Thomas B. Meier Senior Vice President Hotel Operations - Asia, Minor Hotel Group
It is important to note that at Avani, strict safety and hygiene protocols were in place even before the pandemic focused everyone's attention on sanitation. Food handlers wearing gloves and using color-coded chopping boards to reduce cross-contamination of cooked and raw food have long been the industry's gold standard.
Having a solid foundation in place helped Avani to quickly roll out a range of enhanced safety and hygiene measures (known internally as the AvaniSHIELD programme) when the pandemic hit -stepping things up fast is much easier when your workforce is well-versed in the basics.
Since the start of the pandemic, our teams have been following a standardized checklist that ensures that all Avani properties adhere to the same high level of hygiene and sanitation standards, no matter where they are in the world. For the guests, this means travelling to the most remote locales and enjoying exciting new flavors whilst knowing that their health is protected.
Some of these innovations, in place since the start of the pandemic, are by now familiar to the public. One such example is the new physical distancing rule requiring tables to be more spaced out to comply with covid regulations. Although it affects the restaurants' capacity and, to a lesser extent, the ambience, diners have taken these changes in their stride. When hotels and restaurants reopen, patrons can expect physical distancing to remain in place. That, and better ventilation and more alfresco seating.
Bye-Bye, Buffet. For now
Just as noticeable for the travelers checking into hotels after a long hiatus will be the phasing out of the lavish buffet spread. While buffet-style service might eventually return in some form, right now Avani is prioritizing à la minute food preparation. Fresh-from-the-oven, cooked-to-order meals made from locally-sourced produce come with an added benefit of being kinder to the environment by reducing waste and shortening the supply chain.
Other changes might be less dramatic, but equally important. You won't see any pre-set bread baskets with butter on our tables, for example. Instead, we now serve individually packaged condiments after the guests have been seated. Culinary teams, in the meantime, were retrained in food preparation, presentation and transportation, ensuring food and beverages are moved around and displayed in covered containers and glass cases.
Before the focus shifted to improving air quality inside the restaurants and putting more space between the diners - thanks to the growing understanding of how the virus causing covid-19 spreads - sanitizing stations were usually the first line of defense. They quickly became a mainstay of covid-19 combat strategy because they are cheap and effective, but while promotion of hand hygiene is crucial to curbing community transmission, simply pumping out hand sanitizer as guests enter the restaurant is not enough.
To reassure guests that high-touch surfaces are germ-free, we sanitize cashier trays, bill folders, card machines and pens after each use. Additionally, staff handling payment transactions all wear gloves and face masks. Making menus available digitally or via QR code on a smartphone was another innovation that helped Avani drastically reduce the number of surfaces guests touch when dining with us. And whenever physical menus are used, they are laminated and disinfected after each interaction.
Agents of Change
Even before the outbreak of 2019-nCoV, Avani was working closely with Ecolab and will continue doing so to ensure that all materials and measures adhere to Ecolab's, WHO's and, for chemical treatment, EPA's standards. On property level, compliance is validated by AvaniSHIELD Agents who are responsible for implementing new cleaning protocols, as well as ensuring the latest health and safety guidelines are communicated to the team in a timely manner. The role also includes monitoring the overall health of Avani team members and conducting training sessions on new health and safety regulations.
And we hold our suppliers to equally high standards. All new or existing partners, suppliers and third parties are expected to comply with our new safety measures, regular sanitizing and ensuring guest protection in compliance with Avani's 'Trusted Partner Programme'. For Thailand hotels, these must be in line with the guidelines of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), an organization working with multiple government bodies in setting up Thailand Safety and Health Administration (SHA).
We have also prioritized the adoption of new technology, such as copper protection coating, UVC light and HEPA-grade air purifiers, all in compliance with the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
But perhaps the biggest changes of all can be observed in the MICE sector. With remote and hybrid work becoming the new normal at the workplace, the way companies conduct their annual jamborees, product launches and sales trainings is changing too. While the situation remains fluid, it is becoming increasingly clear that a demand for ZOOM, Microsoft Teams and other video calling apps will hold up for the foreseeable future. That being said, event planners and attendees still expect to see the elements of traditional hospitality in place, from freshly brewed coffee and theme lunch breaks to silver service at banquets and galas.
After consulting a cross section of experts from the events industry, Avani has launched a number of initiatives at its hotels in Thailand under the new 'hybrid meetings' umbrella. The idea is to focus on technology-based MICE products to make the transition to a more digital environment as seamless as possible, while ensuring the F&B part of the experience is delivered in a safe, controlled way.
Expanding into digital services allowed Avani to offer event planners such solutions as online attendee management, interactive polling, rental of live streaming equipment and services of a dedicated on-site technical team. Packages vary from property to property but all were designed to work equally well for small meetings ("Mini Meet" caters to up to 10 on-site attendees and 100 online participants) and larger ones. ("Conference Pro" can accommodate 50 on-site and 500 online participants, six guest speakers and multiple 4K cameras.)
Considering that the new hybrid MICE product is still in its pilot phase, tweaks are inevitable as feedback starts to come in. You can't really say with any amount of confidence what the hospitality industry will look like once the world has emerged out of the pandemic, but the early signs are here and they point to a greener future.
The most obvious effect being a reduction in CO2 emissions thanks to hybrid meetings that eliminate the necessity of flying people in. But there are other changes too. At Avani, where buffet lunch was replaced with meals served in individually packaged biodegradable containers, food waste has gone down, as has food cost. Although lavish all-you-can-eat buffets have long been an environmental concern and a topic of green conversations, it took a pandemic to put food waste firmly into the spotlight. As for guests with complex dietary requirements, so long as event planners are able to collect and communicate those in a timely manner, offering low-salt or lacto-ovo-vegetarian meals shouldn't be a problem.
In the meantime, properties with ample outdoor space are reaping the benefits of being able to move meetings and functions to poolside lawns and, occasionally, the beach. Avani Pattaya and Avani+ Hua Hin, both blessed with sprawling gardens, can host everything from multi-day team-building exercises and high-tech seminars to intimate business meetings outside. Not to be outdone, our city-center hotels in Bangkok are converting underutilized outdoor spaces into coffee breaks venues.
A New Kind of In-Room Dining
Some of our hotels are re-imaging traditional hotel experiences altogether. At Avani+ Riverside Bangkok Hotel, the classic room service experience was given a makeover with the launch of the 'Hush-Hush Suite' package earlier this year.
With food served silver-service style in the privacy of a suite, it's more of a black-tie soiree than a cosy pyjama party. It's main attraction, as far as our guests are concerned, is that they can still have a luxury dining experience, complete with private chefs, waiters and mixologists, but in a safe and controlled environment. With an overnight stay in a premium suite included in the package, guests retire to their bedroom while the Avani team takes care of the dishes and removes all traces of the party.
For the property, the innovative package is also an opportunity to maximize revenue by upselling ad-ons such as romantic mood lighting, premium Champagne or theme decor (the nightclub theme comes with a disco ball, DJ sessions and an open bar).
Crucially, amid all the changes, Avani managed to preserve the essence of Asian hospitality. With smiles concealed under face masks and handshakes retired, our team members project warmth and foster connections by relying on country-specific hand gestures.
In Thailand, you might be greeted with a traditional Thai wai; in Korea, you'll get the jeol bowing; elsewhere, it can be the hand-over-heart gesture or even the Vulcan salute popularized by Star Trek. All are the Avani way of saying "we value your custom".