How hotels serve guests, spend and staff has had to adapt in response to an unprecedented crisis.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Hotel operators have had to make plays during the pandemic that weren’t even in the playbook.
A crisis in which demand suddenly dropped off a cliff has challenged hoteliers to rethink how they staff, spend and serve guests, panelists said during a session of the online Hotel Data Conference 2020 titled “The operator’s playbook: Tips and tactics to get you through the next 12 months.”
“Prior to COVID, the industry was in a trend of adding amenities. The coronavirus caused us to take a step back and kind of shift back to the foundations of providing a comfortable place for people to sleep,” said Tracy Ripa, SVP of North America operations at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, who in her role oversees approximately 6,000-plus franchised hotels, from operational support to strategic sourcing and brand-standard solutions.
“The fundamentals have always (been) important … but the pandemic has allowed us to refocus surely on the fundamentals of hospitality, even if it’s a smile behind the mask,” she said.
“If we can get back to those basics, and not necessarily reduce amenities, but maybe offer them in a different way, we can actually stabilize the room costs and definitely start getting more efficient in how we’re cleaning and interacting with our guests.”
Opportunities out of adversity
Chris Manley, president of Five Senses Hospitality and formerly COO of Stonebridge Companies, said the challenge also presents an opportunity for the industry.
“We are absolutely at a pivot point in our industry, and we have a real opportunity to capitalize. Guests don’t want us to be in the room each day. I don’t get fresh terries every day at my house, so why is it an expectation when I’m on the road. Especially at the midweek business hour, I don’t want anyone in the room. It’s a small step, but we follow the lead of the airline industry, and realize that if the guest wants it, they’re willing to pay for it,” he said.
“And we should absolutely be aggressive. It’s going to take some progressive brands like a Marriott, like a Hilton to step out and say, ‘We’re going to charge.’ It doesn’t have to be a big amount, but enough so it reminds guests that there’s a charge. If we can get there, you’re going to see this industry get back to profitability, even at lower (average daily rate), so much quicker. … We’re not there yet, but I like the direction we’re headed. It just is going to take a couple forward-thinking companies to establish that standard.”
Pete Sams, COO of Davidson Hotels & Resorts, said independent hotels have more flexibility to look at changes, for example with housekeeping. Davidson operates 50 almost exclusively full-service hotels and also has a lifestyle division, Pivot Hotels & Resorts, with 17 properties across the U.S.
“We’ve invested more time and effort into the guestroom, during the post-checkout in between stays, and looked at how we can enhance that cleaning experience and invest in some of the time we’re saving. We have seen ability to reduce stay-over service to some extent,” he said.
However, he cautioned the industry that what guests want and will accept is different depending on their purpose of travel.
“The business that we’re experiencing right now across the board … it’s leisure travel, it’s family travel. While we’ve seen a reduction in stay-over service, there’s certainly still an appetite within that segment,” he said.
“Historically, the leisure segment is more demanding spending their dollars … but it’s the business traveler, and to a lesser extent the group traveler, that is going to be even more receptive to a reduced stay-over experience. So I would just I would caution … as you look at statistics (for what guests want) … take into account that the sample that you’re seeing right now is slanted towards leisure, which is going to give you a different experience, and a different result.”
He said for hotel brands, differentiation will also be important.
“The proliferation of brands and how you differentiate them, particularly full-service from select, does play an element,” he said. “As we all know, there’s so many brands out there. As you’re pulling back amenity creep, how do you differentiate the experience?”
Ripa said the amenity reduction Wyndham has put in place at its properties includes small touches in the guestroom, like guidebooks and lotion.
“We’ve got to watch our operating costs, so in order to enhance cleaning, we’re taking out some ancillary amenities, like guestroom guides—things like that you have to be touching every time you clean. If we remove those, but still have them available at the counter, that will help operating costs,” she said.
“With amenities in the room, maybe switch out a lotion for hand sanitizer,” she said. “That’s not saying we don’t have lotion at the front desk should somebody request it, but the amount that you’re going through is less.”
The panelists agreed profitability is possible during a pandemic but requires creative thinking, particularly on the property level.
“To get to profitability, it’s not easy. What it really entails is quite a bit of burden on the local management team in terms of asking them to wear multiple hats, work shifts, do everything possible, clean rooms, fold laundry,” Manley said. “You know, everyone on their job description has ‘other duties as assigned.’ I feel like that's everyone on our industry right now.”
The biggest challenges operators have faced during the crisis have been managing staffing levels and helping franchisees to navigate uncertainty while staying committed to providing hospitality, panelists said.
“The human element has been the most challenging, just as we’ve downsized and had to adjust.
That’s been the most heart-wrenching element of everything that we’ve had to experience,” Sams said.
“Also, it’s extremely challenging to balance the short term with the long term. … We saw upward trends through May, June and into July; and then with the news around the increase of COVID cases in particularly strong markets, our forecast went back down. Once you started to increase your resources, it’s hard to pull those resources away, to recover. So being able to pivot and having stealth around those efforts is critical and challenging.”
Manley said amidst all the challenges, hotels only survive by attracting guests.
“The biggest challenge we have is, how do you still provide hospitality? How do you make a hotel somewhere someone wants to come and have that memorable experience with their kids, or on a business trip or a convention, with reduced staffing levels?” It is not easy,” he said.
“It is so critical on the cleaning component, the front desk, the whole welcome arrival experience. I admit, we didn’t nail it every single time. We’re still learning. But it is so critical to continue to keep hotels a place that people want to go for an experience. If not, we run the risk of commoditizing our experience, and then all we’re doing is competing on rate.”
The hotel industry also must retain a workforce to survive. Communication has been key to bringing back temporarily laid-off staff as demand slowly begins to ramp up, panelists said.
Ripa said her advice to young hoteliers and associates is: “Stay with us in this industry, don’t give up on us because the industry is coming back. We need people to believe in this business, because it will come back, travel will resume, and 100% people will excel in this industry again.”