Facing an unprecedented drop in demand for its core product, the hotel industry is taking a moment to reflect and redefine itself, so that the show can not only go on but get better. Trouble is, there is no real consensus on how to do this.
“We don’t want only high-tech, that’s not the way for us to go. It can be low-touch, but human beings are key. Even with a mask, you can smile,” said François Delahaye, COO, Dorchester Collection (of nine ultra-luxe hotels) during The New Travel conference last month. Throughout the weeklong virtual confab, reopening strategies were as varied as individual opinions, many of which seemed to deny our present reality. You know, the one in which the act of traveling “increases your chances of getting infected,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But it’s summer! And travelers are traveling. So to all hoteliers reopening now, it must be said: There is a big difference between service and hospitality.Service is the delivery of speed, convenience, and efficiency. Hospitality is the art of making strangers feel welcome and safe. Both are necessary components of a hotel’s particular je ne sais quoi.
Inside just-reopened establishments across the Northeastern seaboard, these components are being unevenly implemented. Comparing various approaches over the course of an 8-day trip in June, I came away convinced that technology is necessary to keep the industry alive. As a lifelong lover of hotels, who believes in their power to transport and transform, the following ‘Do and Don’t’ list is an effort to build up rather than tear down.
THE DON’T LIST
Despite Covid, it’s peak summer season in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where the clothes are pastel, the cars are vintage, the hydrangeas are in full bloom, and the oysters and beer are served ice-cold by competing resorts. For all its maritime charm, the Cape is leaning heavily on the advantages of its mainland foothold, which extends straight out into the Atlantic with miles and miles of sandy beach. Here, you can almost forget about 2020 altogether and let the saltwater wash your cares away. Almost. Here’s what the Cape’s famously tony establishments should not be doing:
- DON’T – Charge Full Price for Closed Amenities. This is a pretty big no-no in luxury travel. Many resorts in the Cape are built around wellness programming, and are still promoting it—but can’t deliver. In many cases, spas, hot tubs, and fitness centers are either completely closed or fully booked without bothering to notify prospective guests. At many beach resorts, you’re lucky if you can book a beach cabana. While it’s completely understandable for many amenities to be closed during a pandemic, it’s not cool to charge the same price you would if everything was open and operational, especially if your property bills itself as an “oasis” or “center” of said amenity. SOLUTION: If you must keep prices the same despite closures, the best way to avoid alienating your customer base is to be transparent, and consider using dynamic pricing software — which can manage expectations by helping you explain to guests why prices are what they are.
- DON’T – Guide Guests to a Dysfunctional App. If they can’t download and open a property’s app because of weak wifi or other glitches, guests probably won’t be able to book any reservations, stay informed of on-property programming schedules, or enjoy many of the highlights they came to experience. This matters more during Covid, because the traditional concierge-at-a-desk model no longer meets the needs of pandemic-era travelers. In my Cape Cod experience, concierges were missing-in-action (evidently inundated with requests.) Even before my arrival, no one answered the phone. SOLUTION: The solution to this doesn’t have to be an army of robots—but it is tech-driven. 24/7 digital messaging solutions such as Nuvola’s SMS “Guest Chat,” or “Pen Chat” offered by Peninsula Hotels, which is accessible via text, WhatsApp, or WeChat, or Facebook messenger. These partially automated services help hotel staff fulfill requests more quickly and efficiently. Because a concierge should never be a busy signal.
- DON’T – Get Lax About Social Distancing. It doesn’t matter if you offer QR codes for menus guests can access on their smartphones if your swimming pool or main restaurant is swarming with unmasked kids. This mistake is fairly unforgivable, given that many restaurants in the Cape are profitable once they’ve reached 50% capacity. (Side Note: Don’t add more tables just because demand is strong). While maintaining maximum numbers seems like a no-brainer, in many instances communal venues weren’t practicing anything remotely resembling the 6-feet rule. SOLUTION: Disney World unknowingly tackled this problem years ago, with its “magical wristband.” Simple, RFID rubber wristbands are embedded with computer chips that store data, which can include identification credentials and credit card authorization, enabling hotels to control access to communal or ‘VIP areas’ — such as an adult swimming pool or private lounge.
THE DO LIST
A short ferry ride across the Nantucket Sound delivered me safely to an island seemingly unspoiled by the wide world, where the quiet perfume of flower boxes and conservatism hangs round homes like the scent of dried roses on a still, summer noon. Since the 17th Century, this former whaling capital has been the kind of nautical paradise many would like to live in, but which few can attain. The island’s relative insulation from the coronavirus makes this evermore apparent. As of July 7, Nantucket Hospital reported a total of 27 positive cases, with zero positive patients hospitalized. Strict adherence to mask wearing in public is the norm, because the county voted to require it.
- DO – Offer Touchless Check-In. My welcome to the quaint, freshly-upholstered 18-room Brass Lantern Inn on the north side of the island began days before my physical arrival. Via SMS, I was asked for my estimated time of arrival, so the staff could prepare. The moment I wanted to know more, I received another text. “Your room is unlocked, the lights are on and your key is on the dresser.” At no point during my 4-night stay did I need a human’s help to enter or exit the inn. This particular summer, it was surprisingly refreshing not to have to exchange contact with another living soul. This is what touchless reception should feel like.
- DO – Provide a Digital Concierge. A 24/7 digital concierge is already quickly becoming the standard for resorts offering seamless pre-arrival, in-stay, and post-stay communication. Using this tech tool, hotels will gain valuable insight into guest preferences, as guests can text their needs, wants, and questions directly to hotel staff at any time. In my case, that meant my inquiry regarding bike rentals, local restaurants, and the island-wide shuttle was answered promptly and accurately. “Guest chat is all about preferences. We want to know what you like to eat, that you want a certain room, extra pillows, etc. With automation, there’s a lot the hotel can do to provide the wow factor. If a hotel is not using guest chat, you’re likely stuck waiting on hold,” said Juan Carlos Abello, Founder and CEO, Nuvola, a hotel software company. Notably, this is also the key to Covid-era room service. “Your breakfast tray will be prepared and placed in the guest pantry for pickup. Bon appétit!” is the SMS notification guests receive after having digitally selected menu preferences the night before. Nowadays, food trays or carts are either left outside guest rooms or on patio tables and retrieved by customers, rather than being wheeled inside your room.
- DO – Offer Local Recommendations. “Support local business!” is by now a familiar refrain, our common call-to-action. Wherever you are traveling, having a local’s take on things during Covid is essential. Stores, restaurants, tour services, local museums, and community events aren’t operating normally in most cases, which means even Google sometimes falls short in providing real-time information. Tapping my pocket-friendly SMS concierge meant I knew right away about the closed whaling museum, the best lobster roll in town, cafés with outdoor seating, and all about Jimmy—the sailboat captain who was available for private excursions. The trick is a combination of automated “flow” (i.e. templated answers to frequent questions), in addition to a hotel staffer who chimes in when necessary.
This hybrid approach to technology is a critical step forward right now, as top executives from the world’s leading hotel brands, including Marriott, Hilton, Accor, and Hyatt announce reopenings around the world, despite the worst downturn they’ve ever seen.
As of July 8th, nearly 6 out of 10 open hotel rooms were empty across the United States, according to the latest STR industry data. This is in addition to the thousands of hotels shuttered completely. Since mid-February of this year, hotels have lost more than $40 billion in room revenue.
Now, more than ever before, hotels need to work with tech companies that can help them improve service and meet the challenges of a new normal. In the short term, service tech is a tangible way for hotels to survive. When it comes to improving hospitality — the art of making strangers feel welcome and safe — that is a long-term challenge, and something of a sacred trust. Mess with that, and you are messing with the very reason people travel in the first place.