Hospitality is about physical and emotional intimacy. As a guest in a hotel, you are ready for the hotel staff to ask you a dozen times “is everything fine”?, and “are you comfortable?”. At restaurants, the waiters and even chefs will walk up to your table, bend down on their knees, and ask if the food was tasty, and exotic herbs were okay. During room service in some places, the staff hovers around for a few minutes to place the cutlery and food where you want, and to receive their customary tips. Those times, they are gone now. Welcome to the new post-COVID concept of hospitality, which will be touch-less and contact-less. While you, as a guest, may don just a mask and wear gloves, most of the staff will appear in proper PPE kits, remain as distant from you as possible, and talk minimally. A new hospitality culture will gain ground in the near future that will aim to spread warmth and care, enhance pleasure and passion, even as those who are responsible for it remain largely invisible or hidden.
Business strategies will radically transform. As hotels and resorts accommodate fewer visitors, reduce the number of tables in restaurants, and disinfect rooms for 24-48 hours before they are re-allotted, the revenue-and-profit models will change. More so because there will be need to keep a check on tariffs, and even reduce them. Costs will go up due to a larger number of health, safety and hygiene protocols. Buffets, parties, marriages, and business events—the money churners—will bring in lesser revenues.
One isn’t sure who will emerge stronger in such a scenario—business or budget hotels, resorts or home-stays. But there is no denying the fact that henceforth hospitality will be more about safety than entertainment, more about health than friendliness and generosity. Here’s peek into how life will change for a normal traveler and tourist in the near future.
A touch-less experience
Every visitor to a hotel knows that she has thousands of touch-points on various surfaces during her stay—in the lobby, lounges, reception area, room, restaurant and pub, business centre, gymnasium, and other places. In the post-Covid era, these will be minimised, if not eradicated. Hotels have mapped and reviewed them in detail, and devised controls and protocols to remove health and safety threats for the guests and employees. It will be a novel touch-less experience for the new traveler.
A restaurant puts mannequins at tables to promote social distancing.
Onkar Singh, general manager, Atmantan Wellness Centre, says that everyone who walks into his resort, be it the guests, vendors or employees, will be physically examined by in-house doctors. “We will check for abnormal body temperatures, and other Covid symptoms, and refer suspected cases to the medical team. We use high-speed thermal scanning cameras at the reception area. While the baggage of the guests will be disinfected on arrival, their taxis and cars will be sanitised before they board them,” explains Singh.
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Guests will receive advanced alerts on what to expect, and what documents—travel history and other mandatory details—to carry with them. They will need to install the Arogya Setu app, which monitors Covid cases across the country, on their mobiles. In addition, the high-frequency touch-surfaces will be frequently cleaned through clinical-grade disinfectants. Rooms will undergo a sanitisation process for 24 hours before they are allotted. “We will focus on ‘immunity booster and natural healing’ programmes, apart from transformational lifestyle experiences,” adds Singh.
At the Four Seasons Hotel, Bengaluru, high-touch public areas such as elevator buttons, door handles, and bathrooms, are cleaned hourly with extra attention to frequented areas like front-desk counters and public restrooms. Each elevator will accommodate a maximum of three persons, and it will be marked with directions to indicate the standing positions. Enhanced wash cycles will take care of the laundry and linen. Laundry services will operate as per the CDC guidelines, and collected in disposable bags.
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The idea, explains Rohit Arora, area general manager, The Park, Delhi, is to have an all-encompassing protocol dubbed SHIELD (sanitisation, hygiene, ISO standard equipment, excellence, luxury redefined, and distancing). According to him, guests will now prefer a ‘safe hotel stay’, rather than a ‘luxury hotel stay’. “We will use specialised chemicals for hygiene and sanitation. The use of sanitisers and PPE kits will be the new normal. The experience will be enhanced with the use of technology,” adds Arora.
Global health experts will be roped in to ensure health and safety. The Hyatt Group announced a ‘global care and cleanliness commitment’, which will include an accreditation process by the Global Bio-risk Advisory Council at its hotels across the world. In addition, colleague training and support resources, and a cross-functional working group of medical experts and professionals will contribute to various aspects of the hotel experience. It has updated its safety and hygiene practices to ensure the guests’ wellbeing.
The Four Seasons Hotel has collaborated with the Johns Hopkins Medicine International to validate its enhanced global health and safety programme, ‘lead with care’. Fredrik Blomqvist, general manager, Four Seasons Hotel, Bengaluru, says, “We will adhere to the guidance of the local health authorities, and introduce enhanced procedures for cleanliness. Our teams have completed comprehensive employee training to adhere to social distancing guidelines for contactless service.”
Revamped business strategies
India is a price-sensitive market. In every sector, freebies, discounts, and low prices matter, even as there is a market for those who don’t think twice about how much they spend. This will change in the post-Covid era. Even the rich, forget about the middle class, will seek cheaper options until the economy stabilises, and incomes normalise. This will be true of companies as well, even those whose employees were used to five-star treatment. Inevitably, unbelievable and unheard-of discounts will become the norm.
For example, the Sheraton Group launched its ‘save now, stay later’ scheme across 90 hotels in South Asia. The guests can book now, till June 30, 2020, choose between three complementary offers, and avail of their bookings anytime over the next 12 months. Delhi’s Hyatt Regency, which was in the news in early March after visit by Covid patients, offers a package that includes complimentary guestroom, free meals for two children who are 12 years or below, 20 per cent off on dining, 50 per cent off on an upgrade to a suite, free breakfast and one meal a day, two complimentary bottles of beer, four pieces of laundry washes a stay, and one-way pickup within 5 km of the hotel.
Post-Covid kitchen at The Park in Delhi
Shailza Sood Dasgupta, co-founder and director, Homestays of India, a social enterprise dedicated to support authentic family-run places, concurs that affordability will be the biggest aspect of home-stays. “It will be a deciding factor. We have got booking inquiries, and we do not plan to increase the tariffs of the rooms in this year,” says Dasgupta. Near-city travel and road trips may be more affordable option in India. “For India, the launch of the ‘Go Near’ is a reflection on people’s desire to travel closer home,” says Amarjeet Singh Bajaj, India country manager, Airbnb.
Along with price cuts, the accent will be on flexibility and personalised packages. Nibhrant Shah, founder and CEO, Lohono Stays, a luxury holiday rental company, contends that his company has launched a few schemes for both short and long stays. The Park’s Arora says that his hotel offers “stay-cation and day-cation packages that have the flexibility to make booking amendments to ensure maximum convenience”.
A combination of the growth in the work-from-home culture, and the desire to spend holidays with family members or close friends, and stay away from strangers, will prompt consumers to opt for private villas. Shah believes that people wish to work from better locations with better views, and from places that have easy access to their personal concierge to provide for their requirements. He claims, “The demand for private villas is rising in the country, and will continue to do so in months to come.”
In effect, the virus crisis has forced the hospitality sector to “rewind and reassess” its business strategies and future growth. New trends and changes in existing patterns will determine how businesses transform in the near future. The biggest lesson is that hoteliers need to be ready for business cycles and disruptions. Arora admits, “We have learned that businesses have to adjust to the new challenges, and only those organisations that are ready and equipped to face them will sustain over the next few months and years.”
Dining with a difference
Next time you enter a restaurant in a hotel, you may be in for a few surprises. The tables will be at a minimum two-meter distance from each other, and the service staff will wear PPE kits (masks, gloves et al). A mobile app may allow you to order on-the-go. You will need to order and share your location, and the kitchen will start cooking while you move towards the restaurant. The app will allow the guests to see how the food is being prepared in the kitchen.
Obviously, Kush Kapoor, CEO, Roseate Hotels and Resorts, explains, “At the end of the feast, the bill will appear on the app, and you can pay through credit card.” In other hotels, says Navjit Ahuwalia, country head, Hilton India, “menus will be replaced by QR codes, wherever possible, sanitised menus will also be available on request, and payments through e-wallets will be encouraged. There will be stringent checks at all levels of the supply chain to maintain the integrity of the HACCP and FSSAI guidelines.”
Of course, the guests will be checked for temperature, and a sticker will be issued to them to keep the service staff in the loop. The food handlers will undergo thermal screening twice a day, wear PPE equipment, and wash their hands regularly. There will be mandatory cleaning of the ingredients and produce that comes into the kitchen, and santised cutlery and crockery will be placed for the guests. Those interested in room service may have to open their own doors and drag the food trolley inside. Initially at least, these changes will be cumbersome, appear abnormal, and strain both guests and hotel staff. This will be similar to the times, when security became paramount at such places, and both people and their baggage were consistently screened for bombs. We got used to it because we could still have fun, and be wild, once we were inside those hospitality cocoons. If these entertaining bubbles become sanitised and overly protective, one isn’t too sure about the future of hotels. But, as they say, this too shall pass.