No vacancies: how hotels cope in a pandemic
Global health issues can cause major problems for hotel managers given that the industry relies on people from all around the world meeting and mingling, and potentially transferring germs and bacteria from guest to guest. So, what can hoteliers do to reduce the spread of health issues, and how can a pandemic impact the hotel industry? Alex Love finds out.
The hotel industry is facing a crisis like no other. Covid-19 has caused the majority of establishments around the world to close, and the pandemic has exposed just how vulnerable the hotel industry is to travel restrictions.
The spread of Covid-19 has also brought cleaning to the forefront of everyone’s mind. And without careful management, hotels can be a hotbed for bacteria.
With sometimes thousands of guests staying in close proximity and different people using rooms from night to night, stringent hygiene protocols are essential to combating the spread of germs.
“The nature of hotels - especially large-scale ones - means that mass amounts of people are confined to a small area, which is an ideal environment for the spread of a virus,” says GlobalData travel and tourism analyst Ralph Hollister. “Determining a plan of action for deep-cleaning hotel guest rooms, meeting spaces, restaurants, fitness centres and other public areas will be important. Good hotel hygiene protocols, such as implementing hand sanitiser stations and frequent cleaning of high-touch areas are also important to protect from infection.”
In order to further reduce germs spreading, contact between guests and staff should be minimised wherever possible. This has reduced in recent years due to technology allowing more online payments, while some hotels are also offering check-in and key collection via touchscreen kiosks. However, there is no substitute for cleaning.
“Constant cleaning and ensuring that public areas are cleaned throughout the day more often than before will help alleviate the concerns from guests,” explains Anchalika Kijkanakorn, founder and managing director of Akaryn Hotel Group, which runs luxury resorts in Thailand.
Hotel chain Marriott has also recently announced the launch of a platform to promote cleanliness, deploying electrostatic sprayers to clean rooms and communal areas with “hospital-grade disinfectant”, as well as UV lights. In addition, the chain is considering adding partitions at its front desks, along with providing gloves and face masks for staff.
Away from communal areas, a private hotel room with an en suite bathroom is an effective place to self-isolate during a pandemic. In fact, ex-footballers Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs have offered rooms in the UK hotels they own to NHS workers who are treating patients with coronavirus and unable to return home. While in the US, approximately 15,000 hotels have signed up to a scheme to offer rooms to emergency services personnel.
Another tool hotels can use to fight germs is the laundry facilities, washing items at high temperatures to kill bacteria. It’s not just bedding that’s washed, but also increasingly staff clothing.
“We are really taking this ever so seriously to try and make sure we keep our staff and all of our guests as safe as possible,” says Neil McDonald, owner of the Priory Inn in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, UK.
“We've actually now issued clothing - hoodies, trousers, gloves and PPE equipment - for all our staff. And what we what we said to them: ‘You can just come into work, you can get changed into your clothes. We will then wash these items on a daily basis’. We've got the facility to do this. And then when they leave, they just leave us the clothes and they'll get washed for their next shift.
We've actually now issued clothing - hoodies, trousers, gloves and PPE equipment - for all our staff.
“We've also got an EH officer on site that we've consulted with to try and help us make sure that we're doing everything in our best interests for our staff and obviously our customers.”
The Priory Inn is a pub and restaurant, with 14 hotel rooms, and currently closed to the public. However, there are other people staying there.
“We've had to segregate our hotel. We've got two floors. We've just rented out the whole top floor for a team working on a local care home right next door. They are going to take over the top floor for the next three weeks to finish the care home so that they can then use that for Covid-19 patients and the local hospital,” adds Neil.
“We've got another exit for the hotel, so that they can come in and go out without actually seeing or meeting any of our staff.”
Keeping the business running
In a time of global crisis, hotels without large cash reserves have had to figure out other ways to generate revenue.
Tetbury’s The Priory Inn has started running a new service entirely. Having only taken over the business at the start of March this year, owner Neil McDonald soon discovered he was unable to furlough all his staff on the government scheme. As a result, he has overseen the launch of a food delivery service to the surrounding area, with existing staff now working as delivery drivers.
“We’d just taken over a big business, with big operating costs, and 47 staff members,” explains Neil. “We had to do something. So that's when we decided to open a shop in our conference room to start developing a box delivery. We started with a fruit and veg box. And we were driving down to the market in Bristol to collect fruit and veg daily and coming back, boxing it up. It was just a really simple concept for £10.
Our revenue is probably bigger than what we would actually do operating as a hotel.
“What happened, over literally 72 hours, was our phone didn't stop ringing. We couldn't keep up.”
Neil explains that a friend then setup an online ordering platform, which has allowed for greater management of orders. The delivery service has expanded to now offer different boxes containing items such as meats, cheeses, and cakes, as well as cooked meals that just need warming up.
“Last week, we did 1,500 deliveries,” he adds. “Our revenue is probably bigger than what we would actually do operating as a hotel.”
Elsewhere, other UK hotels have been receiving funds to house homeless people during the pandemic.
“Hotels have been finding ways to recover their losses. For example, London Mayor Sadiq Khan's office worked with Intercontinental Hotels Group to block-book rooms at a discounted rate for 12 weeks from 23 March for the homeless. Although it’s at a discounted price, some revenue is better than no revenue at all,” adds analyst Ralph Hollister.
The economic outlook
There is speculation that the majority of UK hotels may not be able to fully reopen until the end of the year. Many hospitality businesses have been forced to close and are dependent on government support in order to survive. In a recent appearance before the Commons Treasury Committee, UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls described a potential “bloodbath” for the industry if bills couldn’t be paid.
And globally, hotels face a bleak economic outlook for the rest of 2020 amid widespread travel restrictions.
“I believe that all hoteliers are suffering to various degrees depending, from job losses to furlough, to suspension of hiring,” adds Anchalika Kijkanakorn. “It will take more than 1.5 years for us to recover from this. Personally, I think this year is a write-off. We are hoping that next year will see some recovery but it won't be in full.
“For my company, we are now taking the down time to renovate, refurbish, clean up and streamline all parts of operations to ensure that we are efficient, clean and in perfect condition when we reopen. We are pretty busy now with this.”
While the full scale of the economic impact isn’t yet known, it is projected to run into hundreds of billions of dollars. However, there are predictions that the industry will rebound strongly back in 2021.
The financial impact of Covid-19 will be detrimental to the industry.
“The financial impact of Covid-19 will be detrimental to the industry, especially for independent and small-scale businesses that do not have the cash reserves of large multi-national corporations. There is no clear indication of how big the financial impact will be for the hotel industry as it still unknown when restrictions will be lifted globally,” adds Ralph Hollister.
“The global business travel sector is expected to take a revenue hit of about $820bn according to the GBTA (Global Business Travel Association); it is likely that hotels will take a large part of this hit as business travel requires the use of hotels. Leisure travel for hotels has not even been accounted for here, so you can imagine the financial impact Covid-19 is creating for the industry.
“I think the hotel industry will bounce back, although consumer confidence will have declined in general due to the economic impact of Covid-19, there will be a pent-up demand for leisure travel across the globe; so if the pandemic has ended before 2021, there will be a surge in travel next year. Hotels will reopen; the majority are still continuing to accept reservations for stays many months from now to maintain their revenue streams.
“One predicament hotels face is how to price their rooms during and after the Covid-19 pandemic with most hotel companies currently not rushing in to dropping prices too quickly or too severely. The hotel industry recovered quickly following the containment of SARS in 2003 and the hope will be that a similar pattern will emerge after Covid-19 has run its course.”
However, with a record number of video calls taking place at the moment, it remains to be seen if this will reduce the need for as a much business travel once the pandemic has ended.