Tourism & hospitality

The picture of cleanliness

Cleanliness and housekeeping have not traditionally been boardroom-level topics of conversation among hospitality’s biggest hitters, but times have changed. Cleaning standards are no longer just seen as an operational basic; they’re the potential source of significant competitive advantage. But how are these changes manifesting themselves, and how much should operators publicise practises that have traditionally been hidden form the guest? John Rogers, SVP of brands and franchise operations, EMEA, at Hilton, and Michael Levie, COO of citizenM, share their thoughts with Abi Millar.

Over the course of the summer, as lockdown measures gradually eased around the world, the industry breathed a sigh of relief. After an unprecedented few months, in which hotels were forced to close altogether, they could re-open their doors – albeit to a radically altered hospitality landscape.

With the pandemic far from over, and many people still afraid to travel, hotels needed to show they could provide a Covid-safe environment for guests and staff. Many former selling points (think personal service, and opportunities to mingle) became less important, while cleanliness and housekeeping became far more so.

As they opened for bookings, many operators came forward with detailed plans, highlighting the ways they intended to ensure guest safety. Often, the communications came right from the top, as when Arne Sorneson, Marriott’s CEO, released an update about Marriott’s commitment to cleanliness.

‘Since our founding 92 years ago, Marriott International has always placed an emphasis on health and safety for our guests and associates. Our founder, J.W. Marriott, used to personally inspect kitchens and guest rooms for cleanliness during his hotel visits. A high standard of cleanliness is in our DNA,’ he said in the statement, released in May.

This kind of communication would have been unthinkable at the start of the year, when CEOs were more likely to be talking about new hotel signings than revised hygiene practices. But with occupancy rates low, and travel restrictions still in place, these assurances are an important first step on the long road back to recovery.

“At the moment, cleanliness and hygiene are without a doubt amongst the most important factors in decision-making for travellers,” says John Rogers, senior vice president of brands and franchise operations, EMEA, at Hilton. “We have been surveying guests regularly since the pandemic started, to understand how their attitudes towards travel have changed and to help inform how we shape the guest experience across our hotels. Our research showed that three of the top four actions a hotel can take to make guests feel safe relate to additional cleaning measures.”

He adds that housekeeping in the public areas has typically been something that happens behind the scenes. Now, though, it’s front and centre.

“Guests will notice public areas being cleaned more frequently, including disinfecting of lifts and door handles, as well as additional hand sanitisers and disinfecting wipes throughout the property,” he says. “When it comes to guest rooms, we have added an extra measure of assurance by placing a room seal on doors to indicate to guests that their room has not been accessed since being thoroughly cleaned.”

In short, it’s not just about changing a hotel’s cleaning practices – it’s about improving their visibility. You want to keep guests safe for sure, but you also want them to know you’re doing so. (In some quarters, this is known as ‘cleanliness theatre’.)

Michael Levie, COO of citizenM, welcomes the heightened attention that Covid has brought to this subject.

“Guests have always trusted hotels to take care of cleanliness, safety and security,” he says. “The star classifications have given a sense of false security, as there is actually no real standard, seal of approval or certification available. ‘Real clean’ is extremely subjective, but I believe in general hotels are doing an improved job.”

In some ways, citizenM has had an easier time than other hotel brands in rolling out new housekeeping standards. Because it only offers one room type, with no carpets or bedspreads and few surfaces to clean, it had the advantages of simplicity and consistency.

It also owns and operates its entire portfolio, allowing it to implement new strategies quickly. Born at the height of the last financial crisis, its brand positioning is all about being adaptable, efficient and tech-savvy.

Following Covid, the brand has moved to an opt-in housekeeping service for extra security (i.e., unless guests choose to have their room cleaned, nobody will enter it). It has added disinfectant stations around each hotel, along with electrostatic sprayers for disinfecting luggage. The public areas are cleaned more frequently, the disinfectants of choice have been adjusted, and housekeeping teams have received extra training.

It has also launched a new app, designed to enable a fully contactless guest experience, and has adopted cashless payments throughout its portfolio with a view to limiting interaction.

“Our brand is famous for its efficient service delivery – ultra-effective small teams on-site during the day and at night,” adds Levie. “Guests see the same faces frequently, and come into contact with fewer staff members than they would at a typical hotel. Breakfast is sealed, bagged and available for room delivery or taking away.”

He says that while accountability for cleanliness is much the same as it always was – the room attendants are responsible – there is also a renewed focus at an organisational level. Hotel, regional, and central management are directly involved, and as such are also accountable.

Hilton, meanwhile, has rolled out a programme called CleanStay, which aims to ‘deliver an industry-leading standard of cleanliness and disinfection at all our hotels globally’. This was created in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and RB (the company behind Dettol and Lysol).

“A focus on cleanliness is visible to guests throughout their entire stay, from guest rooms and restaurants to fitness centres and other public spaces,” says Rogers. “We’ve decluttered rooms, removing items such as pens and paper, and identified the top 10 high-touch areas, from light switches to door handles to thermostats. Our teams are focusing on additional disinfection efforts around these hotspots.”

The operator is also paying special attention to physical distancing requirements, especially in the fitness centres and restaurants. It has launched a programme called EventReady with CleanStay, which will boost the safety of meetings and events. And users of the HiltonHonors app can check in, choose their room, and unlock their door contactlessly. 

“CleanStay helps our guests feel confident about travelling, because they know that every Hilton property globally has implemented the same set of stringent measures,” says Rogers. “Likewise, our Team Members feel comfortable about being at work because they know that the programme is as much about protecting them as about protecting our guests.”

Of course, you could have the most stringent cleaning regime in the business, and it wouldn’t matter much unless you can get the guests through your doors in the first place. Many brands have reconfigured their websites (Hilton has developed a new landing page), and have started sending pre-arrival emails that communicate the new house rules. Once the guests arrive, these communication efforts are redoubled.

“We are offering on-property signage and decals reiterating social distancing guidelines, personal sanitation guidelines and the importance of surface cleaning,” says Levie. “Our ambassadors are also communicating with guests about precautions taken for their safety and comfort.”

All in all, it would be fair to say that Covid-safety has become the industry standard. We might ask whether cleanliness has become a competitive advantage – can it really be a point of differentiation if every operator is aiming for maximum hygiene? Will guests really be pitting operators against each other in terms of their choice of disinfectant?

Levie thinks the answer is yes, to an extent. “The conscientiousness about cleanliness has spiked and guests are making sure that they choose a hotel with the appropriate cleanliness standards,” he says. “So in a way this will impact competitiveness. This includes location, in terms of avoiding the need for public transport, Uber or taxi.”

What we can say with more certainty is that that operators who fail to meet these standards will struggle. A Covid-19 outbreak associated with a hotel would not only be terrible for those involved, it would be extremely bad PR for the operator. The entire hospitality industry will be working hard to avoid this outcome.

With that in mind, hotels and guests alike have no choice but to embrace the much-touted ‘new normal’. So are these extra precautions here to stay, or are we likely to revert to the old normal once we have a vaccine?

“It’s a good question and one that everyone would like to know the answer to!” says Rogers. “Consumers’ attitudes towards cleanliness have understandably shifted, and at the moment, it’s hard to predict if and when those attitudes will change again in future. While we can’t make any firm predictions, we expect that some of the new measures could stay in place in the long-term, becoming part of normal life, whilst others will only be temporary. We’ll regularly review our standards and training to ensure that we continue to meet the expectations of our guests so that they feel safe and comfortable when they travel.”

This article appears in the Autumn 2020 edition of Hotel Management International

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