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Lessons Learned from COVID-19's Impact on Hotel Operations and Employee Engagement

Ed Burke VP Rooms & Engineering, Aimbridge Hospitality

This time last year, our lives were upended and the global hotel industry was in crisis mode. We had just heard "COVID-19" for the very first time in February 2020, the official name given for this novel coronavirus, and by March 2020 the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

As a member of the Operation Resources team, led by Elie Khoury, Executive Vice President of Operations, we have learned a lot of lessons and best practices over this past year, many of which will get us through the end of operating in a pandemic crisis mode to our new normal in a post-COVID world.

COVID-19's Impact on Hotel Operations

It is no secret that the pandemic has been incredibly challenging for our industry, and as a result, we have had to innovate and adapt faster than ever before. When I first heard of the novel coronavirus, while we were in the midst of preparing our hotels in January of 2020, I believed we were facing something significant. What we never could have imagined, however, was that COVID-19 would affect the hospitality industry far greater than 9/11, SARS, Ebola, and the financial crisis of 2009 - combined. A historic event of our lifetime, and our world had stopped traveling with the exception of essential workers.

Constant Communication is Key

As with any disruptive event happening in real-time, constant communication with associates, clients, and other stakeholders are key. Looking back during the early stages of the pandemic, it was important to us from the very beginning that we communicated with our General Managers what we knew, which also meant acknowledging what we did not know. I believe that knowledge is power for all associates and is the cornerstone to guest satisfaction, associate engagement, and morale. This unprecedented situation was no different.

With information continually changing and coming at you like a veritable firehose, it is important to develop a regular cadence of communications to parse through the facts, dispel rumors and correct misinformation. It is imperative to listen and gather intelligence from the front lines, which in our case, is our hotel General Managers.

We needed to act fast and think outside of the box to create a process that was frictionless and available to all. As we already had virtual meeting tools at the ready, we set up our first Power Hour call in March 2020 as a daily meeting with our hotel General Managers and corporate operations and support teams. We held these calls every day, seven days per week, through June. We discussed and shared every question, every challenge and every solution together. Power Hour virtual meetings continued weekdays from July to September, and as we come out of crisis mode, we are still holding them weekly with our General Managers.

Practices Informed by Associates on the Front Lines

Hospitality organizations that have an ongoing process to gather feedback from the field is even more important during a disruptive event such as this pandemic. Our General Managers informed many of our best practices and standards of operating during COVID-19. It was through our virtual Power Hour calls that inspired our team to create a formal training program designed to help hotels navigate in this new reality, particularly in our housekeeping department.

The hospitality industry has always taken safety, cleanliness and sanitation seriously. It has been the cornerstone of many of our past training programs at Aimbridge, but we took it a step further. We needed a way to effectively communicate with our housekeeping staff, address all areas in both the front and back of the house, and discuss proper cleaning and sanitizing.

Guestroom and back of the house cleanliness has always been a significant focus in the hotel industry. During the onset of COVID-19, it quickly became apparent the importance of educating our associates on what was happening with this coronavirus, where it comes from, how it spreads, and how to protect themselves, their families, and our guests. Our associates were understandably hesitant to come to work, so it was our role to let them know we cared, not just about disinfected rooms, but specifically about their wellness and the wellbeing of their loved ones. As a result, I developed AIMClean, a three-part training certification program that addresses three topics:

  1. People: We addressed what the virus is, what it does, how it spreads, and how you can protect yourself and your loved ones.

  2. Products: We needed to inform all of our associates that the EPA-approved products they already use every day are effective in killing the virus. Our partnership with Ecolab proved invaluable.

  3. Process: In early April 2020, I went to a hotel and cleaned a room with their leader. In this new environment, we realized that out of the way areas needed to not only be cleaned, but also disinfected. Items such as irons, safes and luggage racks now became part of COVID cleaning and disinfection checklist. We timed each task knowing that productivity would be important in the months ahead.

While the AIMClean video training series was self-paced, we tracked certification through post-training knowledge testing. I am proud that as of this writing, we have nearly 16,000 associates certified, including not just our housekeeping staff but also associates from the front office, engineering, and more.

Engaging Teams and Boosting Staff Morale

During periods of change, it is important for companies to engage with associates often. Our hotel teams have faced tremendous challenges and rapid change over this past year. Many of these changes are the antithesis of hospitality, the core of our service culture. We have to socially distance and engage with guests through a plexiglass screen at the front desk while wearing a mask. No one can see our warm, welcoming smiles.

One way we addressed engagement was a simple yet elegant approach. We created a lobby poster, called "Our Commitment", publicly stating their commitment to our guests and associates to cleanliness, hospitality, and disinfection. At the bottom of the poster was space for all associates from every department to sign, creating a vehicle for team members to communicate publicly their personal commitment. As hotels reopened and associates returned to the workplace, the poster became a vehicle to reintroduce associates to our new normal. I was incredibly pleased with the many positive comments we received about the commitment posters from guests.

In addition, members of our own corporate operations support team traveled to over 400 hotels, not just to audit properties on the new protocols, but also to thank and appreciate the teams on the front lines.

I think that moving forward, it will be imperative for hotel companies to look at new and unique ways to engage their associates not only once a year or as a new hire, but throughout the year in cost-effective, high-impact ways. Throughout all of this, our team never lost sight of hospitality and we would recognize and celebrate great service stories or comments from guests. It is essential for teams to celebrate the wins.

From Crisis Mode to a New Normal

The timing of the transition out of pandemic crisis mode to what we expect to be the new normal depends on a number of factors, but mainly, science – getting vaccines in arms, the COVID variants, and when the U.S. population and those in other countries approach herd immunity.

The pandemic has accelerated changes in consumer preferences, many of which affect hotels' rooms department and staff. The pandemic turned what was once a cleaning process primarily happening out of view of the guest, to the forefront. While guests have always had an expectation of sanitation and cleanliness, I believe in the post-COVID world, we will see these guests' expectations rise even higher. The expectation of cleanliness will go beyond the guestrooms to include all public areas, spas, fitness centers, and food and beverage outlets.

Additionally, due in part to the popularity of various brands' Green Programs and a focus on eco-friendly practices, guests were already becoming accustomed to less frequent room cleaning during their stay prior to COVID. In our new normal, the brands will be the first to define this service.

In the sales process, hotel meeting and event programs will continue to involve high cleanliness and sanitation standards post-COVID. Meeting and event planners will almost certainly require in-depth information on these standards, giving a competitive edge to hotels that communicate this and execute well. Hybrid meetings will also remain a competitive offering in a post-pandemic recovery. Food and beverage, both free to guest and outlets, will continue to change with a balance of guest expectations, cost, and staffing.

The pandemic has accelerated innovation, especially in the contactless, digital arena. As the prevalence of mobile devices has changed how guests discover and purchase travel, so will it change how guests interact while on property, from check-ins, to entering guestrooms, to messaging apps and ordering services.

Finally, I believe consumer preference for wellness, health and safety will continue in a post-pandemic world - whether that materializes through spa and yoga programs, sleep programs, in-room workouts, F&B activations, or building wellness overall. The hotel industry will continue to develop programs or seek out third-party certifications to verify overall cleanliness, sanitization and wellness.

From AHLA's SafeStay program, the respective brand programs, GBAC, EcoLab, and Aimbridge's own partnership with the International WELL Building Institute for WELL Health-Safety Rating, these certifications will elevate consumer, guest and associate confidence in a post-pandemic world.

As with guest review and quality ratings, hotels that are competitive during recovery and beyond will market third-party verifications and effectively communicate to prospective guests and meeting planners their commitment reaches beyond cleanliness and sanitation, to air quality, water quality and much more.

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