The hotel industry has taken an unexpected twist in the wake of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. With an increasing number of states ordering all but essential workers to shelter in place as the pandemic threatens to overwhelm the U.S. healthcare system and have a serious impact on the country’s previously robust economy, hotels, along with the rest of the travel and tourism industry, are among the hardest hit. With an eye toward doing the right thing for guests and employees while surviving this uncertain time, LODGING spoke to a hospitality professor and two hotel management company executives about relevant issues including preventing the spread by stepping up housekeeping protections and managing employees and guests who become ill.
Sheryl F. Kline, who is now deputy dean and Aramark Chaired Professor of Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics and the Aramark Chaired Professor in the Department of Hospitality Business Management at the University of Delaware, also has more than a decade of hospitality industry experience.
Kline says one of her areas of expertise—guestroom cleaning—is always a top priority, but now, while the stakes are so high, there is no room for error. “We’re not kept at the same standards as a hospital or a nursing home, but when there’s a crisis like this, we need to be using disinfectants as the best defense against all bacteria and viruses, including COVID-19.” These disinfectants, she says, should be used in guestrooms, the laundry, and hard surfaces in public spaces—always with high-touch areas uppermost in mind. This, she says, includes not just light switches and remote controls, but also the entire front desk area, pens, card keys, water fountains, and anything with a button, such as vending machines. If they are open—as many have closed completely during this crisis—this includes gyms, business centers, and restaurants.
Kline says the housekeeping staff cannot and should not be the ones solely responsible for cleaning. Although wielding spray bottles at the front desk might compromise optics, having a container of disinfecting wipes for use by front desk associates sends a message that the hotel takes their safety seriously.
Valor Hospitality’s managing director Craig Strickler oversees hotel operations across the Valor U.S. portfolio. Although Strickler says use of disinfectants is always stepped up during high-flu season, COVID-19 requires hotels to be even more diligent. Like Kline, he notes that hotels’ attention to disinfecting is not lost on guests. “As I tell our team, perception is reality. It’s important to make sure that hand sanitizer posts or stations are properly distributed throughout the public space, and there are wipes in shared spaces to show that we are doing everything we can to prevent the spread of germs. Having an abundance of sanitizer stations and dispensers demonstrates that we’re intensifying our efforts to protect them.”
IN CASE OF QUARANTINE
Just as people who have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus are being asked to self-quarantine, possibly in their hotel rooms with minimal contact with staff, Kline warns that the health department has the right to quarantine the entire hotel, meaning that staff, too, might need to occupy guestrooms for the duration of that action. “Those subject to the quarantine need to be prepared to remain for an extended period, so they will need clothes, the ability to take care of personal business such as pay bills, and pass the time by working, reading, streaming content, etc., in their rooms. They will also need food, which the hotel will need to provide,” she says, adding that hotels prepared for other types of emergencies calling for sheltering in place should already have at least three weeks’ worth of supplies on hand. “If they have not done this already, hoteliers should arrange with their purveyors and suppliers to have what they need to keep their guests fed and safe while confined.”
Kline reminds that guests are not the only consideration. Employees too need to be protected. “As hotel operators, we have an obligation to do right by our guests and do right by ourselves.” She emphasizes the importance of training, and most of all, understanding the steps they can take to avoid the contraction and spread of the virus.
Paul Hitselberger, who is chief operating officer of the hotel developer, investor, and management company First Hospitality, describes preventive measures being taken at their properties—none of which had yet been impacted by the coronavirus at the time of his interview in mid-March. “In terms of prevention, we are providing staff with the recommended disinfectant products for surface cleaning and providing staff with gloves where appropriate, and making sure that, overall, we’re keeping everyone at all levels safe.”
Ill Guests and Employees
Strickler says, although in normal times, it would be unthinkable to deny a guest with a reserved room access to it, these are not normal times. “Owners are now asking us what to do with a guest who appears to have symptoms such as a cough. Are they supposed to say, ‘Sorry I can’t check you in?’ This is a very slippery slope. It’s the job of the front desk associates and manager to be nice to people and provide them with information, so it’s hard to know what to do when a guest appears to be infectious.”
He says when it’s an employee, there are other considerations. “We can compassionately insist that they go home to recover—and to avoid infecting other team members—but in this industry, that can be tantamount to telling somebody to go home and not get paid.” He acknowledges that this can be a difficult call, and that more lenient sick leave policies may need to be implemented. “This is the kind of business decision that shows compassion to employees but at the end of the day, it also protects the rest of your employees,” he remarks.
NEW RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Kline reminds that keeping things clean is not enough to protect guests and associates from becoming infected and unknowingly infecting others. They should follow recommendations by CDC and other health authorities, including that they need to avoid touching their own faces, touching guests’ food, and using sneeze guards to prevent aerosol transmission of the virus. Most of all, they need to regularly wash their hands with an antibacterial cleanser and hot water for at least 20 seconds.
Kline further says, in keeping with the newest “rule of engagement”—social distancing. Everyone should stand at least six feet away from one another, minimize meetings, and cancel social gatherings.
Kline says hotels should have a plan in place for managing an employee or guest who displays signs of COVID-19 infection—such as an arrangement with a healthcare facility or a doctor on call. “Don’t wait until someone is sick. You should already know what steps to take. In Delaware, hotels can work directly with the state health department, which has developed a plan for COVID-19 infections.”
Based on Delaware’s health department protocol, Kline says the first step in dealing with a guest displaying symptoms of COVID-19 would likely be confinement to their room, which only a limited of people could enter. The hotel would then arrange for them to be seen by a health provider and tested for the virus. If the guest is sick enough to require an ambulance, the hospital should be made aware that the person could have COVID-19. If the test for COVID-19 is positive, the health department would step in to determine the chain of contact—that is, to also test the people who may have become infected—including those who checked the guest in, cleaned their room, delivered room service, or shared the gym with the infected person.
Managing with Reduced Staff
Hitselberger says that, from an operations standpoint, running a hotel while losing staff and otherwise accommodating the need for a high level of sanitation is challenging, but says hotels should be able to call upon arrangements already in place to deal with crises. “We’re very proactive in how we work as an operations team. As a business, we cross-train our staff members so that we have people who can work in multiple areas, whether it’s the front desk or the breakfast room and cleaning rooms. This is part of our approach to the business, one meant to serve us during any period of staff reductions, whether it’s due to a crisis like this or an economic downturn affecting our business.”
“Focus on the health and wellbeing of your guests and associates. In the short term, we need not to panic, to know we’ll get through this, and while we weather the storm, we need to make sure that we are smart, that we think through what we’re doing for the long haul.”
— Paul Hitselberger, COO, First Hospitality
Hitselberger says efforts to blunt the impact on business will likely fall short in the crisis period at hand, but discusses steps First Hospitality is taking to deal with the short-term business interruption and to plan for a brighter future once the crisis ends. “Obviously, we’re seeing cancellations by groups and individuals, and we’re working with our revenue management teams proactively to ensure continuous revenue streams and opening other avenues of business that we may see coming in. We’ve also worked to reduce our costs. With fewer guests, we can reduce inventory, including food stock. While we want to provide this service that we’re known for, we also want to minimize waste.”
Supply Chain Issues
Recognizing how this pandemic may impact their supply chain as well as their revenue, Hitselberger, says, “We’ve worked directly with our vendors to make sure that key supplies are not being impacted. Avendra, with which we’ve had a long-term partnership, keeps us informed on the status of key purchasing items.”
Hitselberger says First Hospitality has also been able to use its internal communication program to rapidly disseminate the information it receives in cooperation with its human resource and training department. “We’ve been able to post updates we’ve received from the American Hotel & Lodging Association, CDC, WHO, etc., on the latest information, including the virus spread, so that we can keep our associates, general managers, and guests informed.”