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Some COVID-Related Changes Will Outlast the Pandemic

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August 11, 2021
Feature Article
Fran Worrall - fran@hospitalityupgrade.com

Experts Weigh in on Ways in Which the Hotel Landscape is Forever Altered

A year-and-a-half after COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the global hospitality industry, a sense of normalcy is finally returning. Families are making vacation plans, conferences are resuming, and weddings and other events are on the calendar once again. Yet, the fallout from the pandemic is palpable, with hotels having adopted a number of new COVID-related policies and procedures and industry experts predicting that many of the changes that occurred during 2020 – particularly those related to technology – will be long-lasting.

In this exclusive article, HU talked with leaders of some of the major hotel brands to find out what post-pandemic travel will look like at their properties. Here, they offer insights into the changes COVID wrought, some of which will linger for a while and others that will become a permanent part of the hotel landscape.

Safety and wellness are top of mind During the past 18 months, perhaps no single area of hotel operations has undergone more scrutiny than safety and wellness. Guestrooms have been decluttered, buffets have disappeared, and sanitizer stations have suddenly become de rigueur. Yet, many other more far-reaching measures were implemented to make sure consumers and employees feel confident.

Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, the world’s largest hotel franchising company, introduced 18 cleanliness attributes to its health and safety protocols. According to Scott Strickland, executive vice president and chief information officer, the information is shared throughout the brand’s entire ecosystem, including its website, mobile app, voice channels and distribution channels. “It was a heavy lift, with 9,000 hotels, but well worth the effort,” he said.

As part of its new operational procedures, the brand also implemented a new mobileenabled
housekeeping checklist. Covering every item that must be disinfected – from doorknobs to elevator buttons – the checklist ensures that nothing is overlooked. And at its managed portfolio properties, Wyndham is utilizing an employee health screening app to protect both staff and guests. Employees use the app before going to work to screen for common COVID symptoms. “If everything’s ok, they get the green light,” Strickland said, adding that employees will likely take more sick days in the future than they had in the past. “I think it will be frowned upon if you come to work coughing and hacking. Those days are over.”

IHG Hotels & Resorts, which includes 16 brands and 6,000 destinations, launched IHG Clean Promise, a guarantee that guestrooms, public areas and meeting spaces meet industryleading levels of cleanliness. Using science-based protocols and partnering with health and safety experts Cleveland Clinic, Ecolab and Diversey, IHG Clean Promise gives hotel guests and staff greater confidence. IHG is also providing technology-led training for its housekeeping teams around the world. And, according to Jeff Edwards, senior vice president of property, owner and enterprise products and platforms, that effort will continue. “As our cleaning programs evolve, we’ll look to technology to build smarter processes and optimize the labor force,” he said.

Aimbridge Hospitality, the global leader in third-party hotel management, has created health and safety protocols and training practices rooted in CDC guidance and industry-wide standards. Moreover, the company is investing in partnerships with national vendors such as Ecolab. According to Andrew J. Arthurs, chief information officer, Aimbridge is also collaborating with leading wellness organizations to achieve third-party validated health and wellness ratings. Most notably, more than 300 of the company’s properties in North America have achieved the WELL Health-Safety rating, which measures cleaning and sanitization procedures.

Similarly, Sonesta, which added a roughly 200-hotel portfolio from IHG and Marriott lastyear and 900 properties in March with the acquisition of Red Lion Hotels, is seeking third-party cleanliness certification for its properties. The company is also rethinking how housekeeping staff interacts with rooms. “We’re becoming more creative with scheduling, monitoring and
tracking,” said Jeffrey Cohen, vice president and chief information officer.

At Best Western Hotels & Resorts, which includes 18 hotel brands, the We Care Clean program addresses everything from guestroom and common area cleanliness to streamlined processes that minimize contact between guests and associates. According to Howard Dibler, vice president of technology management, the company-wide program is here to stay. “Cleanliness is a huge effort, and it will continue to be at the forefront of consumers’ minds for years to come,” he said.

Touchless Technology is Here to Stay  
 
What’s more, touchless technology will play a major role in the post-pandemic travel experience.
Contactless solutions not only address consumer safety concerns but also mitigate labor shortages and enhance guest service. And hoteliers around the world agree that these innovations are here to stay. Hilton was already working to expand the functionality of its Hilton Honors app when COVID-19 hit. So, the team simply went into overdrive. “The pandemic accelerated our innovation engine and produced a decade’s worth of positive change in a single year,” said Michael Leidinger, chief information officer.

Today, Digital Key – as well as other contactless functions of the app – is available to guests in 80 percent of the company’s hotels, which number more than 6,500 in 45 countries. Marriott also expanded its contactless offerings. “It’s about giving guests control and taking the anxiety out of travel,” said Yvette Vincent, continent technology leader for the U.S. and Canada. The company recently refreshed the Marriott Bonvoy mobile app to make it more intuitive. It now enables loyalty members to search and book rooms and home rentals, check in, receive a mobile key, make requests, order room service, check out and view earned points.

At select hotels, Marriott also offers contactless check-in and check-out via kiosk. Upon arrival, guests simply complete a three-step process at the kiosk, and room keys are created on the spot. Antimicrobial technology and UV light kill bacteria and viruses. Guests can use the kiosks to check out, view their folios and enroll
in the Marriott Bonvoy travel program.

According to Sonesta’s Cohen, his company has a distinct advantage when it comes to contactless solutions. “We don’t
currently have a mobile app that fits our organization’s size and scope, so we’re taking this opportunity to imagine what Sonesta’s ideal mobile app should look like,” he said. “We’ll deliver a contactless and seamless experience, of course, but we want to go beyond that. Rather than merely automating what we already do, we want to augment those services so that we deliver a unique value proposition to our guests through personalization.” The company is also exploring contactless solutions for food and beverage as well as implementing kiosks at some of its retail spaces.

Meanwhile, Loews Hotels & Co has implemented or expanded a number of contactless solutions. ‘Chat Your Service’, one of the luxury hotel company’s most popular branded programs, is a property-wide text messaging solution that enables guests to control the details of their stay. “We text guests after check-in and can handle any requests or questions they have via chat,” said Dan Kornick, chief information officer. Guests use their own mobile phones to make reservations, request directions or even ask for restaurant recommendations, no app required. Additionally, the company’s mobile food and beverage solution offers guests flexibility when ordering room service or placing orders at most of the brand’s restaurants. Using their own devices, guests can order in one of three ways: using a QR code, accessing the digital guest portal or simply using the ‘Chat Your Service’ solution.

Loews has also implemented mobile check-in and checkout capabilities at most of its properties. “We’re seeing positive adoption, with more than 34 percent of eligible guests engaging with us,” Kornick said. Moreover, the company offers contactless payments via Apple Pay and Google Pay at all of its hotels. Digital key capabilities are also being launched at many properties. As Aimbridge Hospitality welcomes travelers, the company is utilizing contactless solutions to streamline efficiency and allay guest fears. It recently implemented Medallia’s Zingle intelligent messaging technology, which delivers brand-differentiated guest service in real time.

Aimbridge is also exploring self-service food and beverage ordering. “Our hotels are known for providing personalized experiences, and contactless technology opens up new opportunities to elevate service and build consumer confidence,” said CIO Arthurs, adding that the company is seeing high levels of mobile key adoption across its portfolio. Most of Best Western’s properties are independently owned and operated, and many have already implemented touchless POS terminals at the front desk. “We make sure all hotels are aware of the benefits of contactless POS, and we make the suggestion, but each property has to decide whether or not to make that investment,” Dibler said. The company is also beta testing a solution that will allow guests to use their own Apple or Android devices as a mobile key. “It’s early stages, but we recognize that this is the future,” he said. “Everyone wants check-in to be as efficient and streamlined as possible.”

At IHG, digital check-in and check-out solutions are available at more than 3,000 properties across the U.S. and Canada. The company continues to enhance digital and mobile touchpoints that improve guest experiences when booking and paying for services, even allowing guests to pay with IHG Rewards points. It also is developing the next generation of the IHG app. According to Edwards, the company is working to create a more personalized digital experience for guests on property. With IHG Studio, guests will be able to make service requests, purchase on-property amenities, order room service, and stream content securely from their devices to the guestroom TV. Currently, more than 100 hotels are live on IHG Studio, with plans to expand. “These new solutions will be rolling out globally over the next few years, during which time we’ll add more content and features based on guest feedback,” he said.

At Wyndham, Strickland is especially excited about contactless solutions. “It’s where we’re democratizing travel and bringing function to the economy sector.” The company has a single mobile check-in and check-out solution as well as digital room keys for franchisees who want to make the investment. Wyndham also recently enabled contactless payment via Apple Pay and Google Pay at approximately 7,000 properties around the world.

Flexibility Continues to be Important

As the pandemic began to shut down the economy, most hotels eliminated restrictive policies, such as non-refundable rates, cancellation fees and charge penalties; and consumers became accustomed not only to more flexible offerings but also to upgrades and extras, often provided at minimal or no additional charge. Now that travel is picking up steam, will hotels continue to accommodate these new consumer expectations? The consensus is that flexible offerings will stick around, at least for the immediate future. “Flexibility is still among our guests’ top priorities,” said IHG’s Edwards. “They need to feel confident about their bookings.” So, even with travel restrictions easing, the company is offering best rate bookings that can be changed or refunded 24 hours in advance and IHG Rewards Nights that guests can change or cancel with no penalty.


Similarly, Hilton’s approach is to ensure guest confidence by continuing many of the policies and procedures that took hold during the pandemic. “We know that booking flexibility will continue to be important to our guests, and we want them to
know we are as loyal to them as they have been to us,” Leidinger said. Hilton Honors members, in particular, will continue to enjoy flexible benefits as well as special offers, including the lowest price on all Hilton branded hotels when booking directly through the company’s website or the Hilton Honors app. The loyalty program has also cut status qualifications in half, lowered milestone bonus night thresholds, and extended reward certificate expiration dates.

At Best Western, the rewards program has been upgraded to allow guests to use points toward the cost of their rooms. “Members no longer have to wait until they have enough points to pay for the room night,” Dibler said, noting that the
company is also seeing ‘trade-up travel’ during the recovery, with guests asking for and receiving luxury upgrades.


Meanwhile, Sonesta is taking a more measured approach. “We’re remaining flexible and listening
to our customers,” Cohen said. “And we’re taking it market by market.”  

Wyndham is encouraging last-minute travel via its new mobile app. Chief among the solution’s key offerings is Lightning Book, which allows road trippers to book the nearest Wyndham property in as few as three taps. They can also view their proximity to the hotel in real time and book using rewards. The company also launched Wyndham Direct, a complete booking, billing and tracking solution for business travelers. “During the pandemic, we discovered that a lot of small- to mid-sized companies don’t have corporate cards, and this solution gives them a streamlined travel program alternative,” Strickland said. A Wyndham Direct ID number, built into the mobile app, is used like a virtual credit card, enabling business travelers to book online at thousands of properties throughout the U.S. In addition to room charges, incidental charges like parking and food and beverage, can be included. Folio data is accessible through the client portal, and companies receive a single monthly bill. Strickland notes that services can be flexible, too. “During the pandemic, some guests didn’t want their rooms cleaned every day,” he said, predicting that this consumer behavior will remain. In response, the company is building functionality into its property management system that will note housekeeping preferences, giving guests flexibility in how and when services are delivered.

Back to the Business of Meetings
 
Hospitality insiders predict that in-person business meetings will come back, although the gatherings may look different —
at least for a while. “We know there is a desire to return to face-to-face meetings, but the business segment will take longer to recover than the leisure segment,” said IHG’s Edwards. Last year, the company introduced its ‘Meet with Confidence’ program to address the changing needs of meeting planners. Recently enhanced to include tools, resources and support for hybrid meetings, the program now provides more options than ever. As part of the additions to the program, IHG has formed
partnerships in the U.S. with Wellness 4 Humanity, Williams- Sonoma and weframe. These partners offer solutions including
rapid on-site COVID-19 testing, customized food and beverage options, and technology to enable digital collaboration.


Marriott has identified health protocol options that include COVID-19 testing and hybrid meeting solutions. According to
Vincent, the offerings build upon initiatives already in place as part of the company’s ‘Connect with Confidence’ program, which empowers meeting professionals to identify and tailor solutions that best meet the needs of their attendees.
 
Aimbridge Hospitality encourages its hotels to communicate health and safety brand programs to increase event attendee
confidence. The company also has partnered with a national health organization to give meeting planners the option of offering on-site rapid testing for attendees.

As part of Hilton’s EventReady with CleanStay program, the company recently launched a set of hybrid solutions. The new suite of offerings directs event planners to Hilton’s hybridready hotels and provides them with flexible customer offers as well as planning resources, including an expanded Hilton EventReady Playbook. According to Leidinger, the response has been enthusiastic. “As these resources expand and evolve, event planners are reporting high engagement and positive attendee satisfaction.”

Reason for Optimism   

Hospitality insiders agree that as the pandemic fades, the hospitality sector not only will regain its footing but also will thrive. In some cases, positive signs are already visible. “In terms of travel demand, we’ve noticed a significant lift in forward bookings and occupancy,” said Hilton’s Leidinger. In fact, he says, the company is on pace to see record leisure demand in the United States during the summer. And while recovery varies by region and country, the industry is seeing the light at the
end of the tunnel. “We’ve always had confidence in people’s desire to travel,” he said. “The fact that people are making new plans gives us a reason for that optimism.” Aimbridge Hospitality’s Arthurs agrees. “Travel confidence is on the increase as the mass vaccination effort continues and locations open up,” he said. “As we pivot from crisis mode to welcoming guests in a new normal, we’ll employ a layered approach that includes investing in associate training, forming partnerships with leading wellness and safety organizations, and offering solutions that elevate service and bring added convenience to guests.”

Ultimately, the hotel industry is resilient; and, of course, hospitable. Despite the many challenges the pandemic has presented, properties around the world are focused on a singular goal: creating a welcoming and reassuring environment for travelers. And more, the hotel leaders we interviewed were uniformly optimistic about the future of travel. “We’re in the caring business, and that will never change,” concluded Wyndham’s Strickland. “We’ll be ready when guests return.”


 

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