At the start of the pandemic, I implemented, when considered in retrospect, was an uncharacteristic experiment. For an entire day, I tried not to touch anything in a public space. After a few hours of what seemed like a long game of playground tag, I realised that it was impossible to shun much of our physical contact outside the home effectively.
However, this experiment led me to another realisation -that with better design, a much less tactile experience would be relatively easy. With simple architectural changes and better use of technology, reducing unnecessary contact with our environment could be reasonably easy. Hence, this innocent yet timely experiment was valuable in several levels
Covid-19 has placed greater scrutiny on design, particularly in public and transient spaces like hotels. Social distancing, reduced congestion points, better use of technology, and Covid cleaning protocols of rooms and public spaces are all top of mind for travellers. The overarching objective for hotels of any star rating is offer guests a low touch experience, with high guest service, with the objective to connect with guests at all journeys of their stay.
Hotel owners and operators alike are addressing these matters. Online check-in has been available for a few years, but now it is becoming the primary means of checking into a hotel. For users, an unnecessary interface, and a potential delay in access to the guest room are removed, and the hotel reception staff, rather than being head down in a computer, can focus on greeting and assisting guests.
The necessity of life has radically reduced consumer resistance to technology usage during the pandemic. In its March 2021 technology survey, Australia Post reported online consumer retail engagement was up 57% year-on-year to 2020. And I know from my own family, many purchases we did not make online before the pandemic are now being made online.
Another technology readily available is keyless room entry. A code sent to a mobile device is all that is required to open the room door. Whilst this technology was readily available before the pandemic, its adoption was slow as the legacy system worked, and the hotel had the infrastructure in place for the issuance of room keys. The W Hotel in Melbourne is at the vanguard of this technology shift, with the Marriott Bonvoy app taking care of the check-in and mobile key entry to rooms being provided through the mobile phone.
Other technology, sporadically in use previously, but now becoming mainstream, is online menu and meal booking arrangements using QR codes scanned into the mobile phone. There are several advantages to this process for both hotel and guest. An advance notice to the kitchen and fewer delays for the guests allow for additional time to enjoy other guest services.
In light of Covid-19, the cleaning of rooms and public spaces is also important in reassuring guests. Hotels now inform guests about cleaning protocols and remove unnecessary items (or touch points) from rooms. Reading materials, a legacy of the days before smart phones, are being removed from rooms in many hotels. Reducing the number of unnecessary items in the lobby allows for social distancing and increased distances between chairs. A neater, less cluttered environment not only reduces the risk but importantly makes rooms and public spaces look fresh and makes these spaces easier to clean, and importantly hotels are taking a proactive approach with sustainability initiatives, including renewable energy.
Of course, the ways hotels react to Covid-19 is much more complex than merely addressing guests’ interaction with their physical environment. Addressing cancellation policies for guests forced to change plans, insurance for disruption, and the health and welfare of staff are being considered due to the pandemic across the industry. But ensuring guests understand that their chosen hotel makes their well-being and security as a priority concern is critical to establishing trust with the clientele.
In Asia, after the SARS outbreak of 2003 and a few other health scares such as MERS, hotels were very keen to let guests know they cared about cleanliness. Nonetheless, solutions often remained low tech. It was still common, even without Covid-19, to enter a leading hotel and see cellophane taped on top of the elevator buttons accompanied by a sign saying, “this lift is sanitised every two hours”.
A simple redesign of the lift, to allow access to a particular floor, by presenting a scanner with a bar code on a smart phone is easily within technological capabilities. I expect this and other concepts such as automatically opening doors to become much more commonplace soon. In some markets operators are even using robots and artificial intelligence to enhance touch free operations. However, major steps in reducing the number of times we touch shared items 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 taking place, but rather an accelerated adoption of existing technology. Covid-19 is the nudge for the industry to review technology and a new guest experience. Traveling can be stressful and during the pandemic has created additional stresses, domestically, and certainly internationally. Hotels that are prepared to address some simple but important concerns in guests’ minds will always be preferred to those that think life will return to normal one day. The changes required for a better guest experience, because of Covid-19, are enhancements that will be advantageous irrespective of the pandemic’s course.