To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a tremendous impact on the hotel industry is an understatement. Major hotel brands have had to implement new processes, offer new resources, and adjust business practices on the fly to optimize their properties’ survival in this new normal. LODGING recently connected with IHG’s Americas CEO, Elie Maalouf, to talk about how the company has responded to the crisis, and how it is protecting its team members, guests, and the communities in which its hotels are located.
How is IHG ensuring guests and team members stay safe during the pandemic?
We have introduced a series of measures so that our colleagues and our guests have confidence in their hotel stay. We’ve enhanced the IHG Way of Clean, working with our new partner, Cleveland Clinic, to ensure we’re keeping guests and team members safe. We’ve taken steps to ensure every hotel is able to follow the guidelines we’ve set forth. First, social distancing: We’ve put up signs and markers throughout the hotel to show guests where to stand; added protection to the front desk; set up hand sanitizer stations; and provided masks and gloves for hotel colleagues.
We’ve also made it so that stay-over cleaning only occurs upon guest request. If you’re a guest who doesn’t want anyone coming into your room after you check in, it’s not going to happen. We’re making masks, sanitizer, and sanitizing wipes available upon check-in if a guest requests them. We’re rolling out mobile check-in and check-out to eliminate points of contact. We’re doing health screening before every shift, not just taking colleagues’ temperature, but asking a series of questions. We’ve asked that each hotel appoint a “Clean Champion” to spearhead these initiatives. In some hotels, we’re also using electronic sanitizer sprayers. We’re not requiring them, but we’re experimenting with them in a series of hotels.
How much of these measures do you think will become permanent after the pandemic passes?
In general, we think that travel will return—people’s desire for experiences is still there and it’ll exhibit, it’ll return. They’ll want great hotel rooms. They’ll want the experience that comes with great restaurants and bars, pools, spas, and gyms. And they’ll want the social aspect of travel.
Right now, it’s necessary to socially distance, so that’s what people are doing. Our colleagues have been and will be wearing masks and they’re going to have to observe a series of procedures to serve guests safely. As we look forward, we need to remind ourselves that we are in an unprecedented situation. To predict clearly what specific measures will last longterm is not easy. I hope that in the future, we won’t have to be wearing masks and socially distancing as much, especially after medical solutions become available.
We’re going to follow up closely with our guests on how we’re handling housekeeping right now and see what they think and how they feel about it. Limiting housekeeping to “by request” is a measure we know we need now for an interim period, but there’s no need to make a permanent decision about it yet. We can monitor guest sentiments, see how it works in 60 days, 90 days, six months. We’ll be able to evaluate how we look at that for the future. And actually, in our extended-stay brands—Staybridge Suites, Candlewood Suites, and Atwell Suites—we offered weekly housekeeping, with light-touch during the week if you ask for it. In our transient brands, housekeeping was daily. During this intervening period, we’re going to have housekeeping only upon request across all brands. We’ll see what the guests say, how it works, and then we can decide whether to make that part of all of our brands.
What are you doing to protect your colleagues during this time?
We track the health and well-being of our colleagues very closely. We want them all to be safe. We’re alerted and supportive when they become ill. From the very beginning, we moved very quickly in the hotels we manage to protect colleagues with PPE and we have guided our franchised hotels to do the same. We’re following guidance from the CDC. We’ve partnered with experts Diversey, Ecolab, and Cleveland Clinic to take the measures required to reduce the incidence of infection for our colleagues. The measures we’re taking are in the interest of their health. We also believe it makes them feel more comfortable to return to work. Let’s not ignore how many have lost their jobs in this industry. More than eight million workers have been laid off or furloughed in the United States just in the travel industry. They want to return to work when hotels reopen. We want those who are returning to work to feel safe with the right measures to protect their health and give them the confidence to return to work. We believe providing PPE and implementing new rules meant to slow the spread is a very low cost for that objective. And we’ve relaxed some standards and reduced some other expenses for owners to make sure that these measures aren’t too costly.
Have you had any trouble bringing back furloughed employees? What about those who were receiving an extra $600 per week on unemployment?
We’ve heard about these concerns anecdotally. I think it’s a bit too early to tell whether this is actually manifesting in our industry. Yes, in some circumstances, you could presume that the additional unemployment benefits would prevent some employees from coming back. But, as of today, this benefit expires at the end of July. So it runs out fairly soon. [Editor’s note: After this interview, Senate Democrats proposed extending these benefits for as long as the pandemic impacts the economy.]
But again, I think it’s too early to tell whether this concern is actually manifesting. Hotels are reopening and they’ve been re-staffing. I also think there’s a very large population of hotel employees—and employees in society in general—who would rather go to work and earn their paycheck then get it delivered. I have a hopeful and positive belief that most people would rather be part of an organization, part of a culture, part of our great industry, and interact with others than have a short-term benefit that offers more money for a fixed period. I think the road to recovery involves keeping hotels open and working through the medical crisis—albeit while practicing the right health and safety procedures so that we can keep infection rates low. I think that doing this will instill confidence in potential travelers, and have a positive impact on occupancy and employment, which is critical to the national economic recovery.
Speaking of, how is IHG approaching industry recovery?
As difficult as this experience has been in the industry, we are starting to see some signs of recovery. It’s going to be gradual, but it is beginning, and it’s because people’s desire and need for travel doesn’t go away. It’s just been suppressed and they’re starting to get uncomfortable in that suppression. Second, even in this difficult period, we’re still seeing healthy activity of growth and desire to sign new hotels, break ground on new properties, and open new hotels. It’s been at a different level of activity, but there’s still been some activity. During the first quarter, we signed 104 hotels. In the Americas, since then, our ground breaks have progressed at a pleasing pace. Our construction continues to move on the hotels that are under construction. So, there’s still excitement and energy out there, albeit at a slower pace. The industry is alive.