At the start of the pandemic I implemented, in retrospect, was an unusual experience. For a whole day, I tried not to touch anything in a public space. After a few hours of what seemed like a long game of cat playing on the playground, I realized that it was impossible to effectively avoid much of our physical contact outside the home.
However, this experience led me to another realization – that with a better design, a much less tactile experience would be relatively easy. With simple architectural changes and better use of technology, it might be reasonably easy to reduce unnecessary contact with our surroundings. Therefore, this innocent but timely experience was valuable on many levels.
Covid-19 has paid more attention to design, especially in public and transitional spaces like hotels. Social distancing, reducing congestion points, better use of technology and Covid cleaning protocols for rooms and public areas are all a priority for travelers. The overriding objective of hotels, regardless of their star rating, is to offer customers a contactless experience, with high customer service, with the goal of connecting with customers at all routes of their stay. .
Hotel owners and operators are addressing these issues. Online check-in has been available for a few years, but is now becoming the primary way to check-in at a hotel. For users, an unnecessary interface and potential delay in accessing the room is removed, and hotel front desk staff, rather than being headlong into a computer, can focus on welcoming and customer support.
The need to live has drastically reduced consumer resistance to the use of technology during the pandemic. In its March 2021 tech survey, Australia Post reported that online retail consumer engagement increased 57% year over year through 2020. And I know from my own family that many purchases that we did not make online before the pandemic are now made online.
Another readily available technology is the keyless room entry. A code sent to a mobile device is all that is needed to open the bedroom door. While this technology was readily available before the pandemic, its adoption has been slow as the old system worked and the hotel had the infrastructure in place for issuing room keys. The W hotel in Melbourne is at the forefront of this technological change, with the Marriott Bonvoy app taking care of the check-in and entry of mobile keys into rooms via the mobile phone.
Another technology, used sporadically before, but now becoming mainstream, is online menu and meal reservations using QR codes scanned into the mobile phone. There are several benefits to this process for the hotel and the guest. Advance notice to the kitchen and fewer delays for guests means more time to enjoy other guest services.
Faced with Covid-19, cleaning rooms and public spaces is also important to reassure customers. Hotels now inform guests of cleaning protocols and remove unnecessary items (or touch points) from rooms. Reading aids, a legacy of pre-smartphone days, are being removed from the rooms of many hotels. Reducing the number of unnecessary items in the lobby allows for social distancing and increased distances between chairs. A cleaner, less cluttered environment not only reduces risk, but most importantly makes rooms and public areas look fresh and makes these areas easier to clean. Hotels are taking a proactive approach with sustainability initiatives, including renewable energy.
Of course, the way hotels respond to Covid-19 is much more complex than simply dealing with the interaction of guests with their physical environment. Addressing cancellation policies for customers forced to change plans, insurance against disruption and the health and welfare of staff are being considered due to the industry-wide pandemic. But making sure guests understand that the hotel of their choice makes their well-being and safety a top concern is essential to building trust with guests.
In Asia, after the 2003 SARS outbreak and a few other health issues such as MERS, hotels were very keen to let guests know that they care about cleanliness. However, the solutions have often remained low-tech. It was still common, even without Covid-19, to walk into a prominent hotel and see cellophane stuck above the elevator buttons accompanied by a sign saying, “This elevator is disinfected every two o’clock”.
A simple redesign of the elevator, to allow access to a particular floor, by presenting a scanner with a barcode on a smart phone is easily within the technological capabilities. I expect this and other concepts such as automatic door opening will soon become much more common. In some markets, operators are even using robots and artificial intelligence to improve contactless operations. However, important steps to reduce the number of times we touch shared objects in public spaces can be the result of a few simple changes.
It is not so much a revolution in the way hotels operate that is happening, but rather an accelerated adoption of existing technology. Covid-19 is the push for the industry to review technology and a new customer experience. Traveling can be stressful and during the pandemic has created additional stress, nationally and certainly internationally. Hotels ready to address simple but important concerns in the minds of guests will always be preferred over those who believe life will one day return to normal. The changes required for a better customer experience, due to Covid-19, are improvements that will be beneficial regardless of the course of the pandemic.
An opinion piece by Ross Beardsell – Executive Vice President, Australasia Advisory and Asset Management.