Hotels around the country are prepping for travelers to start showing up again amid the coronavirus pandemic. But how can guests know it's safe?
The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) unveiled its SafeStay guidelines on Monday, an effort made in conjunction with major brands like Wyndham, Hilton, Marriott and Best Western to standardize cleanliness.
"It's really an effort to make sure that no matter if you're staying at an extended-stay economy hotel or you're staying at the nicest luxury resort, that there will be at a minimum common standards across the entire industry," Chip Rogers, AHLA president and CEO, told USA TODAY on Sunday.
The report outlines baseline hotel practices and procedures (you can find the full guidelines here) meant to protect employees and guests, including but not limited to:Hand-washing and hand sanitizer use; dispensers, when possible, should be at major employee and guest entrances and contact spots, such as lobby reception and employee entrances. Signs reminding employees and guests how to wear, handle and throw away masks. A major boost in cleaning practices, with places like hotel guest elevators, front desk check-in stations and public bathrooms cleaned frequently. A request that housekeepers not enter a guest room during a stay unless asked to by guest, or otherwise adhere to established safety protocols. For guests: Physical distancing of at least 6 feet from other groups of travelers. For employees: Physical distancing in dining rooms, training classrooms and more; front desk agents should use every other workstation. Contactless check-in encouraged when possible.
Rogers said it expects hotels to go above and beyond the guidelines. Brands such as Hyatt, Marriott and short-term rental service Airbnb have announced specific cleaning standards in recent weeks.
In addition to setting industry standards, AHLA hopes to use SafeStay as a way to work with local lawmakers looking to regulate hotel properties and as an avenue to creating an enhanced safety guideline certification that may exist permanently.
Rogers says it's good to have a set of universally adopted cleaning standards. While COVID-19 is today's challenge, it wasn't too long ago we had SARS and MERS. Other health challenges probably will emerge in the future.
"The facts tell us it's more than likely that that will happen at some point," Rogers said. If the industry has standards in place, he said, it's in a much better position to make sure everyone understands how clean a hotel room is.
Can the industry convince guests that hotels are safe?
The longer-term problem for the industry is if consumers remain afraid of traveling, which is part of why SafeStay is so important. With these new standards, "they don't have to be fearful of traveling to a hotel," Rogers said.
"Hotels being open or closed or returning to occupancy levels is mostly going to be dependent on consumer demand and much less dependent on necessarily what government regulations are," he said. If a shelter-in-place advisory happens again, almost zero occupancy will return, which is to be expected and understood, he said.
But if people indeed opt to vacation again? Businesses are becoming more comfortable with the idea of providing guests a safe place on the beach where they can get outside and maintain social distancing (if a hotel can provide that and the state has authorized it), Rogers said.
Hotel room demand picking up, but occupancy levels remain low
The push for standards comes as hotel demand has started to creep up over the past few weeks. While at one point about 80% of hotel rooms were empty in the U.S., according to data firm STR, occupancy stood at 26% the week of April 19 to 25. That's still a decline of more than 62% compared with last year.
"Demand has grown slightly across the country during the last two weeks, which could provide some hope that the levels seen in early April were indeed the bottom – especially with some states now moving to ease social distancing guidance," Jan Freitag, STR’s senior VP of lodging insights, said in a statement.
Rogers said best estimates indicate that by late summer, most leisure travel will be back to 60% or 70% of last year. Places like the Florida and California coastlines and Hawaii should begin seeing closer to normal numbers by the end of summer. Oahu Island, Hawaii, had a less than 10% occupancy level, according to STR's report.
More than 40% of demand gain the past few weeks has come from five states: California, Texas, New York, Florida and Georgia. Freitag said that generally, "it is not unreasonable to assume that part of the increased business is coming from essential workers, homeless housing initiatives and government-contracted guests."
Business travel makes the most revenue for the industry, however, and business typically cut travel costs when looking to reduce overall expenses. Rogers said he doesn't expect full business travel to be back until next year. The sector of most concern is meetings and conventions, which may not be back in the swing of things until 2021 or as far out as 2022.
And that's part of the painful reality with which the industry has to contend: "I think the industry will attempt to find all sorts of ways to make sure that rooms are filled and bring in some revenue, but ultimately without going back to normal travel patterns and business conferences and leisure travel, it's going to be a very difficult situation for the industry," Rogers said.
Rogers previously told USA TODAY that half the hotels in the U.S. could close amid coronavirus; he says now that more than half of hotel capacity has shuttered, between the full closure of some hotels and perhaps half the floors closed in hotels that remain open for business.
If revenue streams don't come back, you're going to see individual hotels start closing down, particularly independent hotels without a brand to fall back on when people start traveling again, Rogers said.