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More Lysol, No More Pens In Rooms. Hotels Adapt To Win Back Guests

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In normal times, hotels promote their star chefs or their swanky design upgrades. But priorities have changed. In the age of the coronavirus, the news from Hilton is a partnership — with Lysol.

As hotel guests begin to return, the standard expectation of hygiene has been elevated to "where it's cleanliness almost with a double exclamation point after it," says Phil Cordell, Hilton's global head of brand development.

Hotels have been devastated by the pandemic. Seven out of 10hotel rooms in the U.S. remain empty, according to the research firm STR. And that's the hotels that are actually open. To survive, they are adapting — not just with extra-deep cleaning, but with technology that allows for more contactless interactions. And some amenities that guests normally find in their rooms are going away.

The challenges for an industry reeling from massive layoffs and lost revenue are daunting. A comeback will start with baby steps. At Hilton and other hotels, guests can expect disinfectants to be applied liberally and visibly — for cleanliness and for psychological reassurance, says Jim Coyle of Coyle Hospitality, a customer experience consulting company.

"When you get a guest key, you will see the staff members," he says. "They will conspicuously wipe the guest key in front of you before they hand it to you. When you arrive at a desk, you're going to see hotel staff wiping the desk clean in front of you even though there's nothing on it."

Hilton is working with Lysol's parent company and the Mayo Clinic on disinfection and cleanliness standards for its hotels.
Will Newton / Hilton
Hilton is working with Lysol's parent company and the Mayo Clinic on disinfection and cleanliness standards for its hotels.

And when you get to your room, there will be more efforts at reassurance. Marriott International has identified 12 touch points for extra disinfectant, including doorknobs, thermostats, door handles and drawer knobs.

Hilton is teaming up with RB, the parent company of Lysol, and the Mayo Clinic. As Hilton rolls out its CleanStay campaign, Cordell says guests will notice some familiar objects missing. "They will see that some of the items in the room that could likely be fingerprinted by previous guests — magazines, notepads, pens — those items have been removed from the room," he says.

And there's likely to be more. Coyle says the hotel-room phone has probably seen its last days because of the coronavirus. And what about that most divisive object in the hotel room? "I think the death of the minibar is probably finally here," Coyle says.

The remote control will likely be encased in a plastic bag or envelope with a sticker indicating it has been disinfected.

Hotels will be promoting apps that allow guests to check in without interacting with the front desk. A more ambitious technology — a digital key — that allows guests to unlock their rooms with their phones is likely to become more commonplace.

All these steps have one purpose: to assure travelers that hotels are safe — or at least as safe as they possibly can be while the coronavirus is still with us.

An early test will be convincing business travelers like Liz Oppenheim, who lives outside Boston. She's itching to get back on the road.

"The longer I go without traveling, the more I just don't feel like a person," she says. "I literally have dreams almost every night about traveling."

Oppenheim works with pharmaceutical companies on clinical trials and normally spends three or four nights a week in hotels. She enjoys it. For one thing, she racks up a lot of loyalty points. "I have all the statuses," she says with a laugh.

For now, her travel is on pause. And as Oppenheim contemplates staying in hotels again, there's one word she uses a lot: anxious.

"There's something about slipping between the sheets — the clean, white crisp sheets of a hotel — that's just incredibly relaxing, especially if you've ... had a hard, tense day at work, and it's just so wonderful. But I think I will be anxious."

As hotels spray, disinfect and purge their rooms of pens, magazines and notepads, they may eliminate germs. But will they eliminate anxiety? Hotels are about to find out.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As Senior Business Editor at NPR, Uri Berliner edits and reports on economics, technology and finance. He provides analysis, context and clarity to breaking news and complex issues.