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Cleanliness Theater in the Pandemic Travel Landscape

Jun 22, 2020 by Lena Katz

Just as "security theater" became a thing after 9/11, a visible show of hygiene and health measures in hotels and restaurants has become of peak importance to hospitality businesses reopening after the COVID-19 shutdowns. However, some of the most important safety measures are actually invisible. Hotels are under an extreme magnifying glass, but short-term rentals also need to step up their game, as do multifamily property owners.

Hotels face a costly challenge

"Hotels are not cutting cost in any way. These new measures are adding a lot of expense. Any savings from labor are being eaten up by the extras that they're adding in to be 'safer'," says Rob DelliBovi, a hospitality consultant who spent the past month traveling the Northeast studying how hotels are responding to COVID-19.

Among the more effective -- or at least, promising -- measures that hotels have adapted, he names the standouts as:

  • Infrared scans at the front doors of establishments to monitor everyone who walks in and out for fever.
  • The "48-hour rule" wherein hotels wait till 48 hours after checkout to send a cleaning team into the room and get ready for the next guest.
  • Menus in restaurants that are available via QR codes that you scan with your phone -- so no one touches or exchanges menus.
  • UV light cleaning.
  • Keyless locks.
  • Elevators are one guest/family per ride in many places right now.

"Elevators are the biggest chance for exposure to this virus due to close quarters," he says. Therefore, for elevators and other enclosed spaces, some hotels may flash the UV lighting between every use.

How can multifamily and short-term rental (STR) landlords adopt these?

Adopting the 48-hour rule and the one-family-per-elevator rule are simply a matter of communicating them to customers and enforcing. The 48-hour rule certainly will reduce the number of bookable nights, but it may raise consumer confidence to the point where significantly more people are willing to book.

The elevator rule is only practical if both of the following apply:

  1. You own the building or can get other owners to agree.
  2. A lobby security person is there to keep an eye on things.

Keyless entry was becoming more popular even before the pandemic, especially with so many new proptech gadgets like app-powered locks and remote garage openers. This may well become a standard soon, so look into options now if you haven't yet.

UV light devices can be prohibitively expensive, but some small lamps are available on the market, and commercial housekeeping services are beginning to add this to their list of equipment/services.

Visible changes increase consumer confidence...and cleanliness

However, the most visible demonstrations of cleanliness are probably the hand sanitizer dispensers positioned near every high-touch area and the "social distancing" markers set every six feet in places where people queue up or congregate.

Aside from the prominently displayed hand sanitizer stations, high-touch areas get the most attention when it comes to hands-on cleaning and sanitizing. New training programs are being implemented, and personal protective equipment (PPE) is being integrated into day-to-day professional wear.

"Rooted in the CDC guidelines, our training covers proper cleaning and sanitizing using EPA-approved products and associated hygiene and wellness such as frequent hand washing, temperature checks, and use of PPE," says Elie Khoury, Executive Vice President of Operations at Aimbridge Hospitality. Aimbridge's AIMClean training and certification program attempts to meet the consumer confidence challenge head-on -- as difficult as that is.

How can landlords adopt these?

Hand sanitizer dispensers are the easiest cleanliness theater prop to purchase and install. PPE for housekeeping and janitorial staff may be a simple-to-execute idea as well, especially since those workers, who may have to interact with people on the job, may actually be happy to wear it.

An ever-changing situation

In the past weeks, experts have publicly presented, and then retracted, theories that COVID-19 may be spread via contaminated surfaces, child "vectors," shoes, contaminated clothes, and various other ways. Many people feel that nothing is safe while others have determined that everything is absolutely fine.

However, businesses need to demonstrate an abundance of caution in order to win over cautious customers. Aimbridge, for example, joins Hilton (NYSE: HLT) among the chains to adopt contactless check-in and mobile device-powered room entry.

Other "cleanliness theater" measures, as suggested in the trade magazine Hotels, include signage notifying guests of recent cleanings, a return to white-glove service, and clearly visible daytime cleaning crews. Plus, of course, more hand sanitizer stations as well as the visible yet practical measure of leaving disinfectant wipe packets in guest bathrooms.

"Housekeeping is no longer about being 'flawless yet invisible,'" says the publication.

How can multifamily and STR landlords adopt this?

There are several ways landlords or property managers can incorporate successful hotel strategies into their own properties:

  • Make housekeeping schedules as prominently visible as possible.
  • Leave cleaning supplies in units for short-term rentals.
  • Put sanitized remote controls in a fresh resealable bag for every guest/resident.
  • Have lobby security wear gloves and open main entry doors/call elevators for guests so they don't have to touch doors.

Cleanliness takes the place of luxury in the spotlight

Meanwhile, restaurants have instituted all sorts of new measures, from curbside pickup and socially distanced outdoor seating to enhanced food safety and disposable utensils. Many erstwhile little luxuries -- beautiful place settings, white tablecloths, minibars, espresso stations -- have disappeared in the name of safety.

Will the luxuries come back when people have a better understanding of how this "new normal" can work? Many hospitality experts are optimistic.

"I think the recent news that COVID is hard to catch from surfaces should normalize housekeeping service a bit sooner than we think," says DelliBovi.

However, a heightened focus on cleanliness measures will, for the moment, take precedence over any other focus, including luxury or convenience.

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Lena Katz has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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