Reinvention Tension

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June 16, 2020
Disruption
Michael Shubach - michaelshubach@me.com

Most of us are familiar with the myth of the phoenix, which comes to us from ancient Greece by way of Albus Dumbledore and Harry Potter. In its Greek incarnation, the phoenix was a long-lived bird that died spectacularly in flames to be born again, reconstituted as a scion of a successor generation, ready to start a new life. 


Today we are reliving the myth of the phoenix. We are witnesses to – and participants in – the fiery death of our own industry. We stand hopefully by, awaiting the rebirth of the world we knew and recognized. We just want things to be like they were last December. You remember last December, don’t you? That bygone era of those good old days now shrouded in the mists of time. It was a time when vacations could be planned and conferences could be booked; back then hotels were establishments where people ate and slept, and airports were places where planes took off and went places. Yeah… that last December.

But here we depart from the traditional myth of the phoenix. The ancient Greek birds were carbon copy regenerations of their former selves. Although our next generation is destined to be born out of our currently raging inferno, it seems very likely to evolve into something very different – and that’s perhaps as it should be. After years of Millennial shaming (and here I must plead guilty), it’s time for us to realize that a dramatically different next generation is probably a good thing. 

Subsequent generations are designed to be different than the ones they follow, else what’s the point? Our problem isn’t them – the real challenge is the rest of us who are left behind on the experience side of the curve, trying to sort our way through a generational transition and a new reality. We phoenixes once removed remember how it used to be. We knew what we wanted and what to expect. The longer we manage to hang on, the more accustomed we become to a previous status quo. Now the elder generation faces its worst nightmare, the same nightmare that has faced every elder generation: we must either adapt to a new reality or resign ourselves to complaining endlessly about it. Since I tend to see both sides of every dichotomy, my best path forward is to do some of both. 

We’re drowning in data about the pandemic that isn’t really helping anything and desperately shy on experience that should be. We didn’t spend a lot of time practicing for this life changing event. There were no pandemic drills, and no how-to handbook on getting ready to do nothing at home all day, every day until what we didn’t see coming disappears again.

Until this year, no one, except maybe the odd survivalist here and there, had an 18-month supply of toilet paper and hand sanitizer hidden in their home. 

Until this year, no one could have foreseen that chicken nuggets and sani-wipes would become priceless commodities. Until this year, the only serious conversation I’d ever heard about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 was in a season two episode of Downton Abbey in 2012, when Lavinia, Matthew’s fiancĂ©, died just before their wedding. Now the Spanish Flu comes up every third day or so. Until this year, surgical masks were rarely seen outside a hospital or an airport, and even in those locations the wearers constituted a scant minority. Now masks are de rigueur for everywhere that’s not inside your own home. Until this year, our health and economic concerns were generally on separate paths. Certainly there were always points of intersection – the high cost of insurance and healthcare, as well as the convergence of serious illness and bankruptcy. However, despite the obvious interleaving, they were in general held to be two separate topics. The pandemic has changed all that; health and well-being is no longer a lifestyle choice, it is an advanced class in self-defense. The economy began faltering while we were checking to see if we had a temperature, and when so many of us did, the world economic engine, including our beloved industry, plummeted and then ground to a complete halt while we were sheltering in place. 

We 20th and 21st Century creatures are accustomed to having ready answers at our fingertips. Statistics, the holy scripture of the modern era, are in plentiful supply but shockingly short on meaning. They easily lead us to any conclusion that our personal or political preferences will allow us to believe. Take the incredible number of COVID-related deaths – whatever that number might rightly be – and put it over a monstrously large denominator like the population of the United States at 335 million or the world population at 7.8 billion, and all those painful, grisly, horrid, lonely deaths barely produce a statistical blip.

As I write this in April, the number of COVID-related deaths in the US remains fairly small; it is ramping up toward the annual average of US automobile fatalities at 38,000. As “back to business as usual” advocates point out, we’ve never even considered closing down the entire economy due to traffic deaths; why would we do it for the spread of a rare and obscure virus?  Or, to borrow an apt question from the immortal Bugs Bunny, “What’s all the hubbub, bub?” 

There are two answers to consider: (1) traffic accidents are not communicable and (2) we’ve gone from zero to 38,000 in one-tenth of a year. We won’t continue at that rate, but the speed of infection and death confirms what your eyes and ears tell you about the 6 o’clock news: a tsunami is passing through – and completely disrupting – the ordinary bell curves that define normal life. That last sentence may help us understand how and why we must define the pathway to a new normal. The problem is less about what’s killing people this year and more about what matters most to the public: the perception of reasonable safety as we go about living our daily lives.

If that point is credible, then the problem we must solve in order to reopen hospitality and tourism is not how to prevent or eliminate the virus – although that’s an incredibly good idea that would definitely help even if it’s months or years away – but how, in the meantime, do we restore consumer (guest) confidence in the hospitality industry? 

The analogy that keeps coming to mind for me is the Shoe Bomber.It was a failed attempt at terrorism but it exposed a vulnerability that we hadn’t previously considered. Once risks and vulnerabilities are exposed, our reality must change to prevent others from being harmed by those hazards; this is the basic theory behind the science of risk management. We must accommodate the measures that reduce risk and eliminate those that increase it, hence the need for today’s non-TSA PreCheck travelers to remove their footwear, now and forever. We must face a very important fact: COVID-19 successfully shoe-bombed the human race, and viral terrorism is a very real factor in play during a pandemic.  

The two steps that all pandemic-functional businesses are already taking are enforcing social distancing and minimizing face-to-face and fingertip contact. These measures are table stakes; COVID-19 has already taught us that venturing into unfamiliar realms requires both personal protection and public accommodation. Nothing will significantly change until both these requirements have been addressed during every step of every guest journey. 

Each scenario requires a different level of concern and response. This line of future planning shifts emphasis from hotel technologies in the front office to the architecture and planning of new hotel construction and to the departments that really shoulder the impact of a pandemic: F&B and housekeeping. If hospitality is an essential industry in a pandemic, then housekeepers and servers are our key essential associates. We need to start thinking about our front lines in these terms. 

You can easily foresee different kinds of service options: dining, whether with  company or in seclusion. Similarly, different levels of housekeeping, including the delivery of shrink-wrapped supplies, could be implemented to satisfy a rising expectation of those guests who wish to control their own environment. Sadly, this new and still-hypothetical method of service delivery conflicts with the procedures we put into place to help us through our last pandemic: mass shootings. In the past three years, hotels have been mandating regular staff entry into occupied rooms in the name of safety checking. So now does safety mean the staff coming in or staying out of occupied rooms? 

Finally, we can’t leave hotel employees themselves out of the service re-envisioning process. Those on the service front lines and those who travel from guestroom to guestroom must face the greatest risk, and that will require new defensive procedures, equipment and uniforms as we go through the process of redefining hospitality in a post-pandemic world. 

As I think about all the things that can or should be reviewed or changed – I wonder if there is a better analogy for our brave new world than the phoenix. I think The Wizard of Oz might be a better model for our situation. In that paradigm, our lives went on hold as a twister ripped across the terrain. We were blown into unfamiliar territory with little or no warning and are now strangers in a strange land. We only have one objective: to go back home. We are searching everywhere for aid and support; the only person with some sort of magical answer to our problems seems to have disappeared. In the meantime, we end up having to rely on a ragtag army that suffers from shortages of insight, compassion and courage. Finally, when we at long last return, home is somewhere different. People and places have been changed both for better and for worse, but all have been changed for good.      

In comparing our saga to Dorothy’s, there are only two mistakes we can really make. The first is to assume that when we get back home, it’s supposed to be the way it was when we left it. Home has forever been altered by the tornado and its after-effects. The second mistake is the more serious and potentially the far more deadly one: the assumption that we made it through the only tornado heading our way. We owe ourselves and subsequent generations better pandemic preparedness. After all, this event might just parallel retrieving the broomstick from the Wicked Witch of the West: it might just be that very small task we were asked to perform in order to prove ourselves worthy of the Wizard’s help. 

What Matters Most to the Public: The Perception of Reasonable Safety as We Go About Living our Daily Lives.

If guest confidence equates to the ability to travel without getting sick or making family members sick upon return, then there are three major areas of response required to bolster guest confidence:

1. Touchless technology for everyone.
We must consider every aspect of any guest stay, minimizing the possibility that we either spread or fail to contain the risks associated with arrival, departure and doing business with and within the hotel. The enabling technologies are already in play, or may just require simple, minor variations on existing themes. Secondarily, the paper products disbursed in and outside of the guestroom including folios, receipts, periodicals, tent-cards, menus and compendia must become things of the past. I leave it to the rest of this edition and future issues of Hospitality Upgrade to explore suggestions and possibilities – every vendor and technology hotshot will have something to say about evolving hospitality technology in the coming months and years. PS: If anyone can figure out how to incorporate social distancing and touchless technology into elevators and escalators, there’s a Nobel Prize in it for you.    

2. Systemic changes having nothing to do with technology.
Hotels will evolve to be something different than they are today as we work to neutralize the risks associated with building-wide and especially ship-wide cohabitation. Some things  may have to change forever. If a hotel dining room is suspect, can you imagine the risk that stalks a breakfast buffet or an executive club happy hour? Is it responsible to carpet hotel meeting and sleeping rooms? Should hand sanitizer replace hand lotion as an in-room supply? Do guests need to be notified if there is a medical event within the property? Do loyalty club members get disposable gloves at check-in? What level of responsibility resides with an Airbnb provider, both during and between stays?  

3. Reasonable changes to hotel operations by guest type or segment.
Does a virus discriminate by guest or business type? I certainly hope not, but the likelihood of exposure and contraction is strongly influenced by the habits of a building’s occupants. Commercial travel requires comparatively little revamping; the typical business stay tends toward a shorter duration and a single occupancy. Leisure travel tends to the other end of the spectrum: more occupants per room, longer stay durations and greater use of hotel amenities and facilities. Sandwiched in the middle are group and conference attendees who travel on business but tend to congregate and interact socially and professionally in larger groups and in closer proximity to strangers. 



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