The coronavirus pandemic has had a quick, unprecedented and highly adverse impact on the global hotel industry. As the initial shock of the pandemic begins to subside, occupancy levels start to rise and hotels turn their focus to recovery and re-opening, the industry is increasingly focused on how to adapt operations in the coronavirus era.
Among other issues, the hotel sector will need to quickly anticipate and respond to the health and safety concerns of guests and, more generally, comply with ongoing guidance and regulations imposed on the industry by governments and regulatory bodies in light of the pandemic. This adaptation is particularly challenging in the context of hotel operations. Potential hotel guests will demand much higher standards of hygiene, cleanliness and sanitation and will expect hotels to put in place the measures required to effectively maintain social distancing. These dynamics will challenge the “trust equation” between hotel and hotel guest in new and profound ways. Hotels that satisfy – and perhaps exceed – a potential guest’s demands and expectations around hygiene, cleanliness, sanitation and social distancing, will gain the early trust of those potential guests which, in turn, will speed up efforts to restore demand and occupancy levels. Global hotel operators are taking the lead in communicating the steps they are undertaking to better prepare their hotels for operations in the coronavirus era – critical messaging to address the trust equation between hotels and future guests.
In the significant transition from messaging to actual operations, technology can be an accelerator for hotels in their efforts to implement robust cleanliness and sanitation practices, as well as ensure proper social distancing. The hotel industry was previously focused on leveraging technology to enhance the guest experience in the years and months leading up to the pandemic. The primary aims of these efforts were to enhance and personalise the guest experience and provide a more efficient, cost-effective means of operating hotels. Examples of this pre-coronavirus embrace of technology include Yotel’s introduction of robots to assist guests with their luggage storage before and after checkout, electronic check-in terminals, widespread industry adoption of app-based guest interfaces, and keyless guest room entry via smartphones. In many respects these technological enhancements were viewed as “nice to haves,” but in the coronavirus era these measures will likely become “must haves.”
Beyond the pre-coronavirus embrace of technology for guest experience enhancements and/or improved operating efficiencies, technology can now be further leveraged to address health and safety issues associated with and heightened by coronavirus. Technology applications and platforms can further help to address the trust equation between hotels and hotel guests by eliminating unnecessary human contact which could be potential points of virus transmission, and offer efficient solutions for disinfection, sanitization and air purification. For example, hotels can utilize mobile technology to communicate to guests or potential guests about the cleanliness and safety programs in place at their hotels in order to provide reassurance that hygiene is a top priority. High-tech virtual management systems can also assist hotels in providing an enhanced hygienic environment. For example, infrared temperature readers can be used to screen for coronavirus or other types of viruses during the check-in process. Cloud-based housekeeping systems can also be used to manage guest room cleanliness and ensure compliance with coronavirus era guidelines and requirements, and electrostatic spraying technology can be used by housekeeping staff to sanitize surfaces and disinfect guest rooms and public areas with hospital-grade disinfectant.
The traditional check-in and check-out processes will also likely need to be reconceived at many hotels – it is unlikely that guests will appreciate or even accept the pre-coronavirus reality of joining long lines at the front desk with guests from all over the world and engaging in close physical contact with staff and other guests. Using mobile and self-service technology, guests will be able to avoid such contact with check-in and check-out being completed in a more efficient manner while also respecting social distancing requirements. Hotels can also take advantage of artificial intelligence, face recognition software and infrared technology to further reinvent the check-in and check-out process. It is also likely that the pre-coronavirus interest in the development and integration of robotic technology will increase to facilitate more socially-distanced operations. The varying use of technology could also be extended to other aspects of the guest experience such as remote concierge services, food and beverage orders through mobile apps, and robotic non-contact service and delivery of food and beverages.
We expect hotel operators to increasingly partner with tech companies to adapt existing technologies and create new technologies to address the unique operating demands of hotels in the coronavirus era. These measures will drive guest trust and confidence in a positive manner from a health and safety perspective, without fully replacing the “human” element of the guest experience. Hotel staff will be able to spend more time providing a more personalised and sophisticated service, all of which, will help accelerate and improve demand levels at hotels during their initial recovery phase and beyond.
While creating, implementing or upgrading new and existing technologies for various guest-facing elements of the guest experience will be costly, the stakes for the hotel sector in the present moment could not be higher. Hotels face many difficult decisions in how to navigate the re-opening and initial recovery phase – prioritizing “must haves” versus “nice to haves” is a challenge given the severe impacts coronavirus has had on hotel balance sheets. This backdrop will demand that all the relevant stakeholders, including hotel owners, hotel operators and lenders, consider a number of competing factors, including but not limited to cost, human interaction in the guest experience, profitability and health and safety concerns in order to maintain a thoughtful and flexible approach to embracing technology. In the face of the coronavirus era, maintaining this approach can be a positive driver of guest trust and, ultimately, improved hotel performance both in the immediate near term and beyond.