Forget Spas and Bars. Hotels Tout Housekeeping to Lure Back Travelers.


When Beau Phillips checked into a hotel near Toledo recently, a table in front of the counter barricaded him from getting too close to the clerk, who wore a mask and stood behind a plastic window.

“The key is gently tossed at you from three feet away,” said Mr. Phillips, a public affairs executive who was staying at a Radisson Country Inn & Suites while visiting family.

The hotel’s breakfast buffet was gone, the fitness center closed, elevators limited to two riders. And to reduce the risk of an in-person visit, after Mr. Phillips left his room each day, no housekeeper came in to make the bed.

The pandemic has plunged the hotel industry into a historic downturn. Average hotel occupancy dipped as low as 22 percent in late March, and had risen to a still miserable 48.1 percent the week ending July 25, according to STR, a market research firm. So hotels nationwide have embarked on a transformation of the most basic ways they run their business, aimed at showing would-be travelers they understand where they’re at: terrified.

He recalled that one guest had wrapped the plastic lining from the ice bucket around the remote control before using it.

“People are understandably freaked out or hyper aware,” Mr. Cordell said.

The new research looked at the virus residue left by two “pre-symptomatic” patients there who were quarantined in China in March — students who had returned from overseas and were placed in hotels during a mandatory waiting period.

Their rooms were swabbed for evidence that the virus lingered after the students had been there 24 hours, but before the rooms were cleaned. The researchers said the study shows that hotel rooms must be rigorously cleaned between guest stays and done so with an eye to how the virus spreads.

“To minimize the possibility of dispersing virus through the air, we recommend that used linens not be shaken upon removal,” the study said, “and that laundered items be thoroughly cleaned and dried to prevent additional spread.

To show they are, indeed, rigorous in their cleaning, several chains are heralding the consulting they are getting from big-name medical institutions. Four Seasons said it signed a consulting agreement with Johns Hopkins Medical International as part of an effort “to inform health and safety decisions based on the latest scientific knowledge,” while Hilton retained counsel from the Mayo Clinic to develop “enhanced cleaning standards.”

All the attention to sanitation has created other issues. Since the masks employees are required to wear shroud smiles, Hilton, which has hotels throughout the world, has been experimenting with hand gestures to express warmth and welcome. “One is a very simple wave. In some cultures, it could be a bow,” Mr. Cordell said. “It could be hats off but with no hat — but that could look kind of weird — or a hand over heart.”

Given the industry’s dire economic crisis, some of the changes it’s adopting cost little, or even save money, said Bjorn Hanson, former dean of hospitality at New York University who has also spent years working inside the industry. For instance, he said, hotels can save money on housekeeping by not cleaning rooms every night, or by promising not to put guests in adjoining rooms, as some hotels have done (in reality, there’s not enough occupancy to have high density anyway).

“Safety doesn’t necessarily cost money,” he said. “It could be an excuse for saving money,”

Some would-be travelers say they’re just not ready to return, no matter the assurances.

“I’ve stayed at nice hotels in the past and found something sticky. If I found something sticky and smudgy now, it would send me to the moon,” said Kevin Mercuri, chief executive of a New York public relations firm. He and colleagues recently decided against visiting a client in Georgia partly to avoid hotels. His concern about hotels, in a nutshell: “Fear of infection.”

The C.D.C. has recommended that people who stay at hotels check in online, choose properties where staff wear masks and that regularly clean or remove shared-touch items, like pens or phones, and disinfect doorknobs, ice and vending machines, among other things.

Charles Gerba, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies hotel cleanliness, said hotels do not pose significant risk of transmission of Covid-19 so long as they clean with products known to kill the virus.

His own prior research has shown that housekeepers can carry viruses with them from room-to-room and guests can carry them from public areas, like conference rooms. Proper use of cleaning products, the research showed, sharply cut risk of transmission.


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