Late last June, I checked in to a hotel. After three months of lockdown, it felt like an entirely new experience. And in many ways, it was: In lieu of the usual arrival cocktail and friendly conversation was a plastic partition that protected the front desk and a QR code that linked to a digital document, which I read and signed on my phone.
The document was essentially a series of promises—for my part, the assurance that I was not exhibiting COVID symptoms and would agree to wear a mask in all public areas; on the hotel’s end, a veritable manifesto of new protocols. New cleaning agents were being used, contactless methods had replaced standard services, social-distancing rules were enforced, and all hotel rooms would be left empty for at least 24 hours between bookings. The “buffer,” as the hotel called it, would ensure that any coronavirus particles that might have attached to the surfaces in that room would die, thereby adding an extra level of safety for guests and housekeeping staff.
It was all so reassuring—until my last day at the hotel, when I inquired at the front desk about a late checkout. I was told I could unfortunately not be accommodated. A new arrival was expected for my room that very afternoon.
As more of us begin to venture out for business and pleasure—even as the pandemic continues—hotels have endeavored to set our minds at ease with myriad new protocols and promises. Hospital-grade disinfectants, HEPA filters, and electrostatic sprays have all replaced top-shelf minibars and white-glove room service as the most sought-after amenities, but which protocols genuinely work? And which are just really good marketing?
Experts are still learning how the coronavirus spreads, and absent any comprehensive guidelines from governing bodies, hotels have been left to go it alone. To tackle the issue, many brands have established advisory boards and medical partnerships to help wade through the latest data and recommendations. Marriott has brought together dozens of doctors and healthcare experts to create its Global Cleanliness Council; Hilton’s CleanStay program was developed in partnership with the Mayo Clinic and RB, the maker of Lysol; and Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts has collaborated with Johns Hopkins Medicine International to establish its new Lead with Care guidelines.
With so many weighing in on them, new guidelines can have an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink quality, attempting any and every method, however innovative (touchless room keys) or gimmicky (a three-foot-tall germ-killing robot named Kennedy). At other times, the new rules can come off as performative, with staff members maintaining already-in-place cleaning protocols—only instead of doing them behind closed doors, they now execute them in plain sight for guests to observe. Phil Cordell, Hilton’s global head of new brand development, recently called it “housekeeping theater,” pointing out that simply making the process of cleaning more visible has a reassuring effect.
Dr. Adrian Hyzler, chief medical officer at Healix International, which specializes in medical and travel-assistance services, argues that such displays are probably evidence that a hotel is actually making the right moves. “With hotels, you want to look at the ones that lay out clearly what they are doing, and you want to see it too,” he says. “If you see someone carrying a mop from one room to the next, you know the hotel isn’t looking closely enough at what it’s doing.”
In some destinations, COVID-fighting measures have been standardized on a governmental level. Last September, Qatar launched its Qatar Clean program, with a 32-page manual detailing guidelines that all of its hotels must follow, including twice-daily staff temperature checks, contactless check-in and checkout, and hospital-grade disinfection techniques. Properties that do not meet the requirements during random inspections are fined. Other destinations, including Hong Kong, have begun to roll out similar certification programs.
But are the new guidelines enough? Some argue the only way to provide true peace of mind is with regular testing. Cruise ships are preparing to do just that as they head back to the seas. “We already have state-of-the-art hospitals and medical teams on board, and we already screened for other viruses like the flu,” says Josh Leibowitz, the president of Seabourn Cruise Line. “Soon we’ll have one of the largest private coronavirus-testing capabilities in travel. We will have testing and surveillance before and throughout the voyage to minimize risk.” With this, plus new sanitizing procedures, air filtration systems, and requirements for masks and social distancing, Leibowitz believes the risk on his ships will be among the lowest in the travel industry.
Hyzler, meanwhile, suggests following one simple rule no matter where or how you travel. Known as the Three Cs, it calls for avoiding crowded places, close-contact settings, and closed spaces with poor ventilation. The directive, which originated in Japan, “is what I go by in everyday life,” he says.
And what about that same-day turnover at my hotel? Shortly after I checked out, the World Health Organization announced that cleaning, disinfecting, and ventilating a room should sufficiently sanitize it without any need for extended periods between stays. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also claimed only a small amount of transmission occurs via surfaces. Take that, however, with a caveat from Hyzler: “I would still go around and wipe every surface down,” he says. “And I would want the windows to be opened and everything aired out. I think, with that, I would be quite happy to check in to a hotel.”