Virus safety goes on cruise control

Travel | Brandon Presser 31 Jul 2020

If you've ever sailed aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise, a song lurks deep within your subconscious: a kiddie-style earworm about washing your hands that loops endlessly in the buffet entrance and on in-room TVs.

"Wash your hands, like 50 times a day," the tune goes, imploring passengers - with a cartoon octopus cleaning its multitude of hands - to do what it takes to avoid a norovirus outbreak, or worse. It's far from the ambient music of a five star hotel, whose in-room TVs are more likely to feature swells of orchestral strings.

But it's what's necessary to keep 6,000-plus passengers from inadvertently fueling a public health fire.

"There's quite a lot of condescension in the industry about cruises," says Bjorn Hanson, a veteran hospitality researcher and consultant. "In fact, most hotels would say they use the anti-cruise model of hospitality."

Perhaps for the first time, though, hotels and resorts on dry land have to fight microbial infestations with the persistence of a tired cruise director. It's no surprise that as these properties start to reopen following months of pandemic-related lockdowns, they're turning to that cruise model for ideas on how to keep guests safe.

Cruising on dry land

One company leaning into the cruise philosophy is HotelAVE, a hospitality asset management and advisory firm that counts more than 1,000 properties as clients - including outposts of such big brands as Four Seasons, St Regis, Fairmont and JW Marriott.

Said chief executive officer Michelle Russo: "Our clients were only focused on advancing cleaning procedures and not new operational initiatives," which means they were cleaning up messes rather than preventing them in the first place.

Her short list of cruiselike initiatives helps shift ingrained consumer behaviors. It includes scheduling all meal times (including breakfast), prereserving pool chairs and gym sessions, creating elaborate grab and go dining, streamlining luggage handling services, and shifting to an all-inclusive pricing model that even bakes tips into the upfront rate.

That means no crowd at the host stand for breakfast, no bellboy accompanying you to your room and no cash exchanges.

"Ships have to work within the confines of a fixed physical space," Russo reasoned - something hotels must increasingly do as guests pivot from offsite dining and excursions to room service and in-house activities. Although properties may have fewer guests overall, hotels' public spaces are more in demand, making crowd capacity solutions all the more important.

"All of our clients are employing these ideas in some form," she said, pointing to large scale adoption.

Among the luxury hotels and lifestyle resorts leading the implementation are the Grand Hyatt Vail and the Perry Lane Hotel in Savannah.

The former has added a food truck for outdoor, serverless dining, while the latter has revised its TV welcoming message (sans dancing octopus).

Ben Gottlieb of Geolo Capital - a private equity investment firm that owns a dozen hotel properties - has been one of the most ardent subscribers of HotelAVE's cruise-centric rejiggering. "We're reopening Ventana Big Sur with a new, all-inclusive approach," he said. "Our cruiselike pricing promises anticipatory service without unnecessary contact."

That includes cashless tips for food and beverage services, bell staff and housekeeping to further eliminate transmission by touch. In addition, private indoor and outdoor fitness classes will occur only by reservation, and each guest will have personal, prereserved chaise lounges at the pool.

Brandwide shifts

Outside HotelAVE's purview, other hotels and brands have begun to articulate the same conclusions.

Sims Foster, whose company Foster Supply Hospitality includes five boutique hotels in upstate New York's Catskills, returned from a cruise with his wife and cofounder just before the onslaught of Covid-19. He credits the ship as the birthplace of such amenities newly installed at his hotels as handwashing stations at all entrances (featuring sanitizer made at a distillery down the road) and stringent prearrival planning for meals, swim time and yoga.

"There's no such thing as 'last minute' on a cruise ship," he added, politely pushing guests to think through their entire stay as soon as they book a room.

Just as on a ship, it's the only way to avoid disappointment caused by smaller occupancy allowances.

At several major brands, every piece of the guest experience is being moved online through digital apps, another hallmark of the cruise experience.

Anyone staying at a Four Seasons hotel can now text a real human (not a bot) to contactlessly fulfill any manner of guest request. As of mid-June, Marriott had digitized 33 percent of its hotel menus.

Hundreds of other properties are embracing technology as well, accommodating shifts in how we interact with concierges, ask for room service, or tie up loose ends at checkout - replacing face to face interactions with WhatsApp and other equivalents.

Brooke Lavery, cofounder of travel agency Local Foreigner, is a fan of the shift.

"I'm constantly on the Four Seasons app to book dinner reservations and having certain extras delivered to my room before I arrive, but it's always been difficult to encourage my clients to do the same," she said. "Now, people who were not enthusiastic about downloading the app in the past are saying it's greatly enhanced their hotel experience."

The long term outlook

Drawing on plays from the cruise industry book addresses a short and medium term problem. How many of these solutions will pass the test of time?

"Not many, if any," predicted Hanson. "I've worked with major hotel brands through all of the world's crises, from the oil embargo of 1973, to the Persian Gulf War, SARS, Ebola, and the global recessions of 2001 and 2008. The only permanent changes to hospitality are the ones that seem like good ideas unto themselves."

Changes that speak to cleanliness, said Hanson, will fade with time; guests at luxury hotels implicitly trust that staff are going the distance to keep things spick and span. Stickier innovation has largely been confined to changes in the digital space, which help travelers navigate language barriers in addition to the public health concerns of the moment.

"Anything that prevents a consumer from waiting in a line will probably outlast the pandemic," added Russo. "Consumers ultimately want efficiency."

The average traveler takes three devices on vacation, she noted, furthering the idea that they may forever prefer texting to talking. In other words, we may not see cartoon octopi telling us what to do, but avatars that replace face to face service are here to stay.


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