So long, minibar: How the coronavirus will change hotel stays

A hotel that doesn’t include a breakfast buffet and minibars would have been inconceivable to many Americans three months ago. But coronavirus has changed all that.

By Mary Pflum, NBC News

A hotel stay that doesn’t include a breakfast buffet, an in-room minibar and a coffee station would have been inconceivable to many Americans three months ago. But the onset of the coronavirus has prompted a sea change that could alter everything from how guests check in and eat to how rooms are cleaned.

Hotel experts predict that the pandemic will drastically alter hotel stays in coming months, prompting many properties to embrace a host of new practices, up to and including temperature checks upon guests’ arrivals.

“Hotels tend to be a reactive business,” said Chekitan Dev, a professor of marketing and branding at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. “It’s taken COVID-19 for a lot of hotels to take a harder look at safety procedures and to up their game.”

Dev points to safety-conscious procedures enacted in recent days at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City as a prime example of the changes that could be coming soon to hotels across the country.

“We’re a guinea pig,” said Rudy Tauscher, general manager of the Four Seasons. “We’re at the forefront of the hospitality world’s ‘new normal.'”

The Four Seasons’ guinea pig journey began last month, when H. Ty Warner, the property’s owner, said he would open his hotel’s doors to medical professionals working on the COVID-19 battlefront. The announcement set into motion a series of moves that have overhauled the hotel’s standard operating procedure.

“We now have almost no touch points in the entire hotel, which is completely against a hotel’s nature of being hands-on and kind,” Tauscher said. “We used to be known for the human touch — but now we’re all about no touch at all.”

Check-ins and check-outs are performed virtually, with no human-to-human contact. Elevator rides are limited to one guest per car. Room service has been discontinued, and the hotel’s restaurant, bar and complimentary coffee station are closed indefinitely.

The hotel’s new dining option: pre-made boxed meals, available in an industrial refrigerator in the lobby.

“I think it’s safe to say that breakfast buffets and communal tables and the kinds of things that had been traditions at many hotels are going away, for who knows how long,” Tauscher said.

The new procedures at Four Seasons New York were adopted out of the hotel’s awareness that many of the medical professionals it is lodging have been exposed to COVID-19. According to Tauscher, 125 guest rooms in the hotel — about half — have been reserved for medical personnel. But many of the hotel’s new safety protocols are now being sought by hotels around the world for all guests, not just properties housing medical professionals.

“Here in New York we’re leading the charge, but now the phone is ringing off the hook with calls from hotels from all over the place,” said Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president of International SOS, the group the Four Seasons tapped to make sure its pandemic-era property follows health and safety guidelines as set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Now, more than ever, safety is important to hotels,” Quigley said.

The Four Seasons also considerably downsized the contents of guest rooms, so there are fewer opportunities for germs to spread.

“We removed minibars, excess hangers, excess linens,” Tauscher said. “We took extra pillows out, so there are four per room, instead of six.”

Quigley also oversaw the complex system by which guest rooms are cleaned.

“Currently, there is no in-room housekeeping per se during a guest’s stay,” Quigley said.

Upon arrival at the Four Seasons, guests are given three bags: one for soiled towels, one for soiled bedding and one for trash. When towels and bedding need to be cleaned and when garbage needs to be removed, guests are asked to place bags near the entrances to their rooms and to contact housekeeping, which picks up the bags without ever fully entering the rooms.

The deep cleaning of the rooms takes place after guests leave.

“The room is left vacant for a full 24 hours after a guest checks out,” Quigley said. “Then a cleaning crew comes in with hazmat suits and does a deep cleaning, after which the room is left empty for 24 more hours. Then housekeeping enters to prepare the room for the next guests while wearing appropriate PPE,” or personal protective equipment.

The careful cleaning procedures ensure a room remains empty a full two to three days between guests.

The careful cleaning procedures ensure a room remains empty a full two to three days between guests.

Hilton, which recently pledged to provide up to 1 million medical workers with hotel rooms, is requiring that rooms previously occupied by medical workers remain vacant for three days before any cleaning staff enters.

“We want to protect team members,” said Phil Cordell, Hilton’s global head of new brand development.

Cordell and Tauscher said deep cleaning techniques are specifically designed for rooms in which medical personnel exposed to COVID-19 have stayed — not rooms that were occupied by general guests. Still, all hotel rooms in the age of COVID-19 are likely to undergo more extensive cleaning than in the pre-pandemic era.

Like Four Seasons’ Manhattan property, Hilton — which owns 4,900 hotels in the U.S., including Hampton Inn properties and the Waldorf Astoria — is taking new measures to ensure that all of its guests feel safe in the age of the coronavirus.

To minimize human contact, Cordell said, Hilton is encouraging guests to take advantage of its digital key program, which enables guests to check in virtually.

“Once registered, guests have the ability to check in, select their room and use their phone as their room key, without ever having to interact with the front desk,” he said.

Cordell said his management teams are working to minimize human contact when it comes to breakfast, which means reinventing crowd-pleasing breakfast buffets.

“We’re looking at single-serve options instead of buffets and having a team member serving guests at buffets instead of allowing guests to help themselves,” Cordell said.

Only one guest is permitted per elevatorOnly one guest is permitted per elevator car at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City.Four Seasons Hotel
Then there are the hotel gyms.

“In order to keep guests socially distanced, we’re looking at offering guests the opportunity to sign up for a specific gym time slot and exploring in-room exercise equipment options,” Cordell said.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the times at the Four Seasons are the two nurses who now staff the single entrance to the hotel, armed with thermometers. Everyone who enters has their temperature taken, employees and guests alike. Anyone with a fever is denied entry.

Quigley said that in the short time the nurses have been posted, they have identified “several” guests and employees with fevers.

“The system is working,” Quigley said.

While the Four Seasons does not intend the temperature-checking to be permanent, Dev said temperature checks upon arrival may be a part of the new normal at more hotels as business and leisure travel resumes.

Some reservation agents may begin asking guests about their health and travel histories before a room can be booked.

“Temperature checks are already being done at hotels in Asia,” he said. “I would not be surprised if it’s done at hotels in the U.S. I also expect some U.S. reservation agents may begin asking guests about their health and travel histories before they book rooms.”

Dev said he sees a silver lining to the dark cloud COVID-19 has brought to a battered hotel industry, in which many properties have been forced to temporarily close and furlough thousands of employees.

“Hotels have not taken cleanliness seriously enough in the past,” he said. “Duvets should always have been washed between guests. Minibars were always sources of germs. Sneeze guards [at breakfast buffets] were always very old-school. These things needed to be changed.”

The biggest adjustment to hotel culture in coming months, Tauscher predicted, will be for hotel workers, who are by nature “people pleasers.”

Now, he anticipates a hotel experience that’s far less hands-on.

“Like in an Apple store, there will be less human interaction. Virtual check-ins. Virtual checkouts. No direct contact. We’ll do with technology a lot of things we used to do in person.”

Leave a Comment