The lodging industry in America and worldwide faces new standards and expectations of what it means to be clean, sanitized and safe in the age of COVID-19. Areas that once were given cursory attention by housekeeping are now front of mind for owners and operators as well as brands, which in recent weeks have launched and joined industrywide efforts to ensure travelers hotels are safe places to stay.
This past Memorial Day weekend, lodging accommodations throughout the U.S. had varying occupancy levels. Long Live Lodging followed several Facebook hospitality groups and read members’ postings about their experiences throughout three-day holiday.
Properties in destination areas such as beaches, mountain resorts and amusement parks reported highest occupancies while hotel operators in other areas had 20 percent to 30 percent occupancy. Still others remained closed, especially in states that have had yet to fully reopen.
A few days before the weekend began, the American Hotel & Lodging Association predicted “dismal” business performance for the nation’s hotels, and called on Congress to approve additional funding to rescue and buoy the hospitality industry.
The U.S. hotel industry has begun its comeback as all states are reopening their economies. According to STR, the numbers show that occupancy is slowly but steadily increasing as hotels get back to business. But, to be sure, it is not business as usual.
People planning leisure or business trips this summer might believe every hotel and motel in America has undergone deep cleaning and now practices heightened housekeeping protocols. But Patrick Mullinix, owner and CEO of Advantage Hotels, which has about a dozen franchised properties in the U.S., says he recently discovered that’s not so. He fears lackadaisical owners are in danger of losing their businesses to the coronavirus.
After being cooped up at home for nearly two months, Mullinix left his home in Austin, Texas, a few weeks ago and drove throughout the central part of state to explore the lay of the land.
“It was a real eye-opener from a number of perspectives,” he said.
LISTEN: Listen to Episode 271 of Lodging Leaders podcast on the cost and other considerations associated with the new cleaning and sanitizing standards being implemented at hotels.
Mullinix said he was pleased to see the number of people out and about. Limited-service properties in the economy segment seemed to be doing more business than their higher-priced counterparts. He talked to owners and operators who reported 30 percent to 50 percent occupancy.
He also paid attention to how the hotels handled health and safety in the age of coronavirus.
“You know, I’m a hotelier but I’m also a guest, and when I’m traveling I feel like a consumer. So I kind of look at things from a consumer set of optics. What I found is some of the major brands I think are doing a pretty good job of training, getting the word out to their individual locations, and those operators are heeding the advice and directives of the some of the COVID procedures and some of the safety and health items that need to be implemented at a very good level,” he said.
“On the flip side of that, (I was) very disappointed to see some of the independent operators, the majority of them not practicing any preventative measures. And it was concerning. It gave me great, great concern about our industry, that not everybody is getting the message.”
Industry leaders have huddled to come up with ways to spread the message.
AHLA has launched a program called Safe Stay.
AHLA says on its website that Safe Stay is “designed to change hotel industry norms, behaviors and standards to ensure both hotel guests and employees are confident in the cleanliness and safety of hotels once travel resumes.”
Participating on the program’s advisory council are AAHOA, major hotel companies and hotel ownership and management groups.
Hilton produced this infographic that details areas in a hotel guest room that are to be cleaned and disinfected in the new-coronavirus world.
COVID-19 is a tricky virus and national health care officials continue to learn how the illness is contracted. For that reason, AHLA’s Safe Stay program undergoes almost daily updates and relies on information and guidance from organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
Along with Safe Stay, individual hotel companies have rolled out new cleaning protocols.
On April 27, Hilton announced new cleaning protocols, working with the Mayo Clinic and RB, the maker of Lysol.
The week before, Marriott International announced the rollout of its hygiene program and bringing attention to a device called an electrostatic sprayer.
Rajan Batra, senior national account manager with HD Supply, said though the tool has been around for some time, it’s getting a new shine as hotels devise methods to combat the transmission of COVID-19.
The sprayers supercharge the disinfectant with static electricity, which makes the solution adhere to surfaces. It is especially good at getting to areas that are hard to reach by hand, such as nooks and crannies and oddly shaped objects. Officials recommend that the sprayers are used instead of hand-wiping with disinfectant.
The cost of an electrostatic sprayer averages around $1,000. OSHA, CDC and EPA all recommend using chemicals that are approved by the EPA. The agency’s list of approved antimicrobial products can be found here.
Batra said using EPA-approved products is important because the electrostatic sprayer alters the makeup of compounds. “What goes into the machine is not necessarily the same that comes of the machine,” he said, noting the size of the particles that come out of the sprayer is important.
Batra, who has degrees in microbiology and virology from the University of Bombay in India, said he’s witnessing a phenomenon that’s come about during the COVID-19 crisis: “People are actually reading the labels and instructions on how to use products.” That’s always been important, but Batra said cleaning crews are more aware of the importance of using the right product to fight the virus. In many cases, hotels had the right products in stock before the crisis but housekeepers often did not use them to their full extent.
That’s changed now and what’s as important as the products and equipment used to clean a hotel room or a public area is the training of the housekeeping staff as the industry begins to reopen to guests.
Long Live Lodging’s LodgingStream digital conference on April 30th featured a session called The New Workplace. Panelist Imesh Vaidya, CEO of Premier Hospitality in Albuquerque, New Mexico, talked about the changes he faces in doing business. The key, he said, is to have a plan and be prepared to deal with the unexpected.
“The changes we’re implementing are drastic,” he said, noting he puts the same value on protecting his employees as on ensuring guest safety. Hoteliers who fail to do that will see a decline in business. Imesh employs about 15 people in each of his limited-service hotels. If one employee falls ill to COVID-19 that would result in 75 percent of his staff being quarantined and unable to come to work.
Keeping employees safe is “at the heart” of the post-COVID-19 comeback, said Angelo Lombardi, principal owner of LodgingControls, which has created a software program that enables a hotel housekeeping department to manage cleaning processes through handheld devices.
Lombardi was a panelist in another session at the LodgingStream digital conference called The New Standard of Clean, which explored how hotels are applying new hygienic solutions. Lombardi, a 25-year veteran of the hotel industry, including a stint as head of housekeeping, was also COO at La Quinta Inn & Suites.
He advocates that hotels go beyond merely training housekeeping in the new cleaning standards and create a program in which they are certified. Lombardi recommends hotels develop “first-responders” that go into a guest room right after checkout to disinfect. Areas often overlook include the back of the TV, PTAC unit and textiles such as curtains. After a room is disinfected, it should be inspected and then rebuilt to receive the next guest. Lombardi said several brands are taking these steps.
WATCH: To view Long Live Lodging’s digital conference, LodgingStream: A Brave New World, click here.
Wyndham Hotels & Resorts earlier this month launched a campaign called Count On Us that focuses on health and safety at its 6,000-plus hotels in the U.S. The franchiser said it will dropship supplies to hotels to be sure owners and operators have what they need on hand for their employees and guests.
In drop shipping, the goods come directly from the manufacturer or supplier and leaves out the need for hotel managers to have to find the products at retailers and suppliers. Wyndham has teamed up with Ecolab for the program.
Wyndham said it will provide supplies such as face masks, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes “at cost” and will defer payments until Sept. 1.
LISTEN: Listen to Episode 270 of Lodging Leaders podcast that features Lisa Checchio, chief marketing officer of Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, and other hotel marketing experts who share insights about what messages the industry should be sending to current and prospective travelers in the age of COVID-19.
Cost of Clean
When rolling out new cleaning protocols and mandates, major brands have advised the costs to owners will either be minimal or neutral because hotels had already budgeted for cleaning tools and chemicals.
Lombardi noted that it may not take any more time to clean a room than it did before the coronavirus pandemic but it will call for a new process.
Jim Lopolito of Lopolito Hospitality Consultants joined Lombardi on the New Standard of Clean panel and offered a different point of view. He expects the cost to clean and sanitize a hotel or a restaurant will increase post-coronavirus crisis, straining profit margins that were growing thinner even before the pandemic. Lopolito took into account not only the purchasing of equipment such as electrostatic sprayers and their chemicals but signage for front and back of house, personal protection equipment for employees, hand sanitizer and sanitizing stations as well as the ongoing cost of training. “There are a lot of components that go into calculating the actual cost,” he said.
Another major change, he said, will be the documentation processes that hotels will have to adopt to ensure the mitigation of risk and protection from lawsuits.
Mullinix said though the hotel industry was anticipating lackluster business performance for 2020, the coronavirus has dramatically harmed the industry. “The health crisis has created an economic problem,” he said. Yet, he visited properties where employees were not wearing masks and no hand sanitizer was available. He saw housekeepers unmasked and ungloved and going into rooms with the usual cleaning items. Most of the properties in which Mullinix witnessed the lackadaisical attitude were independent motels and hotels.
Getting back to business and saving the hotel industry will require awareness. “Awareness can be summarized in education and understanding of the situation,” he said. “We are going through a time when consumers are scared and nervous. If we all don’t devise action plans to go through it … I see some strong implications for those hotel owners who are not prepared; they will not take part in the recovery. And for some owners, it’s not looking good.”
Commercial construction starts dramatically plummeted in April because of the coronavirus crisis, reports Dodge Data & Analytics. In May, commercial starts saw a slight uptick. Hotels under construction when the pandemic hit continue to move forward but contractors are challenged with the unexpected costs of providing workers with personal protection equipment and complying with OSHA’s newly minted health and safety standards. Hotel developers, meantime, are not in a hurry to see projects across the finish line as demand in travel remains low. Long Live Lodging reports about the state of hotel construction as part of our ongoing special report on the coronavirus crisis and its impact on the hotel industry.
In the first quarter of this year, more than 140 new hotels opened in the U.S., reported Lodging Econometrics. In March, the U.S. had 150,000 rooms under construction, said STR. It’s the highest end-of-month total the company has reported. Jan Freitag, senior vice president of lodging insights at STR, said he expects hotel construction to read more