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The view from China: how have hotels coped with lifting the lockdown?

14 May 2020 by

As the first country to experience the lifting of the lockdown, China acts as a test case for the world. So how have hotels coped with the restrictions, from limiting the number of guests to wearing facemasks and cleaning bedrooms? Ben Walker reports

Once UK hotels are allowed to open, how will welcoming guests differ and what will demand look like over the coming months? As the world lives through a period of great vulnerability, we can take some pointers from colleagues in Asia who have been living with the virus longer than us and operating under social distancing rules.

The people of Hong Kong appear to have done a remarkable job of containing the virus. The official count (on 6 May) was a little more than 1,000 coronavirus cases, four deaths, and only three new cases in the preceding week.

"It's incredible considering there are seven million people here, all living on top of each other," says Richard Hatter, general manager of Hotel Icon, an independent 240-bedroom boutique property in the city.

Incredible indeed, all the more so given that Hong Kong never imposed a full lockdown and restaurants and hotels have been allowed to continue trading if they wish.

"However, we also had Sars and I was here during that too, working with Shangri-La. It wasn't as bad in terms of business as it is now, but I think people in Hong Kong are very used to wearing facemasks and taking all the precautions," observes Hatter. "If you go out without a mask here, people will give you dirty looks and tell you to put one on. They see it as socially irresponsible to take those kind of risks."

People policies

When UK hotels are allowed to reopen, occupancies will be low, so teams are likely to continue policies such as unpaid leave, remote working and job sharing.

The management team at Hotel Icon, for example, take six days a month unpaid leave and are split into two groups, where each alternately works one week at the hotel and one week from home.

"If someone were to get ill, there will never be a situation where the entire management team is taken down," says Hatter. Thanks, in part, to a government grant similar to the UK's job retention scheme (£900 per month per employee for three or four months), all Hotel Icon's 360 staff have kept their jobs. Around 70 admin staff are working remotely and the chefs and waiting staff who need to be at the hotel early in the mornings are living in to avoid using public transport.

Employees have been re-trained and given new tasks, especially the housekeepers. "We've reduced our expenditure to a bare minimum," says Hatter. "We don't do any outsourcing. Night cleaning and kitchen cleaning are now done by the staff. Everybody is being multi-skilled in new roles and that way we are able to keep everyone employed."

Safety and hygiene

Hotels are highlighting their extra-stringent safety and hygiene policies (see panel below). At Langham Hotels & Resorts, protective coverings are placed over lift buttons at all its hotels worldwide and high-traffic areas are sanitised every two to three hours rather than just at night. All workers drop off their phones to be disinfected at the end of each shift.

Taking the temperatures of staff, suppliers and guests upon arrival is common practice at branded hotels in China. Hatter says: "We have a thermal scanner in the lobby. If guests show anything above 37.3ºC, we'll check their temperature three times and, if confirmed, advise them to go to the hospital."

Thermal scanner at Hotel Icon
Thermal scanner at Hotel Icon

Jolyon Bulley, chief executive of InterContinental Hotels Group in Greater China, adds: "As we see demand gradually return, all hotel staff are required to wear masks. Temperature screenings for staff and guests are conducted. Sanitisation and disinfection are scheduled routinely throughout the hotels, including the air-conditioning system."

There is some evidence that poorly maintained or dysfunctional heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems help spread the virus. One widely reported (but limited) Chinese study suggested that air conditioning had infected diners by blowing virus particles around a restaurant. Another study from the US recommended that operators should take care not to recirculate indoor air. The authors, from the universities of Oregon and California, also advised opening windows and letting in as much fresh air and daylight as possible. However, they also said that HVAC systems could help prevent the spread of disease by bringing in more outside air which would dilute any indoor contaminants.

At Hotel Icon, Hatter says: "For the public areas we installed a UV light system that cleans the air as it comes into the building. We spent quite a lot on it. For the rooms we don't have centralised aircon. Each room has its own system. Each time a guest checks out it's sanitised."

Disinfecting high-touch surfaces at the Shangri-La Group.jpg
Disinfecting high-touch surfaces at the Shangri-La Group.jpg

Food and beverage

Hotel Icon's restaurants are operating at half capacity due to social distancing measures, but some days they are booked to capacity as more locals venture out. Hairdressers reopened at the end of April, but bars, gyms, and spas remain closed in Hong Kong.

The hotel is running at 15%-29% room occupancy from local leisure business, which means it is still making a loss. Occupancy needs to reach 50% before breaking even. Earlier cost-saving initiatives helped shore up a cash reserve of £30m and Hotel Icon is unusual in that it is owned by a university. Many other businesses, of course, are not in such a fortunate position.

The Hong Kong authorities have stipulated a limit of four guests per table when dining out and tables are spread one-and-a-half metres apart. Waiting staff wear masks and goggles because the virus can be transmitted through the eyes. "Waiting staff are a bit like health workers in terms of being on the frontline, so we had to take all the precautions we could," says Hatter.

Living cooking station at Hotel Icon
Living cooking station at Hotel Icon

Some hotels closed their buffet restaurants, but Hotel Icon's stayed open. The buffets consist of live cooking stations with a chef grilling a steak or preparing soups. The salad bar and all self-service food is covered. "When guests go up to get their food, they'll wear their masks and then remove them when they sit down, so people are very responsible like that," says Hatter.

As in the UK, many hotels and restaurants across China have reacted to the situation by launching takeaway and food delivery services.

Weddings and events

Of all the events that take place in a hotel, small-scale weddings could be one of the stronger bets for hoteliers as social distancing measures are loosened.

Bulley says that some IHG properties held online wedding shows while China was under lockdown. The shows included a virtual tour of the facilities, a live Q&A session and a special promotion package for those who placed an order during the show. Similarly, a luxury Shanghai-based hotel group held an online wedding fair that generated £1.6m in business. Hotel Icon has 17 postponed weddings on the books. Once the four-people-per-table restriction is lifted, possibly in June or July, Hatter believes that people will want to use his restaurants as small wedding venues for 50-60 guests.

"Weddings are a big business for us, so it makes a big difference to our bottom line that we cannot have them at the moment," he says.

Larger-scale meetings and events are unlikely to take place during the next 12-18 months. Across the world, conference organisers are succeeding in holding impressive online events and the Canton Fair, one of the largest trade fairs in the world, will be a virtual event this June.

Technology advances mean that almost every facet of a conference – supplier stands, breakout meetings and the main conference stage – can be replicated online. Nevertheless, as business gradually resumes in mainland China, there is demand for in-person meetings. The Shangri-La Group has come up with its own solution.

A spokesperson says: "In line with local authorities' recommendations, we have provided tailor-made meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions services and implemented social distancing guidelines. These measures include a separate table for each guest, contactless self-service coffee breaks and individual meal sets with disposable cutlery for each attendee. Guests will also be required to complete a health declaration form for contact tracing."

The pandemic has caused rapid changes to attitudes and habits. The wearing of facemasks, for example, was rare and even frowned-upon in several European countries at the start of the outbreak. Now it is either the law or the norm. Although alien to British culture, facemasks and contact-tracing apps on our phones could become widespread and necessary containment tools. It seems likely that facemasks or perspex visors will be a requirement for hospitality employees who serve the public.

A concierge at Hotel Icon
A concierge at Hotel Icon

Reducing contact reduces risk, so hotels with self-service check-in and other automated services could have an advantage. Outdoor F&B spaces, weather permitting, may be preferred by guests.

The example of hotel performance in China over the past three months suggests that business will return at very low levels and then steadily increase, assuming there are no further waves of contagion and lockdown.

Brands ramp up safety and hygiene

To attract business back and win trust, major brands are escalating their hygiene and safety protocols and collaborating with external experts. Hilton is the latest company to announce an ‘industry-defining' standard of cleanliness and disinfection, and is collaborating with Reckitt Benckiser, the maker of Lysol and Dettol products.

Marriott International has established its own ‘Global Cleanliness Council' and introduced electrostatic sprayers and hospital-grade disinfectants.

Accor has teamed up with Bureau Veritas, a testing and inspection specialist, to develop a safety and cleanliness certification programme. It recently held talks with the French government in a move to encourage the easing of lockdown restrictions.

UK hoteliers already face the prospect of high reopening costs, and extra safety and cleanliness measures will add to the expense. However, in order to attract those who are willing to travel, such measures may prove essential.

Consultant Melvin Gold says: "A hotel that is silent on the subject of extra room cleaning or extra chemicals is going to rank lower than someone who says: ‘Because we're running at low occupancy, we never use the same room on consecutive nights.' There are lots of things hotels can do to attract the individual corporate market."

New housekeeping advice includes not shaking bed linen when changing rooms and placing it immediately into sealable plastic bags.

Housekeeping at Hotel Icon
Housekeeping at Hotel Icon

Shanghai-based consultant Alan Hepburn says: "I've heard from lots of people who are choosing to upgrade their accommodation because they don't necessarily trust or believe, rightly or wrongly, in the budget brand's attitudes to hygiene."

Mandarin Oriental has introduced enhanced health and safety measures across its portfolio, including increased frequency of cleaning and disinfecting of common facilities and guest rooms, provision of hand sanitisers in the hotel's public areas, and screening of guest, employee, supplier and vendor temperatures at entry points.

"Our guests have responded positively to our transparency and clear communication of the health and safety measures we have in place," says Vanina Sommer, EMEA director of marketing communications.

What's the demand for hospitality?

China provides us with one of the only available post-pandemic benchmarks of hotel performance. By 25 March, 87% of hotels had reopened, says STR. Average occupancy increased from 13% in February to 23% in March. Since then, some chains have reported much higher occupancies, suggesting a trend of steady improvement.

STR's Christine Liu says: "Some of the demand stems from corporate travel, primarily within the same province, as well as small-scale meetings. Overall, we're seeing limited leisure business in city centres, but a bit more recovery in that segment in surrounding suburbs."

Leisure

So what kind of demand can UK hoteliers expect? In terms of leisure, there will be some discretionary demand from locked-down city dwellers and families for staycations. Research suggests that 19% of UK residents will book a staycation during the summer months, so hotels in rural locations and beauty spots will benefit from this demand. Nearly 40% intend to book a hotel stay within the next six to 12 months, according to the same BVA BDRC survey (27 March). In the short- to medium-term, groups and tours will not happen for legal and insurance reasons.

Business

Large corporations that have been managing with Zoom calls and working from home are unlikely to suddenly allow employees to start travelling once restrictions are lifted. Health and safety, CSR and insurance considerations will mitigate against it.

Some individuals and the self-employed may feel the necessity to get out on the road again, but will favour hotels with the best safety and hygiene policies, advises consultant Melvin Gold.

Events

In order to avoid new waves of contagion and lockdown, large events will be discouraged over the next 12-18 months. The evidence from China suggests that small-scale business meetings and weddings could be the first types of events to return to hotels.

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