By Hugo Martín
The Los Angeles Times
If you decide to break away from your coronavirus lockdown to hit the road this summer, expect some changes at your hotel, such as no more valet parking, a sheet of plexiglass between you and the concierge and a capacity limit at the pool.
And forget about using the gym. It will be closed.
The breakfast buffet? Gone.
With many states giving the green light for leisure travel to resume, the hotel industry has adopted a set of protocols that are changing the look of the country’s hotels and the way they operate.
The goal is to make guests feel safe, or relatively safe, from the coronavirus.
In addition to having hotel workers clean and wipe most surfaces much more often, hotel operators are installing stickers on floors to remind people to keep their distance from one another.
Hand sanitizer dispensers will be placed throughout buildings. At least one hotel moved its lobby to a less crowded location; others have spaced pool furniture far apart to discourage guests who don’t know each other from cavorting together.
In most hotels, staff will be wearing masks. Some hotels will offer masks and hand sanitizer to guests when they check in.
One hotel cleaning company is pushing for a greater use of robot vacuums to free up staffers to more thoroughly clean rooms. Many other hotels are turning to devices that spray a fog of disinfectant to kill germs that may be hiding in nooks and crannies.
“Most people can live with those kind of changes,” said Janet Zaldua, chief executive of the Marina del Rey Convention & Visitors Bureau and a member of a Los Angeles County task force working on ways to safely reopen businesses. “I think there is so much pent-up demand.”
Growing numbers of people are gearing up for vacations. A survey by Deloitte in mid-May of 1,000 Americans found that 31% were planning to stay in a hotel during a leisure trip in the following three months, up from 24% in mid-April.
As hotels reopen, they face hot competition.
Airbnb and similar companies have reported a recent surge in home rentals, touting the properties’ relative lack of crowds and guests’ ability to cook their own meals and control who enters the space. And as early as March, recreational-vehicle companies were seeing some success pitching trips in RVs and campers as a way to travel in a bubble.
The pandemic pushed demand for hotels — and all travel — to record lows.
U.S. hotels have lost an estimated $31 billion in room revenue and have laid off or furloughed as many as 70% of their workers since the pandemic hit, according to data published by the American Hotel and Lodging Assn.
Hotel operators are hoping to attract more guests by promoting new ways they’re trying to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection.
At the 70-room BLVD Hotel & Spa in Studio City, plexiglass partitions separate guests from workers at the front desks and at the bar.
The gym, spa and pool have been closed. A shop in the hotel lobby that previously sold freshly made sandwiches, bagels, coffee and other breakfast and lunch items has been converted to sell premade, individually wrapped snacks.
In the rooms, the housekeepers wipe down the hard surfaces before switching on a hand-held device that resembles a small leaf blower that emits a fog made of a solution of hydrogen peroxide and ethanol.
After the room has been cleaned and fogged, a sticker on the hotel room doors signifies no one has entered since the room has been disinfected.
“It’s going to become the new norm,” said Sagar Kumar, the owner of the chain of three BVLD Hotels. “It’s something that every hotel should be doing.”
It’s unclear whether disinfectant fog is especially helpful against the coronavirus.
Fogging was used on airplanes during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, said Dr. Timothy Brewer, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. But he said fogging hotel rooms is not necessary for the coronavirus as long as a housekeeper wipes down high-touch surfaces such as toilets and door handles.
“I don’t think there is any reason you have to disinfect the walls and ceilings,” he said, adding that the virus usually doesn’t live on surfaces for more than several hours.
To disinfect rooms, Marriott International, one of the world’s largest hotel companies, is testing the use of electrostatic fogging devices, which charge the droplets of solution that are being sprayed to make them cling to the surfaces. It is a process that Delta Air Lines is using to disinfect its cabins between flights. The hotel giant is also evaluating whether to eliminate or modify valet parking.
Marriott is also recommending that its brand hotels space furniture apart in common areas and install plexiglass barriers, hand sanitizer dispensers and signage to encourage physical distancing.
“Now, more than ever, travelers need to believe in the places where they stay,” said Scott McCoy, Marriott’s vice president of market operations and guest experience in the Americas.
The pandemic, according to hotel industry experts, is likely to make smaller hotels more popular among travelers over large chain hotels where guests may feel they are at greater risk of being infected by being exposed to large crowds of people attending conferences or weddings.
“Almost overnight we’ve gone from a hotel product that was functionally obsolete to highly desirable,” Alan X. Reay, president of Atlas Hospitality Group, said of small hotels.
But even boutique hotels are making changes.
At the 22-room Hotel Joaquin in Laguna Beach, the check-in desk was moved from a cramped lobby to a larger living room area so guests are not crowded together. Around the pool, the deck chairs have been spaced apart to promote physical distancing and the furniture is wiped down with disinfectant after each use, hotel owner Paul Makarechian said.
The hotel has also closed its restaurant and instead encourages guests to order to-go food from nearby eateries to eat in their rooms or in the patios and outdoor areas. The hotel provides guests with disposable dishes, cups and utensils.
“We are not doing the traditional sit-down dining anymore,” Makarechian said. “What we are trying to do is give the sophistication with a little less interaction.”
Once demand begins to rise, hotels probably will hire more workers to clean more often and more thoroughly, said Kelvis Quaynor, vice president of Ganir & Co., a company that provides cleaning services to some of the nation’s largest hotel chains.
But he believes overall labor costs can be controlled by introducing more automation, including devices such as the Whiz, an automated vacuum to clean hallways and large convention spaces.Quaynor said the “industrial-size Roomba,” built by Softbank Robotics Group Corp., will free up staffers to focus on disinfecting rooms.
The Whiz is already in use at a hotel in Park City, Utah, Quaynor said, and he expects similar automation to be used nationwide within a year or two.
“COVID-19 is going to make this much more rapid than we thought,” he said.