Hilton, Hyatt and Others Pull Back the Curtain on Making Hygiene More Than Theater

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The world’s largest hotel companies maintain that their array of coronavirus-inspired heightened cleaning and safety measures are an effective way to bring back guests following the worst year for travel.

Staffers at Marriott now clean with electrostatic sprayers. Hilton zeroes in on scrubbing high-touch points in a guest room and offers a contactless hotel stay. Wyndham is even expanding mobile check-in and check-out and digital key technology to the economy sector at brands like Days Inn and Howard Johnson.

Some of the hotel industry’s new safety and cleaning measures were criticized for being less about effectiveness and more about “hygiene theater” to win over guest confidence.

But hotel companies defend the practices, calling them effective while touting the role cleaning theatrics play in a travel industry recovery.

“Our hotels have always been clean, but now we’re focused on a clean with a double-exclamation point,” said Phil Cordell, global head of new brand development at Hilton. “Some of that is achieved by elevated, more scrutinized procedures and other aspects are augmented by visual cues, such as shifting the timing of when our shared spaces are cleaned to busier times of day. All of these actions are designed to provide additional confidence and peace of mind to our guests during an anxious time to travel.”

Industry analysts regard Hilton’s CleanStay program as one of the more ambitious new cleaning protocols, as the program partners with Lysol as well as the Mayo Clinic on deep clean measures in guest rooms as well as public spaces.

Guest room doors are sealed with a CleanStay label to show they haven’t been occupied since housekeeping serviced the room. Hilton also encourages guests to utilize the Hilton Honors app for mobile check-in and check-out as well as digital room keys to have as contactless a hotel stay as possible.

Measures like door seals may seem more showy than effective, but Hilton maintains it is paying careful attention to its more than 6,200 hotels and their compliance with CleanStay.

“We have dedicated teams who work with hotels to ensure compliance with all of our brand standards, and Hilton CleanStay protocols and procedures are now included in those reviews,” Cordell said. “Hilton CleanStay’s origin was in guest feedback, because we are always listening and looking to improve the guest experience.”

Cleaning Compliance

Guest feedback is a critical part of making sure Hilton’s CleanStay program actually works. Hilton relies on guests notifying employees, participating in post-stay guest satisfaction surveys or online reviews, and posting on social media to determine if operators are complying with new cleaning standards.

Hilton’s guest assistance team monitors these feedback channels and reports it to owners and those in charge of guest experience.

Seventy percent of guest survey participants since CleanStay launched in April rated their hotel stay at a 90 percent or higher rating, Cordell said.

“We’re also continuing to solicit feedback from our guests, owners, and team members on what is working and what needs improvement — and working with the teams in real-time on solutions,” he added.

Hyatt partakes in a third-party verification through the GBAC STAR accreditation program with the hotel company’s Global Care & Cleanliness Commitment.

The GBAC STAR cleaning, disinfection, and viral contagion abatement program includes staff trainings at the more than 900 Hyatt properties around the world as well as regular internal and third-party auditing.

There is also at least one staffer designated as the hygiene and well-being leader at each Hyatt hotel to make sure the property is adhering to new health, safety, and cleaning guidelines. The company also sends out daily colleague surveys to get a better understanding of employee comfort and hotel cleanliness and make operational adjustments when needed.

Many hoteliers and companies like Wyndham use the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s Safe Stay cleaning protocol as a foundation for their own practices during the pandemic. The AHLA maintains it, too, is monitoring how the program is put to use and continues to adapt it with the ongoing public health crisis.

“Our industry takes implementation of the new Safe Stay protocols seriously and it is critical to consumer confidence and our industry’s survival as we adapt to meet the new demands presented by Covid,” said AHLA CEO Chip Rogers via email. “To that end, following the launch of Safe Stay, we developed training for our workforce aligned with the guidelines to facilitate implementation at hotel properties across the country.”

Safe Stay evolved to include de-escalation training in light of challenges implementing mask mandates with guests at hotels. But Rogers also noted consumer behavior has shifted and that, on top of effective cleaning practices, it is important for guests to see the hotel being cleaned.

“I’m not hearing a lot of complaints or concerns, so I really feel the brands have done a great job with just reviewing protocols, making sure they’re sanitizing spaces, and taking care of employee health and wellness,” said Kate Walsh, dean of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. “Everyone is trying to convey safety, and safety conveys trust. That’s essential to bringing your repeat or new traveler back.”

Necessary Theatrics

Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson defended against critics arguing companies like his are more interesting in hygiene theater over effective cleaning protocols. Some level of theatrics — like a temperature check at the front door — is necessary to give guests confidence to once again book a hotel stay, Sorenson’s thinking goes.

Without that confidence, a travel rebound is impossible.

“A temperature check is a very dubious tool for ID’ing those who have the virus; nevertheless, that temperature check is hygiene theater, if you will,” Sorenson said last week at Skift Global Forum. “It’s communicating to folks we care about what you feel and want you to stop and think about if you’re having any symptoms, and we also want to communicate to you that you’re now entering a place in which we’ve got protocols in place to protect you and others in the environment.”

Sorenson even noted some elements of the hotel industry’s new protocols aren’t standalone cures against the threat of coronavirus. But taken together, initiatives like mask mandates, temperature checks, and social distancing are a viable and safe path forward for hotel operations during the pandemic.

“Put it all together, it makes a substantive difference in safety, a provably reduced risk of the spread of the virus, and collectively engaged in a theater that tells us or reminds us all to be careful,” Sorenson said.

While Walsh commends the major brands for their efforts in amplifying cleaning and safety during the pandemic, she also thinks agility and strong communication are key to making these initiatives a long-term success. Best practices could come at the local level and need to make their way up to central offices rather than the other way around.

Accor appeared to take this idea to heart in its recent company restructuring that puts more decision-making powers at the regional level rather than from company headquarters in Paris.

“We’re learning about this virus in real time. What we know this week is entirely different from a few months ago and may be different from what we know a month or two months down the line,” Walsh said. “How do you power or equip your team on the line to be super responsive and agile and get that good idea shared with everybody? Those are some of the things I think the brands need to consider.”

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