Reprinted from Hotel News Now
Hotel management executives shared their operating strategies for navigating a challenging year.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—The global COVID-19 pandemic has changed how hotels operate on a daily basis.
Leaner operations, staff turnover, more frequent and more visible cleaning and sanitation, all while delivering the traditional hotel “experience” to guests has made 2020 one challenging year.
Executives from hotel management companies shared the adjustments their properties made in response to the pandemic and how they continued to serve both guests and employees.
Ellen Sinclair, SVP at Benchmark, said her company anticipated the changes COVID-19 would bring in February and prepared its employees with health and safety training and how to communicate those changes to guests.
“You can buy all sorts of cleaning solutions and disinfectant and pass them out at the door, but if the person that’s checking you in or whatever interaction you have doesn’t understand what the rules are and why they’re important, it won’t make guests feel comfortable,” Sinclair said.
She added one significant change that could become a permanent fixture throughout the industry for the remainder of pandemic is heightened visibility of cleaning during daytime business hours.
“We always tried to do the Camelot approach—you sweep up the leaves at night and in the morning it’s all perfect again,” Sinclair said. “Cleaning was always something that was done away from the guests. And one of the first strategies was we brought it out in front, so people could see how frequently we were cleaning and doing those sorts of things.
“I think that’s probably going to stay,” she said. “People want to see that activity happening.”
Bruce Baerwalde, EVP of operations at McKibbon Hospitality, said in an email interview that as the pandemic began to take hold, the company rolled out a cleanliness initiative called “Our Clean Pledge,” a program intended to “provide our team with the tools and guidance necessary to safely and comfortably conduct their duties and ensure our guests’ confidence in the cleanliness and safety of our hotels.”
Peachtree Hotel Management adjusted its cleanliness and safety guidelines as global researchers revealed more about COVID-19, President Patrick Short said an email interview.
“In the beginning, the focus was on sanitation of hard surfaces and no guest contact, then we added the social distancing and mandatory masks,” Short said. “We will continue to make sure we take whatever measures we can to keep our guests and team members safe.”
Lower-demand periods also brought a renewed focus on cost-cutting strategies and renegotiating vendor contracts, Short said.
“We immediately went into cost containment and reduced staffing levels to account for the significant drop in occupancy and revenues,” he said. “We were able to negotiate some price or service reductions from hotel vendors, and we will continue to monitor (that) going into 2021.”
McKibbon similarly reduced staffing levels at its properties due to decreased demand and closely examined its spending, Baerwalde said.
“We did a deep-dive analysis on all our operating costs, adjusting where possible to help minimize the financial impacts on our ownership groups,” he said. “We evolved our property checklists to allow for the new hybrid roles to ensure that the hotels were cared for and the teams were able to stay ahead of any issues.”
As for what changes could remain in 2021, Baerwalde said it’s too soon to tell.
“There will be some parts of our adaption to COVID-19 that will remain permanent,” he said. “Knowing that we still have several months to go, we will finalize those decisions later in to 2021.”
Mike Marshall, president and CEO of Marshall Hotels & Resorts, said hotel operations look much different today than they did pre-pandemic.
“The fundamental way that we do business on the hotel side has changed,” Marshall said. “It’s been talked about ad nauseum, but we’re not cleaning stayovers. Our free breakfasts are very slimmed down. Our touchpoints have been tremendously cut down. We don’t have as many amenities as before.”
But Marshall said he hopes the industry doesn’t use the pandemic as an excuse to make too many cuts.
“I’ve stayed in some hotels where they’ve just they’ve cut back too much,” he said.
Managing employees throughout the pandemic has come with plenty of challenges, chief among them was furloughing or terminating positions in lower-occupancy hotels. Baerwalde said McKibbon was able to support some its furloughed or laid-off employees until unemployment benefits kicked in.
“We had to part with many of our valued associates at the hotels as well as our above-property support team,” he said. “To help provide an immediate financial resource for our associates, who were impacted by the layoffs and awaiting unemployment benefits, we created an Associate Assistance Fund to help with groceries and other expenses they were responsible for.”
In recent months, the company has begun to rehire some of its employees that lost their positions earlier in the crisis, Baerwalde said, adding that employees have shown much maturity and growth during the pandemic.
Sinclair said Benchmark aided its furloughed and laid-off employees applying for unemployment benefits.
“It was horrific for hospitality workers; there’s no doubt about it,” Sinclair said. “… Several of our properties figured out through the state governments how we could register all of our people for unemployment that weren’t working as a mass entry, so the employees didn’t have to go through those waiting lines (individually) that a lot of people did when they were filing for unemployment. So things like that, anything that we could do to continue to support them even if they were not physically on-property.”
For Benchmark’s employees that did stay on, Sinclair said communication became the company’s most important tool, which included regular letters from CEO Alex Cabañas and private Facebook accounts for each property.
“Luckily, a good majority of our staff did hang in there and have come back to work,” Sinclair said. “Unfortunately, in some cases we don’t have the work for them yet, because some of our markets haven’t come back as h3ly as we’d like.”
Delivering an experience
The nature of hospitality is service-centric, and that hasn’t gone away even if a front-desk agent is wearing a mask behind a plexiglass screen.
“It’s still hospitality; you’ve got to smile with your eyes because guests can’t see your smile under your mask,” Marshall said. “We’re training people to really understand that that guest is who’s paying your salary, so be welcoming. A lot of times that guest may not want to be traveling but has to travel. So be aware of that.”
Peachtree’s employees have strived to continue to deliver the best experience despite the restrictions of COVID-19, Short said.
“At the core of the hospitality business is service, and we will continue to strive to offer the best service at all of our properties despite the challenges of the pandemic,” he said.
Guests have noticed how hotel employees have responded during these challenging times, Baerwalde said.
“We are very appreciative of the guests that are still traveling, whether they are essential workers or leisure travelers in destination markets; we recognize that creating a safe and positive experience for them is more critical now than it has ever been,” he said. “We’ve seen an influx of positive reviews, notes of appreciation and voicemail messages detailing how our hotel teams have not only made guests feel safe and comfortable traveling during this time, but the impact of the kind gestures and little touches they’ve gone above and beyond to provide.”
Lessons learned and outlook
COVID-19 has brought plenty of perspective, especially its impact on the entire travel industry, Short said.
“This is not just a hotel industry problem; this is a travel and hospitality industry problem—restaurants, hotels, venues, etc.,” he said.
Baerwalde said COVID-19 has shown that hoteliers must look away from their street corners more often and “be in tune with global events at all times, anticipating their impacts on even the smallest of markets.”
“No one can predict when the next disrupting event will happen, but we can start each day with the mindset that tomorrow could be the day,” he said. “That approach will give us an edge on making the most of the moments with our guests and how we use the resources we make available.”
It’s likely that 2021 will be a soft year, even if it’s the first year on the road to recovery, Sinclair said. She added that disruption “accelerates trends,” meaning in the next few years hotels could look different with higher levels of tech adoption or hosting hybrid meetings.
“Oftentimes we’re afraid to change because we’re not sure how the public will embrace a shift,” Sinclair said.