The first step for all hotels to make them safe in the wake of COVID-19 was a scrupulous refocus on cleanliness. Moreover, we all started telling our guests about these measures to help restore confidence. But as data from the summer peak travel season has shown, cleanliness upgrades don’t lead to more searches or bookings. Instead, guests just want to be left alone.
There’s a bit of ‘insider baseball’ at play here. Somewhere in this whole reshuffling, cleanliness has become a subtle game of one-upmanship, with brands trying to outdo each other in this department and in their compliance to the new viral safety guidelines. Previously this arms race was fought over service, whereas now the marketing narrative is all about who has the cleanest properties.
Some hotels use chemical fogging. Still others polybag the essentials to the point of detail that members of the space shuttle crew would be impressed. Is one more efficacious than the other? Is one cleaning approach preferred by customers? Who knows!
Instead, what if all the new viral safety norms that have been quickly ushered in are simply an embedded expectation and guests don’t view them as a top-of-mind emotional driver?
You would think that with so much anxiety over contracting this deadly disease, everyone would value sanitization above all else and thus the brands that emphasized this would realize the fastest recovery. Contrarily, the new data from the likes of Airbnb and Booking are indicating that, much like running water or functioning HVAC, our advanced cleanliness standards are a binary baseline for the hotel experience—a pass or a fail and nothing more. It’s expected that you are performing according to government-mandated minimums and that’s it.
With Airbnb recently achieving a 12-month high in search share for many key markets, including the United States and several Western European countries, clearly other factors are driving reservations ahead of all the extra cleaning. Discerning and understanding these motivations represents the next challenge for the traditional sector to reclaim its significance in the average customer’s mind.
So, what’s actually driving guests? Why are they searching for home sharing accommodations ahead of hotels?
My hypothesis is that guests want space. Physical distancing or privacy outweighs enhanced cleaning. They take at face value that every room will be clean, and that perhaps our constant reinforcement of rendered cleaning work may be simply overkill. Guests are telling us they want to be left alone.
Forget the front desk, valet, doorman, bellhop, concierge, spa, gym and even housekeeping. In today’s COVID-driven environment, guests just want zero human contact, and perhaps we are marketing ourselves on the wrong attributes.
Yes, guests want quality furnishings, larger comfortable surroundings, room to dine in, perfect HVAC, comfy beds, large showers, fast WiFi and a big screen to sync to their mobile devices. They want services that are accessible via contactless technology and guest messaging apps, but beyond that they simply want anonymity.
Following this logic, the concept of furnished suites—which by the very nature of our current service-free lifestyles—might be the accommodation industry’s sweet spot. Look for more growth in this area and, I suspect, consolidation of smaller players into bona fide competitors for Airbnb or under the auspices of major brands with a traditional hotel component.
To this end, there are already many companies picking away at Airbnb’s pie by finding a niche that’s going unfulfilled by the established alternate accommodation leaders. Sonder was already making headlines this past winter, while The Laundry Rooms represents another strong entrant to the market, with the latter’s CEO, Matthew Opferkuch, adding, “Post-pandemic, many hotel companies are understandably focused on cleanliness, but this has always been a minimum expectation. We are focusing our efforts on our technology stack, limiting guest interaction while providing high levels of service. It’s a light-touch model that’s built around minimizing interactions with staff, including remote check-in by mobile phone, keyless building entry, virtual concierge services and on-demand housekeeping, all within a fully-furnished, private residential setting.”
While undoubtedly our cleanliness upgrades will continue to be instrumental in bringing group travel back, it is time yet again to pivot to what transient customers actually want. If they value anonymity ahead of cleaning, how will you adjust your service offerings, labor and marketing budgets accordingly?