COVID-19 has changed many fundamental things about the way we live our lives. Some of them, like the lockdown, are only short-term, but there are likely to be plenty of permanent changes as the world recovers, particularly within the hospitality industry.
Social distancing and rigorous cleaning standards are certain to be at the forefront of guests’ concerns when traveling, which presents hoteliers with a difficult balancing act. They must keep their staff and guests safe, reassure potential customers about responsible traveling, and follow new guidelines and regulations, all while still maintaining the trait that defines our industry: being hospitable.
It’s inevitable that some things have to change. Before 9/11, most travelers didn’t give much thought to air travel. It was easy. After that terrible day, safety and security checks became more stringent, time-consuming, and generally unpleasant, and the lasting impact has been that traveling by plane has become a far more stressful experience; something to be tolerated or endured.
Of course, it’s different for hotels. The plane is the means to the end, whereas the hotel is often a key part of the experience. Even so, hoteliers must be sure not to alienate their guests and take the pleasure out of their stay. So where are the biggest dangers?
A new-look welcome
Everyone knows you only get one chance to make a first impression. Whether hotels use automated check-in (online or at a kiosk) or operate a traditional desk, the moment a guest arrives in the reception area for check-in is the first face-to-face interaction, which is why traditionally it has been so important.
Most people like to see a friendly face and a warm smile at reception, but now, thanks to increased safety measures, even something as simple as this may not be possible. Face masks in public spaces are mandatory in some regions, and many hotels are likely to make it standard practice for their staff, or even guests.
Hotels need to find a way to make the elements of the guest arrival safe, smooth, and swift, ensuring that there are frequent human touches in what could easily become a dehumanizing process.
It’s easy to underestimate the impact of a smile, but there have been plenty of studies that support its importance. The obvious alternative to masks – putting screens between your staff and guests – skirts this particular problem, but creates a more imposing physical barrier. Not only could this create the feeling of ‘us and them’, but even worse, might bring to mind one of everyone’s least favourite experiences: being in a bank.
Hotels need to find a way to make the elements of the guest arrival – check-in, parking, key handover – safe, smooth, and swift, ensuring that there are frequent human touches in what could easily become a dehumanizing process.
Navigating increased hygiene standards
It’s vital that despite all of the additional health security measures, interactions with guests don’t lose their personality. Given that stress levels are already likely to be higher, the last thing guests deserve is a purely transactional exchange that doesn’t ease any of their concerns on a human level – again, like being in a bank.
If expectations are set clearly from the beginning of the user journey, guests will be better prepared and more forgiving of new measures.
Moreover, if new hygiene standards are put in place, either by the hotels themselves or by law, how do you ensure that guests follow the rules? Some hotels, for example, are set to introduce temperature screenings and ‘wellness checks’ for guests when they reopen. Safety is paramount but if the new rules are overbearing, guests won’t be happy.
In short, the key is good communication. If expectations are set clearly from the beginning of the user journey, guests will be better prepared and more forgiving of new measures. Striking the right tone of voice will be important: too dry and guests won’t take notice, too casual and it won’t be taken seriously. It isn’t an easy thing, and hotels and marketing teams will need to tread the fine line between reassuring and patronizing.
Housekeeping also find themselves centre stage in a post-COVID world. Hotels – particularly the bigger chains – have realized that professional grade cleaning services could be a key differentiator between them and homestay providers like Airbnb, and are doubling down on cleanliness. However, it’s no longer enough for a hotel to be clean: the communication and reassurance of said cleanliness is a seemingly vital part of the new hospitality.
It won’t be too long before every hotel is boasting claims of superior housekeeping; the brands that stand out will be those who can market their standards most effectively
Marriott’s new standards include electrostatic spraying technology while the AHLA (American Hotel & Lodging Association) have issued Stay Safe guidelines for its members that lean heavily on enhanced cleaning standards. It won’t be too long before every hotel is boasting claims of superior housekeeping; the brands that stand out will be those who can market their standards most effectively, which again comes down to good communication.
Keeping guests happy
Although guests will expect a little more ‘process’ around safety, there’s only so much leeway a property has. If staying at a particular hotel becomes tiring and time-consuming, having sacrificed too much of its personality in exchange for severe hygiene control, guests may be safe but they definitely won’t want to return.
So how can a hotelier keep guests safe, while making sure they feel like they’re still actually on holiday? One hotel chain has drawn up a long list of sixteen key measures to implement – not every item affects the guest experience directly but plenty of them do, like temperature checks, earlier check-outs, and mandatory gloves and masks at the buffet. If there’s too much adjustment of existing standards, the guest experience is in real danger of being eroded, and you could end up with guests overburdened by rules.
Technology, if used correctly, can help to ease the burden, reducing contact points and minimizing stress. Thibault Catala, founder of Catala Consulting, is already noticing a shift to contact-free solutions. “I see hotels looking for self check-in and self check-out. They don't want to have anyone queuing in the reception, so that's one of the processes that they have been redoing for health and safety measures.”
Checking in online feels just as normal as waiting in a queue, as would ordering a room-delivered takeaway rather than dining out in the hotel restaurant.
There won’t be a blanket approach that suits everyone. Every hotel, hostel and apartment has a different customer base, each of which will be impacted more or less by changes to hospitality. For older generations, hospitable service is intrinsically linked to more traditional, person-to-person interactions. These are the people more likely to feel the effects of face masks and reduced human contact.
Millennials and Generation Z, on the other hand, grew up immersed in modern technology. Checking in online feels just as normal as waiting in a queue, as would ordering a room-delivered takeaway rather than dining out in the hotel restaurant.
Hospitality has different nuances for different people, so more than ever, hoteliers need to consider who their guests are and what they want. That being said, there is something fundamental at the core of all hospitality, and that is the desire to give guests a memorable experience. The question for the post-COVID world is whether hoteliers will make it memorable for the right reasons, or the wrong ones.
Learn more about a contact-free guest experience
Given the need to reduce as many unnecessary touch-points as possible, the next event in our Hospitality and the Coronavirus series will be all about going contact-free.
To see what some of the industry’s experts had to say about implementing a safe guest journey, watch the recording of our contact-free guest experience webinar.