Social distancing a chance to rethink service delivery

Personalized service begins in the guest’s room

Could room service make a comeback as a response to social distancing? “One sees the potential to deliver the same, curated guest experience to hotel rooms rather than inviting guests to enjoy it in the hotel’s common areas,” writes Peter Mitham. But in these days of Uber Eats and Skip the Dishes, “service should be part of the bargain, not something you need to pay extra for.”

By Peter Mitham

It’s been one month since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and public health officials across North America began restricting gatherings and travel. Five weeks into a health crisis that’s taken a toll not only in lives but also economic and social well-being, few are discussing what’s next. Coalitions of states on the east and west coasts of the U.S. have formed to develop a coordinated exit strategy from the crisis, while federal officials here in Canada expect restrictions to remain in place for months. Many speak of the need for a kind of herd immunity that will limit future outbreaks. Short of a natural immunity developing as the virus winnows out the vulnerable in the population, the great hope is a vaccine.

This means that hotels and other businesses that exist to facilitate social connection stand to see slower times for months to come. Those that remain open today, or start to resume operations as restrictions on movement are loosened, will likely be required to enforce some kind of social distancing for the foreseeable future. This could mean leveraging technology to limit face-to-face interactions with guests, or reducing seat counts in breakfast areas, lounges and restaurants to prevent the potential for disease to spread. The last thing any establishment wants is for its reputation to go viral thanks to the coronavirus.

How will hotels accommodate the reduced traffic through their premises that such measures will impose? With respect to restaurants, some observers suggest that some concepts will die while others will come into their own, such as the fast-casual dining chains such as Chipotle Grill. The high cost of space and shortage of workers in many urban centres fuelled the rise of such concepts that were largely self-serve, and self-bussed. How might that apply to hotels, which typically pride themselves on pampering guests with a high level of service?

On the one hand, it could be a boon for select service concepts such as aloft, Hyatt Place and Cambria Suites. These properties typically pride themselves on a high level of service but limited amenities compared to a full-service hotel. The model keeps operating costs low for operators and prices low for travellers. However, by offering only select services, it can tailor offerings to a guest who may opt to avoid the public areas of a hotel and effectively self-isolate during travel to reduce health risks.

Let’s stick with that idea for a moment, and consider that most travellers still need to eat and most would choose to experience something of their destinations even if they’re travelling for business. This is why many new concepts are emphasizing the unique connection they have with a locale, touting curated craft beer lists or welcoming popular local restaurant concepts on site. Guests may never leave the hotel, but they can still say they experienced the destination.

But what happens if they don’t want to leave their rooms? Or what if the lobby bar or the hotel restaurant has to reduce its capacity by half? Could there be an opportunity to deliver the same service to the guest’s room? Room service may have a reputation for being costlier than the restaurant, but the Amazon effect means many people now expect delivery to be both fast and free. Service should be part of the bargain, not something you need to pay extra for. One sees the potential to deliver the same, curated guest experience to hotel rooms rather than inviting guests to enjoy it in the hotel’s common areas. It’s a natural way to increase the number of seats the hotel’s kitchen serves while keeping people at a safe distance.

This is effectively what millions of people are doing across the country and around the world right now, under the orders restricting movement and social gatherings. Rather than make room service an extra luxury, why not make it as natural as ordering via Skip the Dishes or Uber Eats? With the increasing personalization of travel experiences, it makes sense for the guest’s room to be the starting point of their experience – not just in its design and décor, but as the delivery point for all the services a hotel has to offer.

Peter Mitham.

Peter Mitham is Canadian Lodging News’ Vancouver correspondent. He worked two years in the hospitality sector after university, and now covers real estate, agriculture and wine for trade publications in Canada and the U.S. He is co-author with Douglas Gray of Real Estate Investing for Canadians for Dummies.