In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, hotels were forced to adapt their policies to keep both guests and employees safe. While some of these new practices – like extending benefits for hotel rewards programs – are short-term solutions to an emergency, several adjustments are part of the hotel industry’s new normal. Read on to learn more about how hotel experiences will be a little different in 2021 and beyond.

Cleaning Protocols

A top concern for many travelers nowadays is what hotels are doing to keep both public spaces and rooms clean. And while it may seem like hotels are publicizing their cleaning practices for the first time, that’s not entirely the case.

“What they’re doing, in essence, is having a secondary cleaning process that disinfects and sanitizes,” says Robert Rauch, hotelier and founder of Hotel Guru, a website dedicated to sharing trends and predictions about the hospitality industry. “We send an inspector in and identify the hot spots in the room.” Hot spots include high-touch surfaces like doorknobs and TV remotes.

Prior to your stay, expect housekeeping to thoroughly clean and sanitize your room with disinfecting products. Additionally, housekeeping may be suspended or only operating by request at certain properties for the short term. Hand sanitizer will likely be available throughout your hotel in public areas, and some properties will have hand sanitizer or disinfecting wipes in guest rooms.

Rauch expects hotels will keep these new sanitizing protocols in place for a while. However, he believes properties will likely stop advertising them as part of their cleaning process after the pandemic.

Slow Roll Out of Amenities

To help limit contact between hotel employees and guests, hotels have suspended or limited amenities like valet parking and spa services. Phil Cordell, Hilton’s global head of lifestyle brands and new brand development, says that these amenities will return slowly and that hotels will likely follow travelers’ leads. Cordell adds that Hilton uses guest surveys to gauge which amenities visitors are ready for and comfortable using again. This ensures Hilton does not move faster than their guests while following recommendations from organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Similarly, Marriott properties will roll out amenities slowly in accordance with local guidelines.

Emphasis on the Outdoors

Unsurprisingly, lockdowns and stay-at-home orders have caused many people to crave opportunities that allow them to get some fresh air and sunshine. Hotels are already capitalizing on this trend toward spending time outdoors. Cordell says that Hilton properties with outdoor spaces have seen “dramatic increases” in guest usage. Furthermore, both he and Rauch predict that business travelers may host events or seminars outside as space and weather allows. What’s more, outdoor workspaces provide a particular boon to those who opt for a work-from-hotel package.

“People want to be outdoors,” Rauch says. “They want to be able to get together and see their friends, family and loved ones outdoors.”

Mike Mueller, president of brand operations at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, says the pandemic pushed Wyndham hotel owners to utilize outdoor space. Many Wyndham properties are limited-service hotels, which means they lack high-end amenities like on-site restaurants or large rooms where guests can gather.

“Hotel owners weren’t thinking about [outdoor space] before,” Mueller says. “For groups who want to socialize together that are spread across three or four rooms, where do you put them to socialize [so that] social distancing is possible?”

He says the answer for some properties has been to install pergolas and picnic tables outside for guest use. Mueller predicts that this trend is here to stay as hotel owners discover that these additional spaces are an asset to guests.

Since 2015, Hilton guests have been able to access their rooms using a Digital Key available through Hilton’s app.(Courtesy of Hilton)

Web and App Technology

“There’s an app for that” certainly rings true for hotel brands. Top brands, including Four Seasons, Hilton and Marriott, have apps that create a seamless experience for guest stays. Depending on the app, travelers can book rooms, order room service, chat with hotel staff and check in to their rooms.

Many of these apps and functions existed pre-pandemic, but it wasn’t until social distancing became the norm that brands pushed the “contactless” angle, Rauch says. The Hilton App launched in 2015, and it currently offers benefits like contactless check-in and a Digital Key, which guests use to open their rooms at roughly 5,000 Hilton properties worldwide. In fact, the pandemic pushed users to take advantage of the Digital Key: Hilton reports that the number of guests who opted to use a Digital Key nearly doubled from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020. Similarly, Marriott’s Bonvoy app lets Marriott Bonvoy members book rooms, check in and, where available, enter their room with mobile keys. Marriott also began offering web check-in for both members and nonmembers in September.

Budget travelers will be happy to know that Wyndham released its app in September, allowing users to manage their Wyndham Rewards account, book hotels and check in or out of their rooms with their smart device at nearly 6,000 properties.

This technology will stay well after the pandemic’s end, but hotels are moving forward with it at different rates. For instance, Marriott projects it will have mobile keys across all hotels by mid-2021. On the other hand, Wyndham hotels do not have mobile key technology. According to Mueller, it could take some time before they do. Part of the hurdle is that implementing the technology is costly. It’s also uncertain what impact it will have on customer service.

“We hold that relationship dearly that occurs during check-in and checkout,” Mueller says. He notes Wyndham is looking into how offering digital keys will affect that relationship between employees and guests, specifically whether it will remove all contact between parties throughout a guest’s stay.

Food and Beverage Service

The pandemic caused hotels to rethink the way they handle dining options. For some, this meant closing down breakfast buffets and serving prepackaged food to guests. Others opted to limit service at or close restaurants temporarily. However, dining at hotels will make a comeback, though it will be slightly different.

Mueller predicts hotel employees could serve buffets instead of guests helping themselves. Cordell anticipates pre-portioned or individually portioned servings could be present on buffet lines rather than large food trays.

Creating a hybrid of buffet and tableside service could be another option. Hilton is piloting a program at several locations that allows guests to select different options from a menu that their server brings to them. Cordell says the selections are still all-you-can-eat, but it will limit how many items guests will have to touch. Another bonus? Cordell reports that hotels using the program have less food waste. Whether this dining option will roll out to other Hilton properties is still undetermined.

Major brands worldwide offer ways to order food online. For example, Four Seasons has allowed guests to order room service from the brand’s app since 2015. Some Marriott properties have also begun permitting guests to order food via a mobile device from their hotels’ restaurants. Marriott plans to expand the service to more properties after seeing the program’s success. Though Hilton doesn’t currently offer ordering through its Hilton Honors app, the company says it is a possible feature in the future.

Sticking to Essentials

In 2020, hotels removed superfluous items from guest rooms to limit the number of high-touch items. For example, Wyndham took out decorative throw pillows.

“There’s a fine line between amenities and clutter,” Mueller says. He adds that now that hotels are removing these nonessential amenities, they aren’t likely to bring them back. “If [those accessories] were only there to add a pop of color, they’ll go away.”

Hilton properties no longer offer in-room notepads, menus and magazines, and Cordell says they’re gone for good. Instead, guests can use their smart device to scan a QR code and see that information pop up on their device.

Hotel Design

Hotel design shifts slowly, and sustainability remains at the forefront for several brands. In 2018, Marriott announced it would swap its small single-use bottles for large bottles of shampoo, conditioner and shower gel in guest bathrooms. Despite the pandemic slowing their progress, Marriott reports it is “committed to reaching its goal.” Furthermore, hoteliers recognize that many travelers continue to express interest in staying in green buildings and accommodations. As hotels make design and infrastructure choices, they’re likely to consider solutions like LED lightbulbs and eco-friendly materials.

In contrast to the steady stream of environmental changes hotels are making, the shift toward cleanliness has been relatively abrupt. To help guests keep their distance from others, hotels have made some changes to interior spaces, such as spacing tables at least six feet apart in restaurants or extending outdoor dining spaces. However, Cordell predicts that there will be additional changes to the way hotels look and feel that will focus on cleanliness and health. A prime example: using hard surface flooring in guest rooms rather than carpet, as those surfaces are easier to clean. Other advancements are more technology based, such as installing ultraviolet lighting and selecting upholstery fabrics engineered to be easily cleaned and resistant to bacteria. The future of hotel design will incorporate both environmental efficiency and cleanliness, yet many of these changes, Cordell stresses, will not arrive immediately.

No matter where your travels take you in 2021, your hotel will likely have some or all of these changes in effect. Consult the property’s website or contact the hotel before you travel for a full list of available amenities and safety precautions. To decide where you should stay, consult U.S. News’ Best Hotels rankings.

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