Hotels scramble to be seen as “clean”

What does clean really mean?

Hugh OFlanagan

A new word has risen to prominence in every aspect of the hotel industry’s external marketing and messaging over 2020: “clean”. 

In a marked shift from communication around exciting events and desirable amenities, hotels this summer have been focused on reassuring their guests that cleanliness is their highest priority.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, being seen to be clean is more important than ever before. Both travelers and hotels are having to adjust to the new normal, and this has meant a massive shift both in how hotels go about their operations and in what tourists look for when booking their vacations.

Pretty much every hotel in the world has come forward with some form of playbook, guidelines or set of protocols to show how seriously they are taking the pandemic — and the measures they are implementing to keep their guests safe. 

But what does being “clean” really mean in this context? What do hotels need to do to step up their cleaning game? And how can they deliver against elevated expectations, while also controlling — and even saving — on costs?

Let’s dive in...

Fresh towels? Check. Topped up soap? Check.
But being “clean” is so much more than that, too

Cleaning services have changed enormously as a result of COVID-19. A housekeeper’s responsibilities stretch far beyond refreshing towels, changing sheets, clearing away empty glasses and making sure soap dispensers are filled back up. 

As far as guests are concerned, cleaning now equates to safety, security and a lot of disinfectant — with health the priority, rather than neat lines and swan shapes on the bed!

For hotels, this has meant a raft of new measures and protocols designed to illustrate adequate and appropriate care of guests and their environment. And some government recommendations are seen as a prerequisite for reopening, too. 

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) published guidance for public spaces, workspaces and businesses which included a framework for developing, implementing and revising a cleaning plan, including:

  • Social distancing, wearing face coverings and regular hand washing
  • Disinfecting surfaces with an EPA-approved disinfectant
  • Making judgements on where needs to be disinfected based on frequency of use and footfall.

However plenty of ‘enhanced protocols’ and ‘new cleaning processes’ have been non-standardized and implemented by individual hotels based on their own initiative. Hotels have increasingly transitioned their cleaning processes from back-of-house to front and center — using posters, ad campaigns, and email newsletters to promote their take on, and dedication to, frequent “deep cleans”.

Pre-COVID-19, guests would take a clean hotel room as a given, the basic minimum that a hotel should provide, and only consider it again in the event of a problem. Now, however, a “clean” space is associated with somewhere safe, biosecure and trustworthy — and branding for cleaning procedures and campaigns is all-important, used to create a significant competitive advantage when done right.

Names like Hilton CleanStay, Choice Hotels’ Commitment to Clean, Best Western’s We Care Clean, Omni Safe & Clean, and IHG Clean Promise are emblazoned across hotel websites, welcome packs, and social media messaging.

But what do these campaigns actually mean?

The psychology of cleaning 

In understanding hotels’ commitment to cleaning, and particularly how they market and brand their initiatives, it is important to look at the psychological element of “cleanliness”.

“The first question that comes to mind when someone’s making the decision to book is: ‘Am I going to be safe?’” said Suzanne Markham Bagnera, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor and chair of the undergraduate program in the School of Hospitality Administration at Boston University.

In the current climate, guests need to feel reassured and protected. They need to feel confident that a hotel is taking appropriate measures to ensure their safety, that the management understands the seriousness of the situation, and that ‘something extra’ is being done to make their choice a particularly safe place to be. 

There’s an element of performative hygiene here — the demonstration and visibility of new protocols being almost as important as the protocols themselves!

This reassurance starts with pre-arrival guest communication. There is no real standardization when it comes to these protocols, and even the CDC guidelines and just that: guidelines. So when it comes to the details of health initiatives, individual hotels can go their own way, and define exactly what they are doing themselves. Keeping soon-to-be guests in the loop regarding the changing regulations shows how a hotel is adapting, and increasing, levels of cleanliness and security. While physical signage around the hotel grounds tell guests what extra steps are being taken — and what they need to do, too.

The thing is, investing heavily in ad campaigns and promotional messaging is all well and good — but it means absolutely nothing if the evidence isn’t there to back it up. And the effort is more or less wasted, unless hotels invest equally into improving internal ways of working at the same time.

Worse still, talking the talk without walking the walk can be seriously detrimental to a hotel’s reputation and commercial standing. Making promises that you simply fail to deliver is a fast-track to a drop in bookings, for sure.

So who’s the missing link in matching your messaging to the actual guest experience? Housekeeping.

The all-important role of housekeeping during COVID-19

We can think of housekeeping as an intricate balancing act during times of pandemic. 

After all, at one end of the spectrum you’ve got ‘deep cleaners’ in full protective gear disinfecting an empty room — try fitting that into your hotel’s visual brand language, though. In the other extreme, if housekeepers are too invisible, guests may doubt the standards and quality being received.

Somehow, hotels need to clean often enough, without scaring guests or making them uncomfortable. They also need to empower housekeepers to take pride in the work they’re doing — and that’s difficult when the workers themselves might fear entering a stranger’s space. 

Hotels could be forgiven for wanting to hire more staff, to keep up with new expectations — and to cover for staff who feel uncomfortable or, worse, unwell themselves. And while the latter would be a sound move, more cleaning doesn’t necessarily require more people to do the job. We can’t forget that occupancy rates of most hotels are at an all-time low, and hiring more staff at this time is far from an efficient way to work — it’s just another balancing act to struggle through. 

The result? It’s not always pretty...

Cleaning in 2020: many hotels just aren't getting it right

Despite the new focus on contingency measures and hygiene protocols, it appears that many hotels aren’t getting it right. 

Big promises are being made — and almost every hotel is promoting their new cleaning initiatives — but not everyone is able to live up to the hype. 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes the center of a coronavirus outbreak” said one guest on TripAdvisor, following a 3-day stay in a US hotel. And there are other customers like them, too.

Whether from lack of understanding of the regulations, lack of buy-in from guests and staff, or just not having the wherewithal to properly implement all the new protocols, too many guests are reporting that standards seem to be the same — or are even slipping.

If this is the case, hotels may be putting time, money and resources into these new procedures, and still not having happy customers. At a time when cleanliness really is next to godliness in attracting paying customers, this could have serious ramifications for the hotel industry on the whole.

So what can you do? 

Greater visibility, better results, cleaner hotels – with Lua

Improving operational efficiency can solve a whole host of the problems. Working smarter rather than harder can help you do far more with the resources you have, and can have a huge impact on both guest satisfaction and employee buy-in. Going digital, and using a platform like Lua, can really make a difference.

Moving to Lua’s digital workflows means that housekeeping staff — and their managers — know exactly what is being done, and that all tasks are being accomplished. Lua has shown that by using the platform, staff can work more efficiently and without coming into contact with as many people — as there’s no shared paper-based list or roster to go back to. 

It also increases performance, helping hotels stay cleaner, as staff are more engaged and motivated about the task at hand. Staff are happy as they feel more secure, and guests are happy because the overall standard of cleaning goes up.

Cleaning standards are going to be a deciding factor for the foreseeable future, and hotels will need to stand out to attract guests (from a far more limited pool than in previous years). To start working towards your new — squeaky clean and future-proofed — competitive advantage, get in touch with Lua today.