Reprinted from NY TIMES
Hilton has partnered with Lysol, Four Seasons with Johns Hopkins Medicine. But new research shows hotels can be easily contaminated by the coronavirus.
When Beau Phillips checked into a hotel near Toledo recently, a table in front of the counter barricaded him from getting too close to the clerk, who wore a mask and stood behind a plastic window.
“The key is gently tossed at you from three feet away,” said Mr. Phillips, a public affairs executive who was staying at a Radisson Country Inn & Suites while visiting family.
The hotel’s breakfast buffet was gone, the fitness center closed, elevators limited to two riders. And to reduce the risk of an in-person visit, after Mr. Phillips left his room each day, no housekeeper came in to make the bed.
The pandemic has plunged the hotel industry into a historic downturn. Average hotel occupancy dipped as low as 22 percent in late March, and had risen to a still miserable 48.1 percent the week ending July 25, according to STR, a market research firm. So hotels nationwide have embarked on a transformation of the most basic ways they run their business, aimed at showing would-be travelers they understand where they’re at: terrified.
Some new research suggests travelers might have a point. A study scheduled for publication in September in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases — but already made public by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on its website — found that people infected with the coronavirus shed it on pillow cases, duvet covers, sheets, light switch and bathroom door and faucet handles.
Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, in its new “Count on Us” pandemic marketing campaign, heralds the use of “hospital grade” cleaning products. It is putting on overt shows of sanitation: Housekeepers now linger and clean around the lobby, conspicuously wiping down public areas, luggage carts, door knobs, and the counter.
“In the past, we may have cleaned hotels in the overnight because you didn’t necessarily want to see people cleaning,” said Lisa Checchio, the chief marketing officer of Wyndham, the franchise parent of Wyndham, Days Inn, Super 8, La Quinta and more than a dozen other major brands among its 6,000 domestic hotels.
Hilton new program (marketing name: “CleanStay”) includes a partnership to use Lysol cleaning products that requires individual hotels to use the company’s products and display the Lysol logo “prominently.” Room cleanings include extra time spent on “high-touch areas” that included light and climate control switches, handles and knobs, telephones and clocks. And, or course, the remote control “which has one of the highest ick factors or perceived ick factors,” said Phil Cordell, Hilton’s global head of new brand development.
He recalled that one guest had wrapped the plastic lining from the ice bucket around the remote control before using it.
“People are understandably freaked out or hyper aware,” Mr. Cordell said.
The new research looked at the virus residue left by two “pre-symptomatic” patients there who were quarantined in China in March — students who had returned from overseas and were placed in hotels during a mandatory waiting period.
Their rooms were swabbed for evidence that the virus lingered after the students had been there 24 hours, but before the rooms were cleaned. The researchers said the study shows that hotel rooms must be rigorously cleaned between guest stays and done so with an eye to how the virus spreads.
“To minimize the possibility of dispersing virus through the air, we recommend that used linens not be shaken upon removal,” the study said, “and that laundered items be thoroughly cleaned and dried to prevent additional spread.
To show they are, indeed, rigorous in their cleaning, several chains are heralding the consulting they are getting from big-name medical institutions. Four Seasons said it signed a consulting agreement with Johns Hopkins Medical International as part of an effort “to inform health and safety decisions based on the latest scientific knowledge,” while Hilton retained counsel from the Mayo Clinic to develop “enhanced cleaning standards.”
All the attention to sanitation has created other issues. Since the masks employees are required to wear shroud smiles, Hilton, which has hotels throughout the world, has been experimenting with hand gestures to express warmth and welcome. “One is a very simple wave. In some cultures, it could be a bow,” Mr. Cordell said. “It could be hats off but with no hat — but that could look kind of weird — or a hand over heart.”
Choice Hotels, a conglomerate that owns brands including Quality Inn and EconoLodge, found in surveys that travelers wanted prepackaged breakfasts, not buffets, and that any fruit should be the kind that peels — bananas or oranges instead of, say, apples or strawberries. It also found that would-be guests wanted outdoor space and so it revamped websites of its upscale Cambria brands to highlight photographs of pools and rooftop decks.
(Some hotels are requiring reservations for the pool to keep density low.)
Given the industry’s dire economic crisis, some of the changes it’s adopting cost little, or even save money, said Bjorn Hanson, former dean of hospitality at New York University who has also spent years working inside the industry. For instance, he said, hotels can save money on housekeeping by not cleaning rooms every night, or by promising not to put guests in adjoining rooms, as some hotels have done (in reality, there’s not enough occupancy to have high density anyway).
“Safety doesn’t necessarily cost money,” he said. “It could be an excuse for saving money,”
Some would-be travelers say they’re just not ready to return, no matter the assurances.
“I’ve stayed at nice hotels in the past and found something sticky. If I found something sticky and smudgy now, it would send me to the moon,” said Kevin Mercuri, chief executive of a New York public relations firm. He and colleagues recently decided against visiting a client in Georgia partly to avoid hotels. His concern about hotels, in a nutshell: “Fear of infection.”
The C.D.C. has recommended that people who stay at hotels check in online, choose properties where staff wear masks and that regularly clean or remove shared-touch items, like pens or phones, and disinfect doorknobs, ice and vending machines, among other things.
Charles Gerba, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies hotel cleanliness, said hotels do not pose significant risk of transmission of Covid-19 so long as they clean with products known to kill the virus.
His own prior research has shown that housekeepers can carry viruses with them from room-to-room and guests can carry them from public areas, like conference rooms. Proper use of cleaning products, the research showed, sharply cut risk of transmission.
“If a product is EPA approved and you’re not using it right, it isn’t doing me any good,” he said, meaning that cleaning must be thorough and not taken lightly. He said he’d feel comfortable staying at a hotel, but would decline daily maid service, and bring his own hand sanitizer and wipes.
Other public health researchers said that the risk of a hotel stay depended heavily on an the customer’s own commitment to wearing a mask or remaining socially distant.
“You need to an make informed decision to maintain your space,” said Eyal Oren, an associate professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Bioinformatics at the San Diego State University School of Public Health. He said hotels do offer the prospect of such distancing, “which I’d distinguish from an airplane.”
For people who choose to travel, one perk comes at the expense of the hotels: the price. STR, the market research firm, projects the average cost of a nightly stay in 2020 will wind up at $103, down from $131 a year ago. (In July, the average rate was $97).
There are other savings too. Mr. Phillips always leaves a tip for the cleaning crew and did so again during his recent stay at the Country Inn & Suites outside of Toledo.
“The first day, I left a $20 for the housekeeper like I always do,” he said. “It was still there when I got back. No one had come in.”