management needed to build a safety culture based on cleanliness and communication. Between the 200-page Miami Beach operating guidelines, Hilton’s “Clean Stay” initiative with the Mayo Clinic and Lysol, and Menin Hospitality’s “Clean with Confidence” program that provides a playbook of new procedures for all departments throughout the hotel, Waldstein said The Gale South Beach has become the cleanest and safest hotel in Miami.
While cleaning is important, it’s not the only safety solution. At the core of the hotel’s employee safety culture is technology. The hotel is one of the first in the country to leverage Google’s hotel solution powered by Volara to fulfill guest requests without staff interaction. Using the Google Nest Hub running on Volara’s conversation management software, guests can ask the voice assistant to make calls, play music, watch shows, request amenities, book services, turn on/off TVs, increase the room temperature, adjust the lights, set alarms and more without ever lifting a finger or touching an in-room device. If they want something, they simply say “Hey Google, bring me more towels.” Then, through Volara’s secure integration hub, the hotel’s ALICE work order management technology routes the request to the right department and the Kipsu text messaging platform follows up to ensure prompt service delivery and satisfaction. By communicating with guests remotely via mobile and voice, The Gale is limiting employee exposure while enhancing and personalizing the guest experience.
“You hear a lot about hoteliers shifting to contactless guest experiences using technology,” Waldstein said. “We’re thrilled to be taking advantage of Google and Volara technology to limit staff and guest interactions. We also plan to leverage our existing React Mobile panic buttons in new ways; if we hear or see a guest who is in distress or if an employee falls ill, we can use the safety platform to dispatch help. While our hotel remains closed until October, we have workers on site preparing the hotel for reopening. They are busy refreshing rooms, polishing marble, honing woodwork, and sprucing up landscaping. When travel resumes and visitors come back to Miami, they are going to be ‘wowed’ at The Gale. We wouldn’t be as read to reopen today as we are without the support of our staff, and our new employee safety culture is keeping them motivated and eager to get back to work.”
Cleanliness & ‘Contactlessness’
Jay Reed, a partner with hospitality advisory firm CIO Suite and former CIO of Aimbridge Hospitality, concurred with Waldstein that technology is at the core of many hotel companies’ employee safety cultures. He said new threats are making it challenging to reduce risks facing hotel employees, and without the right technology, it may be difficult to get frontline workers to return post pandemic. As an industry, Reed said hoteliers need do everything possible to motivate them to come back, including compensating them and training them like Prince Resorts Hawaii is doing, protecting them from disease with heightened cleaning programs and contactless technologies as being done at The Gale South Beach, and dispatching help in emergency situations with the use of employee safety devices.
“To attract tomorrow’s travelers, cleanliness and ‘contactless-ness’ go hand in hand,” Reed said. “Several hotel companies are leveraging cleaning technologies and electrostatic sprayers to sanitize and disinfect surfaces. Most major hotel brands have also set new standards and established best practices for cleaning that will put even the most germophobic travelers’ minds at ease. Other technologies, such as Mobile Key that turns guests’ smartphones into room keys, or smart speakers with voice assistants that encourage guests to ask Alexa for things they want rather than risking human interaction or touching potentially germy in-room devices, are gaining traction. Basically, anything that is high tech, but not high touch, will resonate well with travelers.
“Now working as a hospitality consultant, I am often asked which technologies are needed to help properties reopen efficiently and which will be in high demand by travelers,” he added. “My response is this: those that ensure employee safety, keep properties clean, and provide a contactless experience will build consumer confidence and get travelers and employees ready to return. Hotels that aren’t concerned with employee safety will find themselves plagued with turnover. And we all know it costs far more to hire and train new employees than it does to keep existing ones.”
SIXTY Hotels, a luxury boutique brand with properties in New York City and Beverly Hills, is “Always Open” thanks to a medical team that put strict policies in place to help each property better protect its people. Chris Horn, Vice President of Operations for SIXTY Hotels, said it was the medical team that helped the company formulate its new employee safety culture. He said SIXTY has always had house doctors on call to assist guests in distress. When the pandemic hit, the team was called in to analyze its three properties, SIXTY Soho, SIXTY LES, and SIXTY Beverly Hills. They walked through each department, looked at everything employees touch, how and where they enter/exit the building, how and where they store equipment, how many people are on shift at the same time, etc. Based on their findings they made recommendations and new standard operating procedures were established that formulate the company’s new employee safety culture.
“It’s because of this medical plan and our employee safety culture that our hotels and people are doing so well,” Horn said. “Hats off to our teams. They are the difference makers, the real heroes of hospitality, and the reason that transient business is coming back.
“The more we learned about the coronavirus, the more our standard operating procedures evolved to help protect our people,” he said. “Take room turns for example. When a guest departs, his or her room is locked down and not touched for 24 hours to prevent airborne particles from escaping the space. After that time passes, a house person wearing personal protective equipment including masks and gloves enters the room with a disinfection kit and power sprayer to thoroughly disinfect the area. Towels and sheets are bagged and sealed and taken to a sealed area in the back of the house where they sit for another 24 hours before they are laundered. Another 24 hours would then pass prior to a Room Attendant entering to facilitate guestroom cleaning. Once rooms are cleaned, room attendants take their carts/tools to the basement and store them in a disinfection area. Once decontaminated, the carts then move to a clean area, where room attendants can retrieve them on their next shift. As workers return the next day, they must undergo personal health screening that include temperature checks. When deemed healthy, they are issued new gloves and masks for the day, retrieve their carts, and proceed to their assigned rooms for cleaning.”
To continue protecting its people, SIXTY also is requiring guests to carry their own luggage. Non-essential high-touch items are removed from rooms to limit virus exposure. Amenity and menu requests are delivered via blind drop; there is a knock on the door and items are left in a single use bag or hung on the door handle. Traditional plated roomservice has been modified to feature single use containers and individually wrapped items to forego washing of dinner plates and glassware. And all properties equip their workers with React Mobile employee safety devices to dispatch help as needed.
How we as an industry will fair over the coming months is unknown. What I did learn from each of these hoteliers is that with the dark cloud of COVID-19 came a silver lining: Hotels are now physically cleaner and operating leaner than ever before, and their employees have a renewed desire to engage with management and each other. They are eager to get back to work knowing that management has put processes and technologies in place to protect themselves and their livelihoods.
Chris Horn probably says it best: “The next six to 12 months will define us, but we are resilient, and if we depend on each other and follow best practices of those who are leading the recovery effort, we will come out of this better than before.”