Keeping it clean, not sterile

Strict health and hygiene measures will not spell the end of quality guest service and interaction, Thomas Meier, senior vice president, hotel operations, Asia of Minor Hotels, tells Karen Yue

Many hotels have had to go into hibernation as a result of travel and movement restrictions. What is the state of Minor Hotels at the moment?
We have a mixed bag situation.

Our China operations are back in full operation, with full compliance with the restrictions that are still in place. Anantara Xishuangbanna Resort still has some limitations imposed by the authorities.

We are happy to report that our Vietnam resorts never had to completely close. Our hotels always had a small portion of domestic business and a lot of F&B take-outs by the local community. We were full at both the Anantara Mui Ne Resort and the Anantara Quy Nhon Villas over the long May 1 weekend.

In Thailand, our residences in Chiang Mai (Anantara Chiang Mai Serviced Suites) and Phuket (Layan Residences) remain in operation but elsewhere our hotels are closed. We are now awaiting approval from the local authorities to ease limits on inter-provincial travels. Once that happens, we will resume operations and focus on attracting the domestic market.

In the second phase, we expect regional traffic to return, but that is dependent on the lifting of travel restrictions as determined by respective country governments.

In phase three, which could come very late this year, a return in international travel.

Meier: resorts that operate with a high villa component will be popular, as they provide guests with a sense of safety and privacy as well as the option to stay indoors with access to their own facilities

WTTC has just laid out some health and safety protocols for the reopening of hospitality sectors. At the same time, WHO has said that the virus may never go away, and the world will just have to learn to come to terms with it. How do you see this impacting the concept of hospitality, which is all about human connection and runs counter to the guiding principal for many of these measures, which is to limit human contact?
We have pondered over this for weeks and weeks, and have discussed this with industry professionals and among ourselves.

We have created a committee with a WHO representative based in Thailand as well as representatives from EcoLab and Diversey to get us expert advice.

We have approached this by looking at key touch points with our guests, from emotional, experiential and physical angles. We have broken down the physical touch point into steps, to see how we, as a hotel operator, can provide assurance to the guest.

Six months ago, a guest coming to our hotel in Bangkok for a long weekend would most likely not have booked the hotel limousine because he is familiar with the destination and has access to Grab.

Now, we would strongly recommend that all our guests transfer with a designated hotel limousine upon arrival at the airport. They will be greeted by our staff who will assist them to our limousine. The driver will wear a mask and a pair of gloves, and has a Plexiglass screen between him and the guests; the driver doesn’t leave the car and our staff will help place the luggage in the boot.

At the hotel, the same approach is taken. We have Plexiglass screens at the reception, and we have discreet crosses on our beautiful marble floors to highlight distancing requirements. We will need some contact here and there to complete guest registration in some countries, like in Thailand where the guest needs to sign on a registration card. For this purpose, we will provide guests with UV-disinfected pens to use.

That approach will be replicated across the entire stay.

We are using only EPA-rated cleaning products – the same grade used in hospitals, and we have introduced a number of new cleaning procedures, such as UV sanitisation in rooms and electrostatic disinfectant treatment for hard surfaces.

I’m sure there is also a big question about hotel breakfast (laughs). There will be a buffet but the experience will be different. The guest will select his food from a menu at the table. Meal service will be direct to the table, which is easier for the guest.

We will keep a live kitchen concept and allow for some interactive stations that are completely protected by Plexiglass screens. Guests can still see the chefs at work and tell them how they want their eggs done.

We have tested this in Vietnam, and it has been successful. The common feedback in the first weekend was that guests wanted a bigger buffet and more breakfast choices. In the second weekend, most guests understood the concept and we foresee that they will be happy that we are implementing these steps.

In WTTC’s health and safety protocols, one of the suggestions is to remove extraneous items throughout the hotel. I take these extraneous items to mean soft furnishing. Will that mean a hotel stay in the future will be in rather bland surroundings?
Based on current cleaning methodology, there is no need for that. UV sanitisation lamps, for instance, will be able to disinfect the entire room, including soft furnishing.

Again, we are depending on experts to guide us in accordance to WHO standards.

What are the implications on operations and costs?
All these will obviously take more time to complete. A room attendant will probably get to clean two or three rooms less a day, which means it will take longer before we can resell a room.

In a restaurant operation, we can expect 30 to 40 per cent fewer guests being accommodated due to distancing measures. As such, we may need to have two restaurants for breakfast because nobody will be happy to be made to wait until 10.00 for a seat.

Operations have to adapt, and we will need more team members. As hotel operations return, we may need eight to 12 per cent more team members to cope with the new measures. Manpower needs will depend on government requirements and the type of property, say an island resort versus an urban meeting hotel.

Our hotel will need extra equipment to be compliant to new health and cleanliness standards. These are investments on our part. But the costs will not be the same across properties because in some resorts without meeting facilities, we will not need certain equipment.

Every hotel has 10 to 15 bottles of hand sanitisers, masks for guests, etc, which will raise our operating expenditure. These are expenses we will obviously cover to ensure the safety of our guests and team members.

How long do you suppose these measures will remain in place?
That is a crystal ball question, Karen. At this moment, we expect these measures to stay with us into the foreseeable future. I think we will see variations country to country, depending on the approach governments take on health and safety as well as tracing measures.

We expect to revisit some aspects of these measures whenever there are breakthroughs in cleaning methods or technology.

Will hotel design for your new openings in 2021 change based on the new health and safety considerations?
Our properties that are scheduled to open in 2021 are in an advanced planning stage, but there is certainly room for some tweaks. Our properties are developed with a lot of flexibility around F&B experiences, so as to be able to cope with different markets at different times of the year.

While we don’t foresee a lot of changes (needed as a result of the health and safety measures), we expect demand for private villas will spike because they offer guests their own space and access to their own facilities like the pool and lounge areas.

Our resorts that operate with a high villa component will be able to provide a sense of safety for the guest as well as the option for them to stay in the privacy of their villa.

Will this mean the end of recreational and wellness activities offered by the hotel? Some Anantara resorts offer sunrise yoga. What will happen to these activities?
We think the opposite is true. Guests can still do sunrise yoga while maintaining safe distancing of two metres between other guests.

Wellness and outdoor activities are expected to see far greater demand as travel resumes. We have requests for our resorts in the Maldives and Sri Lanka for November and December, and they come with specific interest in wellness programmes. We are selling Ayurvedic programmes for five, seven, nine days in Sri Lanka for January and February 2021.

Considering how the domestic market is expected to drive recovery, and most book direct, do you think this will change how Minor Hotels regards its travel trade partners?
Domestic business is pretty straight-forward. They book directly with the hotel and the airlines, although some have a preference for OTA apps.

Regional markets could return in 3Q2020, while our Vietnam properties are now in active discussion with Taiwan and South Korea for the first wave of business soon. We will continue to support our partners.

When longhaul markets return, it will be interesting to see what consumers prefer. Some may book direct (to access promotions offered by airlines) while others may want to rely on travel agents that offer assurance around cancellations.

The last couple of years we have a lot of longhaul markets that book multi-destination programmes through travel agents – four countries in three weeks, going through 20 different transportation, 10 different hotels, 25 different restaurants. We believe that kind of travel, which remains very much in the hands of travel agents, will take a longer time to rebound, as travellers need to regain confidence in all those countries.

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