Previously the under-appreciated cog in the wheel of hospitality, housekeeping teams have a newfound status in the pandemic crisis, writes Catherine Chetwynd
Hotels that were once falling over themselves to team up with celebrities and designer brands for their bars, spas and restaurants have now, in the new hygiene-obsessed world, switched their attention to pairing with reputable partners for their new housekeeping régimes.
Accor has signed with Bureau Veritas, De Vere with ChemEco, Hilton with RB, Premier Inn with Diversey and Radisson with SGS.
The list goes on. They might not be as well known (or sound as sexy) as the likes of Marco Pierre White and Philippe Starck, but these are names we’re all going to become more familiar with in the new Covid landscape. With standards of cleanliness now at the forefront, those hard-working but often faceless folks in the housekeeping department have taken on a whole new level of responsibility and significance.
Of course, heightened hygiene concerns for travellers aren’t just confined to the accommodation sector, but stringent cleaning procedures are arguably even more essential when you’re asking people to put their head on a pillow, take a shower and eat their breakfast somewhere other than their own home. If accommodation suppliers are going to ensure they retain their presence in corporate travel programmes, they need to be able to reassure buyers of the highest levels of cleanliness and hygiene, and in turn buyers need to relay that confidence to their travellers. The job is made more complicated by the fact that the branded hygiene régimes of the major hotel companies are difficult to compare.
“The GBTA says corporates are questioning suppliers and partners regarding cleaning policies and Covid-19 training, some down to specific cleaning products”
“I would like to see an industry-wide minimum standard guaranteed by hotels, which we can then show on our booking tool, but currently that is difficult because the hotel groups are probably doing similar things but each has a different name and we have no way of comparing like with like,” says the buyer for a major commercial bank.
The waters are further muddied by the ownership structures of the hotel brands. “We have written to chains to ask them to commit in writing that all the properties on our programme are upholding their processes; when operators’ properties are franchised or managed, not owned, how can they be sure they are being followed?” says the same concerned buyer. He will set a date by which hotels must respond and if they do not, the bank will “probably suspend them from the programme; any hotel on our booking tool will be adhering to their programme and it will be OK to book it”.
Most employees who are travelling are either relocating or returning from relocation and they go home or stay in serviced apartments, sourced by The Apartment Service (TAS). “Last week TAS wrote to their providers asking for a minimum standard of operation and asking them to confirm they are adhering to that. We have not asked them to audit that; it is early days and no-one seems desperate to get back on the road,” says the bank’s travel buyer.
The GBTA says corporates are questioning suppliers and partners regarding cleaning policies and Covid-19 training, some down to specific cleaning products. The association endorses the Safe Stay campaign established by AHLA (American Hotel and Lodging Association), which creates an industry standard for cleaning practices, social interactions and workplace protocols. The association also states the need for a global hotel standard to ensure consistency.
This is where smaller hotels and groups have an advantage: “They have fairly robust protocols and gain confidence because they are often wholly owned, so they control the entire experience,” says Head of Hotel & Accommodation Product for FCM travel Solutions & Corporate Traveller Joanna Greenfield. “Standards vary at small independent hotels but with social distancing and cleaning they need to be visible to travellers.” Feedback from travellers is largely positive: “Hotels have implemented far better cleaning protocols than they expected.” All properties are bookable online but, “we are finding there is far more offline business, as travellers want more in-depth information, especially regarding F&B, gym facilities and swimming pools”, she says.
Feedback from AIG’s travellers indicates there are inconsistencies in delivery at properties, regardless of group programmes. “I am encouraging our partners to implement measurable control mechanisms,” says Global Accommodation Manager Jan Jacobsen.
Hotel operators are, of course, adapting to the new demands. T&Cs are more flexible, rooms are cleaned, sealed and quarantined between guests, contactless check-in/out and room access are increasingly the norm, high-touch areas such as lifts and lobbies are cleaned regularly, keys are sanitised and packaged, there are sanitisers and signage throughout properties, and rooms are cleaned as requested by clients or when guests are out.
The new hygiene partners conduct audits of hotels’ sanitation standards and generally work to WHO, CDC and/or European Centre for Disease Control standards. Measures taken include staff training in Covid-19 safety measures, PPE/face masks for employees, who also often have regular temperature checks (The Belfry, Z Hotels), unnecessary items removed from rooms, and more. In addition, hotels and groups have a web page dedicated to explaining hygiene practices. De Vere is sending guests a letter from the GM that details measures taken, backed by a phone call from the guest relations team to run through these, and an email reminder.
“Logically, serviced apartments lend themselves to contact-free travel, giving guests more space, the ability to cook for themselves and less contact with other people”
Rates remain low and often dynamic as supply exceeds demand but, “my concern is that the rate will remain too low too long in an attempt to stimulate the market, which will result in economic challenges to meet all the additional processes and procedures put in place at additional cost. At no point can we afford for corners to be cut to meet P&L targets because selling rates are too low to cover the cost of operating,” says AIG’s Jan Jacobsen.
Restaurants and other F&B outlets are of particular concern to bookers. “On our new app, guests can view menus, order food and drinks to their room and pay for their stay,” says Resort Director of The Belfry James Stewart. Many properties are providing grab-and-go food options, including De Vere, Hilton and Radisson; and takeaway meals from the kitchen (De Vere, Hilton). Biodegradable, disposable dishes/utensils are available on request at Hilton properties, and room service is placed outside the guest room door; Z Hotels has not yet re-opened F&B outlets.
Accor is providing medical support via AXA for guests who feel ill and has launched Home Office, allowing people to book a hotel room as a remote working location, covering budgets from economy to luxury. Apartment specialist Ascott has a new remote working product, Work in Residence.
Safe as houses?
Logically, serviced apartments lend themselves to contact-free travel, giving guests more space, the ability to cook for themselves and less contact with other people; and like hotels, providers have teamed up with specialist hygiene organisations such as CSC (BridgeStreet, Edyn), AA (House of Fisher, Mansley) and Visit Britain’s Good to Go (Cheval, Mansley, House of Fisher). In addition, ASAP’s ISAAP accreditation now caters for Covid-19 with Infection, Protection and Control, covering all ASAP members.
Many of the measures they have implemented mirror those of hotels, including contact-free booking and check-in/out, grab and go food options and food delivery services (STAY, Locke, Cheval). Flexible rates also feature a lot and operators such as Frasers, Ascott and Adagio have appointed someone to audit standards.
GBTA research showed that companies were 68% more likely to allow travellers to book direct with suppliers, something finally available to serviced apartment bookers via MYSA, launched in June this year. The platform allows buyers to create a programme from a global database that shows details such as the number of properties in a portfolio, who manages a building where it is not the operator, Covid-19 compliance, and whether the supplier publishes a CSR/sustainability report. MYSA manages the RFP on behalf of clients, who have a dedicated portal, MY Oxygen, showing only the properties they have chosen and their rates, with live availability.
“Continual communication and advice from providers is crucial to rebuilding business traveller confidence, and reassuring corporates of their long term stability”
Some of Cheval Collection’s clients have asked for dedicated work space with a desk, rather than a kitchen table. There are temperature check machines in Cheval lobbies and at staff entrances, plus referral for a Covid-19 test if necessary; Residences guests get keyless access via the Cheval app and mobile check-in, and both are planned for the rest of the portfolio. Edyn’s protocols also include plans to introduce digital keys.
Cycas introduced tracking and auditing compliance system Shield Safety across its portfolio pre-Covid-19, and has installed foot-push door handles in public areas to minimise hand contact points.
Documented procedures for dealing with guests or staff who feel ill, and keeping rooms vacant for 24 hours after guests depart are among Frasers Hospitality’s measures; options under consideration include customer service chat bots and self-check-in. Mansley Serviced Apartments’ staff, guests, contractors and delivery drivers get temperature checks and Q’s housekeeping team is based on site to avoid contamination on public transport.
Several SilverDoor clients have requested short-notice quarantine accommodation, cleaning is carried out in agreement with clients and fresh linen can be delivered to the door. The agent’s partners are required to review health and safety systems using SilverDoor Orbital One software to confirm their ongoing compliance, backed by ongoing communication from the account management team.
Synergy Housing has introduced a nine-step pledge designed to restore confidence among corporate clients, business partners and guests, along with reconfiguration of rooms to allow better working space, provision of dry goods or delivery gift cards, and more flexible booking terms. Claire Barrie, Vice President Sales, says good communication is key. “Weekly status calls and reports may have worked pre-Covid, but it’s not enough now. Continual communication and advice from providers is crucial to rebuilding business traveller confidence, and reassuring corporates of their long term stability,” she says.
The group’s global sales team, expanded earlier this year, is already starting to use a new model for engagement with corporate travel buyers, who “no longer have any appetite for time-consuming RFP processes in the Covid-conscious environment”.