Exclusive: Hotel industry issues coronavirus safety guidelines ahead of anticipated travel surge

Hotels around the country are prepping for travelers to start showing up again amid the coronavirus pandemic. But how can guests know that it’s safe to stay there?

The hotel industry at large has had to update its cleanliness guidelines in the wake of coronavirus.

© Chainarong Prasertthai, Getty Images/iStockphoto
The hotel industry at large has had to update its cleanliness guidelines in the wake of coronavirus.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) has unveiled its SafeStay guidelines on Monday, an effort made in conjunction with major brands like 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.

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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 (i.e. lobby reception, employee entrances, etc.)
  • The installment of signage reminding both employees and guests regarding how to wear, handle and throw away masks
  • A significant upheaval of 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 six 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 these 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 thinks 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. And it’s probable other health challenges 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 added, 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 to 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 added. If a shelter-in-place situation happens again, almost zero occupancy will return, which is to be expected and understood.

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 slightly over the last 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,” said Jan Freitag, STR’s senior VP of lodging insights, in a statement.

Rogers said that 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 last 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 anticipate 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.

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Airlines, Travel Industry React to Latest Travel Restrictions

It was, to say the least, an extraordinary day on Wednesday as the country continues to grapple with the spread of COVID-19.

The virus touched virtually every aspect of life in one incredible eight-hour span.

– The National Basketball Association abruptly suspended its season after the final game on Wednesday after a player from the Utah Jazz had a preliminary positive test for the coronavirus.

– New York City officials canceled the revered St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Ave, the first time in 258 years. The parade is so established it is older than the United States.

– In Chicago, there will be no pub crawl and no dyeing the Chicago River green – the city also canceled its annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.

– The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced that its wildly popular men’s and women’s basketball tournaments – three weeks known as ‘March Madness’ – will still be played but no fans will be permitted inside any arena during the length of the tournament.

All of those affect travel in one way or another.

But perhaps the most startling news – and certainly the most troubling to the airline industry – came during President Trump’s address to the nation from the Oval Office on Wednesday night. To combat the spread of the virus in the U.S., and on the heels of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic, the president has suspended travel from 26 European countries to the United States starting at midnight on Friday, March 13. The United Kingdom was not part of the banned nations.

Immediately, the reaction has been palpable.

U.S. stock futures plummeted overnight, falling more than 1,000 points or 4.6 percent. When the markets opened this morning at 9:30 EDT, the Dow Jones dropped more than 1,700 points and within six minutes the so-called “circuit breaker” implemented by the New York Stock Exchange to temporarily halt trading for 15 minutes kicked in.

Not that they have a choice, but the airlines all said they will comply with Trump’s directive.

“At this point, all I can say is that we will comply with the administration’s announcement,” United Airlines spokesman Frank Benenati told CNN.

“The safety and health of our customers and employees is always our highest priority,” said Delta Air Lines spokeswoman Elizabeth Ninomiya in a statement. “Delta has and will continue to quickly make adjustments to service, as needed, in response to government travel directive.”

American Airlines said it is in contact with government officials to further understand and comply with the directive.

The airlines are expecting a precipitous drop in business and Trump talked about making financial help available from the government along the lines of the bailout after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He did not elaborate, however.

The transatlantic routes for airlines are among the most lucrative, something Airlines For America President and CEO Nicholas E. Calio said in a statement. Airlines For America is the umbrella lobby group for the airline industry.

While commending Trump for his “decisive action,” Calio said “the unforeseen outbreak of the coronavirus has directly impacted the U.S. airline industry, which is critical to the U.S. and global economies. This action will hit U.S. airlines, their employees, travelers and the shipping public extremely hard. However, we respect the need to take this unprecedented action and appreciate the Administration’s commitment to facilitate travel and trade.”

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the aviation industry could lose around $63 billion if the viral infection is contained in the countries currently experiencing confirmed cases.

Ralph Hollister, Travel & Tourism Analyst at GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company, said a travel ban now might be too little too late.

“A travel ban may be too little too late now that the virus is spreading throughout the global population,” he said. “Additionally, the disruption from this ban will cause a significant impact on the US travel sector. US travel intermediaries, hotels and airports are examples of industries that will be heavily disrupted. US airlines may be the first to feel a significant impact, due to travel between North America and Europe providing a valuable revenue stream.”

Roger Dow, President and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association said that the government must now consider equally aggressive steps to financially bolster the industry. House Democrats did introduce a multi-billion dollar bill in response to the outbreak following the president’s speech.

“Temporarily shutting off travel from Europe is going to exacerbate the already-heavy impact of coronavirus on the travel industry and the 15.7 million Americans whose jobs depend on travel,” Dow said. “We have and will continue to engage Congress and the administration on policy steps that are necessary to ensure that travel employers—83% of which are small businesses—can keep the lights on for their employees.”

According to U.S. Travel Association economists, 850,000 international visitors flying from Europe (excluding the UK) entered the United States in March of 2019, accounting for about 29% of total overseas arrivals to the U.S. These visitors spent approximately $3.4 billion in the U.S.

Trump’s decision on the 30-day ban also sent Europe into a tailspin. MotherJones reported this morning that Paris’ Charles de Gaulle International Airport was swamped with Americans and others trying to get out of France on flights to the U.S., with one person paying $3,300 for a one-way coach set from Paris to Phoenix. And a Delta ticket agent said one person spent $20,000 online in tickets to get home to the U.S.

Needless to say, the European Union was not thrilled with Trump’s decision.

“The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation,” European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a joint statement. “The coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action.”

According to flight tracker FlightAware, around 400 flights across the Atlantic from Europe to the United States each day.

Terry Dale, President & CEO of the United States Tour Operators Association, said while he understands and appreciates the urgency to curb the growth COVID-19 within the United States, “we were surprised and discouraged by the Administration’s announcement of the 30-day travel ban with Europe. It adds more confusion and uncertainty to our already beleaguered industry.”

In the meantime, Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California continue to hold out and have not closed the parks. In fact, Executive Chairman Bob Iger said at the company’s annual shareholder meeting this week that staying open is what the country needs.

“It’s fair to say we’re all sobered by the concern that we feel for everyone affected by this global crisis,” Iger said in prepared remarks. “These are challenging times for everyone. (But) what we’ve demonstrated over the years is that we’re incredibly resilient. If you think about the world today, what we create has never been more necessary or more important.”

In a statement, the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) said it is “diligently working with policy makers in both the Trump Administration and in Congress to obtain a variety of relief options to help advisors, and the travel industry as a whole, weather this storm. We will, of course, keep ASTA members fully apprised of the latest developments in this rapidly evolving situation.”

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