The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the travel industry in seemingly every way imaginable. One area undergoing massive changes ― and preparing for more ― is the hotel business.
Public health experts are generally still advising against nonessential travel, but as states start to reopen, people are venturing off and booking hotel stays. And hotels are working to meet new demands in the age of COVID-19.
“Travelers want to feel safe, period,” Melanie Lieberman, senior travel editor at The Points Guy, told HuffPost. “Hotels will have to consider every amenity and service and determine what they can do to give travelers additional peace of mind. And though many of these changes may be temporary, some may be permanent.”
What might some of these changes be? HuffPost spoke to Lieberman and other travel experts to find out what the hotel experience may look like going forward.
Emphasis On Cleanliness
“Travelers will certainly hear hotels talk about their sanitization and cleaning protocols, and certain properties or brands may seek cleanliness certifications,” Lieberman noted. “The key here will be communicating their cleanliness standards to guests.”
Many hotels are already touting “enhanced” cleaning standards, which can include more thorough or frequent disinfecting of high-touch surfaces, the use of more aggressive products, and even new sanitation technology.
“Marriott, for example, said it’s going to use electrostatic sprayers and hospital-grade disinfectants,” Lieberman said. Other examples include the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s “Safe Stay” initiative, which includes new cleanliness measures, as well as Hilton’s “CleanStay” program and Accor’s “ALLSAFE” plan.
“Such things as UV light sanitizer or tech that can assist with social distancing have already started to show promise,” said Robb Monkman, founder and CEO of the hospitality safety brand React Mobile. “Hotels are also making use of digital signage reminding guests and staff about best practices.”
The increased emphasis on cleanliness could also lead to changes in many hotel room layouts and amenities. While there’s been a recent push toward the more eco-friendly bulk toiletry dispensers, some brands may return to single-use bottles. Hand-washing stations and hand sanitizers may also appear in key areas. And minibars could become a thing of the past.
“Hotels will need to evaluate what they put in the room beyond furniture as it will need to be sanitized on a daily basis, including throw pillows and blankets, printed menus, barware, and much more,” said Rob Karp, founder and CEO of the travel planning service MilesAhead. “A specific example is the chocolate or candy that many hotels leave in rooms at turndown ― I think many properties will begin to realize that guests won’t want this additional treat if it means that it could potentially be contaminated.”
Self-Service And Contactless Tech Solutions
“People go to a hotel to enjoy being taken care of, and now in a post COVID-19 world, hotels will need to find new ways to provide excellent service with limited human interaction,” said Adam Deflorian, founder and CEO of the hospitality technology and marketing firm AZDS Interactive Group.
That’s where technological advancements come in.
“Industry experts say ultraviolet, germ-killing lighting, germ-killing robots and contact-tracing apps could all be embraced by the hospitality industry.”
“There will be an acceleration of self-service tech solutions in hotels,” said Konrad Waliszewski, co-founder and CEO of the travel app TripScout. “Services that would have happened anyway over the next decade ― such as self-service and contactless check-ins, mobile keys, mobile check-ins, and mobile SMS/chat for requests ― will become the norm for hotels.”
The ability to use your phone to unlock your hotel room would be a game-changer, as would in-room automation like mobile apps to turn on the lights, control the TV, and order room service. Monkman noted that some hotels could even implement food delivery robots — like Cleo and Leo at Chicago’s EMC2 Hotel.
“Every hotel brand and individual property will respond differently to the call for change, but some hotels have turned to technology in a big way. Industry experts say ultraviolet, germ-killing lighting, germ-killing robots and contact-tracing apps could all be embraced by the hospitality industry,” Lieberman suggested. “The Westin Houston Medical Center is already using germ-fighting robots, so it’s no longer the stuff of science fiction.”
Although recent research suggests that the coronavirus does not spread as easily through contaminated surfaces as previously thought, these measures are still useful to reduce risk and make guests and employees feel safer.
“Many hotels were adopting mobile digital check-in and digital keys prior to the pandemic — so it’s possible, after COVID-19, the days of the hotel room key will be numbered,” Lieberman said. “Or maybe not. As with almost everything these days, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and the situation is always changing.”
Masks And Temperature Checks
“Unquestionably, I think you’ll begin to see mask requirements for guests and staff,” said Deflorian. “It is proven that face coverings can significantly reduce the spread of the coronavirus. I think you’ll begin to see the opportunity to have branded masks for employees, as well as new training methods to teach staff how to show emotions while still wearing their face covering.”
Whether or not hotels require masks in public spaces may vary based on local and national requirements for businesses as well.
“Many hotels may choose to implement temperature checks upon arrival,” Deflorian added. It’s possible this kind of temperature screening technology will come along with previously mentioned enhancements like mobile check-in, digital keys and contactless payment.
“Most, if not all hotels, will be mandated to have fewer rooms open for service, and they will use this to market their properties as safe and secluded vacation destinations,” Karp predicted. “For example, if a hotel or resort has 100 rooms, only 60 will be available for bookings.”
He added that many hotels may implement minimum multiple-night-stay policies (i.e. requiring guests to stay for more than a night or two) to make up for lost revenue while maintaining a lower occupancy.
Having fewer guests on the property will help keep people spaced out, as will changes in lobby layouts and other public areas.
“I think from an operations standpoint, you’ll start seeing lobbies with socially distanced tables, frequent disinfectants and more outdoor seating and dining,” Deflorian said.
Monkman added that he foresees physically distanced queues, partitions at front desks and no scheduled entertainment offerings that require guest interactions. He noted that some brands like Accor are even offering guests free access to telemedicine consultants and connections to other medical services.
“I think the days of buffets are gone,” Deflorian said. “Even well after a full recovery, I think guests will be very much concerned about buffets, but I do think there will be an increase in demand for in-room dining.”
Lieberman, however, believes buffets will survive but are not likely to remain self-service. Physically distanced lines and barriers like sneeze guards may also alter the experience.
“As the pandemic picked up, we saw a significant reduction in buffet service all across the travel industry. Airport lounges, for example, suspended self-service stations in favor of prepackaged food with individually wrapped flatware and single-serve condiments,” she said. “Some Las Vegas resorts closed buffets altogether. As with most things, we’ll probably see a gradual, phased approach to hotel buffets. Some might opt for grab-and-go, individually packaged foods, while others might opt for buffets to be staffed, rather than self-service.”
“I think from an operations standpoint, you’ll start seeing lobbies with socially distanced tables, frequent disinfectants and more outdoor seating and dining.”
Beyond buffets, new hotel dining procedures might involve dining rooms operating at reduced capacity and more guests reserving private dining rooms or balconies for meals. Monkman suggested automats could make a comeback.
Reservations For Amenities
“Similar to guests making a massage appointment, hotels may now require advance-timed reservations for using the tennis court, pool, spa and other amenities where guests can be in close proximity,” Karp noted.
“Golf courses in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic are operating by spacing tee times to promote safe distancing,” he added. “Any use of public facilities at hotels and resorts will need to be treated with extreme care as many guests, including potential carriers, use it on a daily basis.”
Elevator safety has become a concern not only for hotels, but for high-rise office buildings and apartment complexes as well. Deflorian and Monkman believe that frequent sanitizing and limits on the number of riders will be common practice.
“Americans will be in the best shape of all time because most of us will choose the stairs,” Deflorian joked.
“If nothing else, travelers should expect to see hand-sanitizing stations deployed to high-touch areas all over hotels, including by elevators,” Lieberman noted. “Who knows? Maybe elevator attendants will make a comeback.”
More Direct Bookings
Waliszewski believes more travelers will book their stays directly with the hotel, rather than a third-party service like Expedia or Booking.com.
“Travelers struggled to figure out if the cancellations and changes were the responsibility of the hotel or who they booked it through,” he said, recalling the early days of the pandemic when people rushed to alter their travel plans. “Many who didn’t book directly with a hotel got screwed, or at least had a lot more hassle.”
Waliszewski also thinks hotel brands may capitalize on this shift of power away from those third-party sites.
“More people will book directly with the hotel in order have more flexibility and protection,” he said. “You already saw brands like Marriott only give reward points to customers who book directly, but expect many more perks to not be available unless booking direct.”
New Packages And Programming
“Hotels will need to figure out ways to entice guests to come, which will be challenging, particularly because the airline lift is so limited,” Deflorian said. “I think for resorts, we will begin to see all sorts of new outdoor programming and new fitness, ‘one of a kind’-type experiences ― paddleboarding, snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, etc.”
Waliszewski believes hotels may cater to local travelers craving a “staycation” as stay-at-home measures are lifted.
“People will appreciate much more what’s in their own neighborhood, will want to support local businesses, and will have to do something different since many of the obvious nature experiences will be crowded and booked up,” he said. “The hotels that embrace this with earlier check-in times and better spa packages will help offset their decline of business travelers.”