Will Hotels Win Back Customers By Cleaning Up Their Act (Literally)?

Of all the verticals hit hard by the global pandemic, hotels have seen their business slowed to a near stop as shutdowns and social-distancing rules bring travel of all kinds to a near halt. But the lodging industry is slowly reopening, with hotels working overtime to stress cleanliness in a bid to get consumers comfortable with checking in again.

The U.S. Travel Association and the American Hotel & Lodging Association (ALHA) recently released guidelines for the industry based on four “pillars” — social distancing, contactless interactions, scaled-up sanitation procedures and extended health screening in locations like airports and hotels.

The ALHA this week also released separate Safe Stay Guidelines designed to help hotels enhance their cleanliness standards — and signal to guests that a site is safe to stay in. Major hotel brands like Wyndham, Hilton, Marriott, Choice Hotels, Omni Hotels and Best Western served on an advisory board that helped draft the standards.

The new measures include increased handwashing by hotel staff, more contactless check-ins, frequent sanitization of public areas, in-room housekeeping only upon guest request and more physical distancing in dining areas, poolside and in hotel business areas and gyms.

“It’s really an effort to make sure that no matter if you’re staying at an extended-stay economy hotel or you’re staying at the nicest luxury resort, that there will be at a minimum common standards across the entire industry,” Chip Rogers, AHLA president and CEO, told USA Today.

However, major hotel brands like Four Seasons and Holiday Inn parent IHG and planning to go well beyond minimum standardsFour Seasons is partnering with Johns Hopkins Medicine International for its new global health and safety program, called “Lead With Care.”

Omni Hotels have rolled out a “Safe & Clean” program, while Hilton is working with the Mayo Clinic on a “Hilton CleanStay” initiative. Similarly, Hyatt announced plans last week to working alongside medical experts, industry professionals and others to ensure guests feel safe.”We must critically examine the hotel experience from every vantage point — from our rooms and our lobbies to our spas and dining — bringing in the latest research, technology and innovation,” Hyatt President and CEO Mark Hoplamazian said in a statement.

The AHLA’s Rogers expects to see travelers continue to return to hotels, although not back at 2019 levels. The trade group’s best estimates indicate that by late summer, most leisure travel will be back to 60 percent of where it was last year.

Places like the Florida and California coastlines and Hawaii should begin seeing closer to normal numbers by summer’s end of summer, but the number of business travelers won’t likely meaningfully recover until 2021. But it’s consumer travel that remains the big question mark. Will tourists travel at all this summer, and will they choose hotels or favor options like home-sharing, RV rentals or day trips near home?

Whether hotel cleaning is persuasive will depend on how visible it is to customers. It also hinges on consumers never questioning why hotels have needed to invest so much in cleaning procedures when they were theoretically clean before.

Moreover, it’s unknown what the increased cost of sanitizing hotels will mean, particularly if it pushes up room prices. With the U.S. economy teetering, it’s unclear whether consumers value extra cleanliness enough to pay for it. And even if hotel prices don’t go up, it’s not clear that having to request maid service instead of getting it automatically is going to reassure consumers more than it irritates them.

That hotels must clean up their act — literally — to bring in health-concerned consumers seems clear. But how well they do it, how much it changes the hotel experience and whether consumer will accept the required changes remains to be seen.