Safe Spaces: A closer look at hospitality’s new normal

The current climate has forced the hospitality industry to re-examine its offering and start operating from a (literally) clean slate. Claudia de Brito speaks to the experts about the road ahead

Recognising that consumer priorities have drastically shifted as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic is just the first step of the sizeable and constantly changing task that lies before operators. As hotels start to re-open at the stipulated 30% capacity, they must not only be aware of global and local regulations, they must ensure that they are being met through increased hygiene standards, adapted services, updated operating protocols, training, technology and outsourced expertise. The lasting effects on the industry remain to be seen but it’s safe to say that it won’t be the same.

Health & Safety Most hospitality groups, including Marriott, Hilton, Radisson and IHG have implemented sanitation initiatives aimed at assuring guests that their properties are safe. Speaking about the measures that have been implemented in the last couple of months, Fairmont Ajman general manager Kosta Kourotsidis said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has required us to raise our cleanliness, health and safety, and overall service standards to an even higher level with new guidelines received from the Ajman Tourism Development Department (ATDD) and in line with the directives from the Ministry of Health and Prevention and the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA).“ Since reopening, Fairmont Ajman has implemented all measures dictated by the authorities including temperature checking all individuals before they are allowed to enter the premises. This applies to all stakeholders — guests, employees and suppliers alike. According to Kourotsidis, the hotel premises will be sanitised regularly following the government standards of sanitisation and schedules are sent to the ATDD weekly. The hotel is also applying social distancing across all public areas and will adhere to a maximum occupancy of 30% in public areas.

The Fairmont Ajman was one of the first to reopen with social distancing guidelines in place

In addition, Fairmont’s parent company Accor, has announced its ALL Safe Officer programme, which is scheduled to be rolled out in the coming weeks. The initiative will see every hotel appoint a health and safety officer who will not only ensure cleaning and hygiene protocols are implemented to the highest standards, but will be available to handle guests’ questions and concerns.

“The safety and wellbeing of our guests is always our priority at Accor and we regularly review and enhance our procedures and services to adapt to new circumstances or as improved technology becomes available,“ said Accor Middle East and Africa CEO Mark Willis. “The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us all to change the way we live, work and stay and as the largest hotel group in the Middle East and Africa, we are taking the lead in reinventing the hospitality experience, introducing dedicated ‘ALL Safe Officers’ and a rigorous programme of transparent measures that give guests peace of mind and put their health first, which is what they now value most.“ Staff wellbeing is also a key concern. Taj Dubai general manager Ranjit Phillipose explained: “Our associates have their temperature checked every day and we have conducted awareness programmes to provide them with maximum information and training on preventive measures for the virus. On a weekly basis, we provide associates staying in staff accommodation with groceries and care hampers to limit their time outside. We encourage them to participate in online training sessions, to help them use their time constructively.“ Minor Hotels VP Operations MENA Amir Golbarg underlined the importance of visible sanitation: “At Anantara we are introducing a new programme called Stay With Peace of Mind which is being implemented across the region. Whilst there are some new elements, it’s important to point out that much was already in place pre-COVID but was invisible to guests and now the focus is on showcasing hygiene and sanitation measures.“ Prominent sanitation measures, including a Sterix Eco sanitising tunnel, have been implemented at Dubai’s Palazzo Versace. According to managing director Monther Darwish, the property is in the process of installing five more sanitising tunnels to cover the rest of the entry points, including the staff and residence entrances.

Temperature checks are a must

Evolving The Offering Sanitation aside, properties will have to adapt the way that they operate in this new landscape. Golbarg explained: “The pause in operations has given all of our properties the opportunity to undertake property improvement plans and we are very fortunate that some of our owners have confirmed significant investment for upgrade projects, which are underway in a number of properties including Anantara Qasr Al Sarab, Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar and Avani Seychelles. As a brand, we believe Anantara is well placed to benefit from some of the new trends that most likely will be seen in the new normal of tourism – the demand for pool villas to give privacy and isolation, remote destinations to be able to enjoy the great outdoors, combined with the desire to get back to nature – Anantara has many properties across the region and further afield that can offer this to luxury travellers.“ Several properties have decided to pivot to delivery as a means of generating income from their F&B outlets, allowing them to service guests who opt not to venture out despite the easing of restrictions. Phillipose said: “The introduction and overall evolution of the home delivery system has been key in our adaptation. For the first time we introduced contactless delivery of our iftar menus to bring the flavours of Taj to the residents of Dubai. For guests who were hesitant to use online ordering platforms, we provided our hotel cars for deliveries, ensuring they feel safe and secure during this time.“ Marloes Knippenberg, CEO of Kerten Hospitality, which specialises in the management of mixed-use developments, shared her experience saying: “People need help with their hotels, to get the engines going again, so we started an initiative to outsource our services. We now move forward with our Centres of Excellence, people’s revenue management and change the online product offering to be more appealing for a local audience. We assist with operational efficiencies, and coaching, which might be difficult right now with hotels having low number of staff, which also relates to the finance function. As an add on, our team has created some really good ways to get hotels COVID-19 ready, which we do as a free add-on with anyone working with us on the above scale, as any action only makes sense if staff and guests feel safe, prepared, and know what to do in any situation.“

Hotel pools have been allowed to reopen in Ajman

Higher Standards Properties will not only be expected but legally required to adhere to new science-led protocols and service measures. Speaking about his company’s Clean promise initiative, IHG CEO Keith Barr commented: “The future of travel may look different, but a safe, secure stay is fundamental to deliver True Hospitality — and that will never change. By combining IHG’s worldclass knowledge with expertise from Cleveland Clinic, Ecolab and Diversey, we can reassure guests and colleagues that we’re focused on protecting their health and wellbeing.“ Diversey VP, Hospitality, Africa, ME, and Turkey Alp Aksoy detailed the adaptations that his company has had to make as a result of the pandemic: “While we previously had hand disinfectants in dispensers only, today we have smaller amenity options at 50ml for guest use. We have updated all process and training in line with the demand for a higher need for protection. We are working with all of our hospitality clients to create customised re-opening programmes to ensure a return for guests and working environment for staff. “It’s time that everybody understood that hygiene should not be taken lightly, and any short cuts taken due to lack of processes or monitoring, or risks taken to save money should not be tolerated, as lives are at stake. People joke that while we dreamed of flying cars in 2020s, we are actually learning the basics of hand washing. We believe that with more information, there will more educated demand for proper hygiene, reducing risks, and protecting lives.“ Aksoy also addressed the fact that, for the time being, concerns about sustainability have taken a back seat to those of safety.

Common touch points have to be sanitised at regular intervals

Support Systems According to Radisson Hotel Group cluster general manager David Allan, the biggest challenge during this time has been the uncertainty: “We’re all in this together and each of us are impacted in one way or another as we are all also learning every day about how best to cope and navigate the current situation. Our owners, the Al Hamad Group, have been very supportive which goes a long way at time like this. We’re all hoping for some clearer visibility in the coming weeks and months.“ Phillipose echoed the sentiment, saying: “One of our biggest challenges was how quickly the situation developed. The team was tasked with a scenario that was changing day by day and with variables never experienced before, on both a professional and personal level. “We adapted towards the new normal, keeping in mind the safety and security of our in-house guests while maintaining the highest hygiene standards and adopting new sanitisation measures “Another challenge was to keep the morale of the team high, which we managed to do successfully by regularly communicating and engaging with our associates, reassuring them and updating them with relevant information, to make them feel safe and valued.“ On a wider government level, with the support of His Highness Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority announced a range of initiatives, aimed at its hospitality, leisure and development partners. These include the Financial Incentive Package, open to non-government owned entities covering midscale and four-star hotels, golf courses and tourism attractions. Specific measures of the wider tourism support initiatives include six-month waiver of all touristic licenses; waiver of tourism dirhams from March to May; 100% waiver of tourism licensing fees for Q2/Q3 and tourism licensing fines until September 30; and participating fees for exhibitions and roadshows for 2020/21 dropped. RAKTDA CEO Raki Phillips said: “Over the past month and a half, these measures alone have provided demonstrable relief for our hotels and combined with our real time support, we have the ability to be agile in shaping our strategy as we navigate through this period.

Cleanliness has become a key consideration for hotel guests

“Furthermore, we have partnered with Bureau Veritas Certification (Bureau Veritas), a recognised world leader in testing, inspection and certification services that helps partners adopt adequate health, safety and hygiene measures to mitigate risks and promote transparency and credibility. Bureau Veritas will certify all hotels in Ras Al Khaimah as part of the RAK Stay Safe Certification programme. “The Stay Safe Certification programme serves to ensure safety and hygienic procedures are in place and aligned with regulations and best practices, resulting in a certificate and compliance label to reassure guests.“ RAKTDA is also working closely with the Public Service Department (PSD) to oversee a dedicated certification process – the RAK ‘Stay Safe’ Hotel Certification – where hotels are required to fulfil a detailed set of measures to attain the certification. Guidelines are also being provided around guest transportation, meeting and function spaces, housekeeping, laundry and waste management.

Going Forward As national infection rates start to decrease across the globe, hotel companies are starting to look to what the industry may look like when demand eventually returns to pre-pandemic levels. In preparation, Phillipose is implementing several changes in customer-facing operations at his property: “Upon check in, guests are able to scan a QR code which will connect them to a WhatsApp group, consisting of a team of associates that will help them with all their requests and queries during their stay. In their rooms, QR codes are also provided for the guest services directory, In room dining menu and TV channel listing. We are also currently working on the ability to scan a room key onto the guest mobile to access their rooms, which would further enhance their contactless experience. Darwish also underlined the importance of minimising contact: “We are entering a new era of the hospitality industry and we prepared ourselves by purchasing the latest sanitation technology and we regularly conduct safety trainings for our team optimise space, and has demonstrated that people really need to relook at how to utilise their square metres, combining short and long stay, with working space, retail, health care, fitting restaurants, for the larger audience they are attracting. We have actually increased projects during this time.“ Talking about the future of the industry, Phillips said: “I think the hospitality sector will have to operate in ways never seen before. “Strict sanitary and hygiene measures will need to be applied to reassure travellers about the safety of the environment in which the business takes place. In time, we members. We are also in the process of implementing a keyless check-in and a mobile restaurant ordering system through QR codes and will continue to work on no-touch initiatives“ Researchers agree that technology is the way forward. GlobalData Travel & Tourism Analyst Ralph Hollister said: “The increased use of no-touch technology in a range of operations for hotels may become permanent. The use of automation in the industry has been growing swiftly in recent years, but many more touchless options will be introduced due to COVID-19. Options may be introduced such as contactless fingerprints instead of room keys, or the use of iris and face recognition when checking in to a hotel.“ It’s likely that the increased use of service robots to limit the frequency of human contact in a hotel may also be implemented by larger chains. The use of service robots in the hotel industry has been growing for several years. With the added factor of a need to reassure potential guests that their stays will safe through minimal social contact and human interaction, service robots may now be seen by guests and operators as less of a gimmick and more as a necessity. Hollister added: “Although the initial expense will be costly, introducing forms of advanced technology that will limit the frequency of human contact in hotels will act as a key unique selling point. This strategy will also be likely to build positive sentiment around a company’s image, as they will be seen as acting proactively in order to ensure guest safety.“

Lasting Impact Though this time has been a challenging one for the industry to say the least, it have also been a time for creativity, resourcefulness. Knippenberg said: “The current scenario has highlighted the need to anticipate a staggered approach to re-opening travel with the launch of ‘fit to fly corridors’, based on bilateral arrangements between the UAE and international travel markets. “Bearing this in mind, we have laid out our four-step recovery process, first targeting the UAE, followed by the GCC and wider Middle East and finally international markets. “It is also important to remember that the travel and tourism sector has consistently outgrown the global GDP growth rate, and past crises have shown the industry’s capacity to bounce back strongly.“ There has also been an overwhelming sense of solidarity amongst hoteliers. Golbarg noted: “I believe there has been a unification within the industry. Everyone is working together to ensure the survival of hospitality as we all have the same end goal. For sure 2020 is going to be a challenging year for everyone and it’s likely that 2021 will be as well. “The new normal of travel and tourism will look very different. Trust in brands and brand promises will be critical.“

Source : Claudia De Brito – Hotel Middle East

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