Whether mandated by government decree or encouraged by low occupation rates, in the last few months many accommodation providers globally, from worldwide chains all the way down to single property owners, have been forced to temporarily close. But as travel intent begins to rise, properties are quickly gearing up to meet the demands of a new breed of cleanliness-focused guest.
Chains revamping worldwide operations
“We have 4,200 hotels under all of our brands around the world, and we had about 1,500 hotels that closed,” says Ron Pohl, Senior Vice President and COO of Best Western Hotels & Resorts. In addition to closing because of government mandates, some Best Western owners saw little economic choice but to temporarily shutter their doors. “We saw instances where the occupancy had dropped to 4-5% and owners chose to close hotels.”
As the travel industry begins to show early signs of recovery, chains like Best Western have been overhauling their programs. “We went through all areas of the hotel with a thorough disinfecting and cleaning process, making sure we added appropriate signage, sanitation stations, social distancing markings - all of the requirements we felt were necessary to put in place,” says Pohl.
Implementing changes to the guest experience
Best Western was also forced to rethink some traditional amenities and operations. “We had to reduce our breakfast offerings from our full buffets, but we actually saw our breakfast scores improve with grab-and-go breakfast bags,” says Pohl. And while he points out that these high scores might only be temporary, the chain experienced a similarly positive response to discontinuing housekeeping as a standard practice, opting instead to have guests request housekeeping on demand.
That said, Pohl acknowledges the difficulty of managing rules around social distancing, at least in the US, which may not have the same level of concern or understanding from all guests. “It's the number one challenge that we have in our hotels. If a guest walks in and doesn't have a mask on, it’s difficult for a front desk clerk or a housekeeper to tell them, ‘Sorry, you need to go do this or you can't come in.”
He advises other hoteliers to nevertheless embrace the cleaning and social distancing challenges. “Everyone is anxious to reopen and get some cash flowing into their hotel,” he says. “But take your time and do it right. Make sure your management team is highly focused because this is the new service expectation.”
Staying flexible in operations
This new service expectation is already being tested as the chain sees an uptick in business. Pohl notes that in one weekend in June, “We saw Best Western hotels in North America inch closer to a 60% occupancy level. That’s still down from last year, but that's pretty strong business in this environment.”
In particular, he identifies a preference from travellers for drive-friendly stays reserved under short book windows. “We are seeing more walk-in business than we've ever seen. From a revenue management perspective that creates a whole different challenge,” he notes. “Hotels need to be prepared because they may begin the day with 50% occupancy on the books but may end up at 100%, which means they may need to quickly adjust their staffing levels.”
This need for flexibility echoes trends seen on Booking.com around last-minute bookings and fully flexible rates. “There is a clear signal of what's happening right now on our platform,” says Hielke van Trommel, Director of Product Marketing. “We’re seeing a double-shaped demand pattern. One the one hand, we see many short book windows with short stays. On the other hand, we’re noticing a lot of long book windows with long stays.” This indicates that most of today’s bookers either want to go away tomorrow or are looking further away for their next holiday. You can capture both of these types of bookers with the right rates and offers.
“While it’s always important to make sure you get the basics right, it’s especially important right now that you review your base rate plans to ensure you are capturing your fair share of recovery demand,” says van Trommel. This typically means offering an early booker rate, a non-refundable rate, and a fully flexible rate.
An early booker rate can help you attract those customers with clear travel plans far into the future. A carefully positioned non-refundable rate (the right distance price-wise away from fully flexible rates) can help you maximize revenue. And, of course, a fully flexible rate will attract those who feel uncertain about their travel plans, which is paramount at this particular moment in time.
An upside for short-term rentals?
Simon Lehmann, CEO of AJL Consulting, advises home partners to think positively about the market, which he believes has always had room for growth. “If you are in the short-term vacation rental business, you are in perhaps the best travel vertical at this moment in time,” says Lehmann. “You’re offering a home away from home, which is what many people want.”
On the issue of social distancing, vacation rentals may have a built-in advantage over hotels. Where they may have a bigger challenge is in defining cleaning standards. “We're not as strong as hotel associations across the world who define standards that they can be assured are being implemented by members of the association.”
Partners can indicate in the extranet which Booking.com cleaning protocols they’re implementing, but Lehmann advises partners to use this time to think about how they might apply additional processes. For example, he suggests home partners provide bed linens in a sealed bag so people can put them on the bed themselves and recommends providing additional cleaning material for guests. “This is not because it's not clean enough, but for peace of mind. Place some disinfectant in your property because rest assured one of your guests will want to clean the place themselves.”
- To support new deep-cleaning programs, chains have had to line up new cleaning supply vendors, temporarily discontinue some amenities and institute strict social distancing rules
- Many hotels have begun reopening and are reporting short book windows with a large number of last-minute bookings
- Booking.com data supports reports of short book windows, with most of today’s bookers either wanting to go away tomorrow or far out in the future.
- Home partners also face cleanliness challenges but may be inherently attractive to bookers when it comes to social distancing