'We don't want hotels to become like hospital spaces', say hoteliers seeking to balance health, safety and hospitality. But can the ceád míle fáilte survive coronavirus?
“I don’t think there's any desire to go to a property and be served by Darth Vader with a big hat and a cape," says John Brennan.
"There’s no comfort in that. That's not having a break. That’s going to a place, afraid of your life, saying: 'Jesus, what am I doing here surrounded by a medical environment?'"
Normally, at this time of year, John and his brother Francis would be gearing up for peak summer season at Park Hotel Kenmare.
Today, it's a whole other world. Nobody knows what normal means, anymore. The Brennans and their team are walking corridors, remapping rooms and restaurants, brainstorming how to adapt a famously warm, Kerry welcome to a brave new world of health and physical-distancing protocols.
“The way we open won’t be a million miles away from the way we closed," Brennan says. "We took out all the bar stools from the counter, took out every second table in the restaurant and bar; no staff were allowed go into another department - only the waiter into the kitchen – and no staff were going with guests in lifts."
According to the Government's roadmap for recovery, Irish hotels could reopen "on a limited occupancy basis" from July 20. But with no overseas visitors, coach tours, concerts or events in the immediate future, any relief at having a date is tempered by the grim challenge ahead.
The Park Hotel is planning for around 40pc occupancy, with two-night minimum stays and rooms left vacant for 48 hours between stays.
“We’re in the business of hospitality; we’re not in the business of hospitals," adds TJ Mulcahy, who joined the Kenmare five-star as General Manager this March, just as coronavirus began its surge.
He hasn't had a handshake since he started.
"Obviously, we need to adhere to WHO, HSE and Government guidelines," he says. "But we also need to ensure that we have all of those lovely, soft touches. The hugs that we give our guests without actually giving a hug… it has to be a virtual hug now."
No detail is being overlooked. Back-of-house systems are being redrawn so staff can social distance. Bowls of peanuts will be taken from the bar. The cinema and children's Lego Room will stay shut. Diners will receive disposable menus. Cleaning and training systems are being overhauled, right down to the iPads that recently replaced leather-bound room directories.
The goals? To reboot the céad míle fáilte in a time of Covid-19. To protect the health and safety of staff and guests, to reassure anxious customers, and to avoid feeling like a dystopian clinic in the process.
'When you think of Covid, you think of it like the plague...'
All over Ireland, hotels are going through the same wringer. Risk assessments, walk-throughs, brainstorms, Zoom calls.
Over 90pc of the country's hotels have been closed by Covid-19, according to the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF), which says it is working closely with Fáilte Ireland to develop operational standards in line with HSE requirements and international best practice.
“It’s about getting the balance right," says Elaina Fitzgerald Kane, IHF President and Sales Director at the family-run Fitzgerald's Woodlands House Hotel in Adare, Co Limerick.
"Practices are going to be changing for as long as we have to live without a cure. When you think of Covid, you think of it like the plague – you think of visors, hygienic robes and all the things that go with it. Hotels weren’t built for that. And equally, we don’t want them to become like hospital spaces.”
Picture a typical guest journey, she says.
“The first thing is our doors. What you’re trying to do as much as possible is minimise the touch points... so it’s simple things like how do the doors operate? Have you got sanitising fluid at them? How do you manage baggage?
"In terms of your lobby, you’re thinking about the layout of the seating – how do you rearrange it in terms of social distancing?”
Will physical distancing guidelines be issued with individuals in mind, or groups that book and arrive together, she wonders. How would two-metre spacing be workable in a lift, for example, or at a family dinner?
Contactless payments are likely to become the norm. Advance check-in and express check-out systems are being examined. Floor markings and signage will need to be figured out. Plexiglas is possible.
And that's not even starting on pools and leisure areas, on kids' clubs, meetings and events, on spa areas or wedding receptions.
"It will be a learning process," Fitzgerald Kane says.
'I don’t see how buffets are going to happen...'
The Government recently published workplace safety protocols, and hotels have also been researching various WHO, CDC (the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) and HSE guidelines, or looking to various groups and associations for direction.
Hilton has announced plans to partner with RB, the maker of Dettol, and to consult with the Mayo Clinic on its own enhanced cleaning standards, for example. The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) has launched ‘Safe Stay', with standards ranging from laundering based on CDC guidance to one-way guest flows and sneeze-and-cough screens at food displays.
In Ireland, some hotels staying open to host essential workers have been able to learn from that process too.
At the Clarence in Dublin, for example, which has been hosting healthcare staff on a complimentary basis since April, rooms are deep-cleaned and kept "off" for three days between stays. Linen is changed on request, and one person at a time uses the lifts or stairwells.
"Because they're all frontline workers they know exactly what’s appropriate, so there's never an issue,” explains Bryan Davern, Head of Hotels with the Press Up Group, which operates the city centre four-star.
The Group, which also operates the Dean, Devlin and Mason hotels in the capital, has also been reimagining opening plans, with hygiene and guest confidence to the fore.
Davern reels off ideas: "The check-in process needs to be contactless. Unless we can come up with a very creative way to do minibars, we’re going to be removing them from the room. One person per elevator. All the signage has to be done up. Perspex screens as appropriate, at reception and so on."
It's uncharted territory, he says.
How could room-service work? People won't be able to congregate around bars. Tables will be deep-cleaned between sittings. "I don’t see how buffets are going to happen for the foreseeable future,” he adds.
“We’re looking at finding a new normal eventually, but there's no point going back over what used to be the norm. It won't help you. You have to reset everything. You have to go into it with an open mind and philosophy, thinking about revenue creation, because you won't have a base business when you open... there is literally no demand."
"The reality is this is going to be about surviving 2020 and looking to 2021”.
'As soon as it's safe, we really just want to get open...'
Not all hotels are alike, of course - from country houses to sprawling resorts, from individual properties to chain hotels and budget to luxury offerings, the search is on for solutions to fit all spaces, budgets and types of guest.
Facing the high cost of training, signage and enhanced cleaning, the revenue hit of reduced rooms and curtailed spas, pools and outlets (not to mention a public expecting sales), some may even decide it is not worth reopening this year.
Hotels are “in a state of deepening crisis" the IHF says, and it has called for urgent, sector-specific supports like a 0pc VAT rate, the waiving of local authority rates and liquidity grants to help the restart.
Those that do reopen are likely to do so on a phased basis - starting with limited rooms and some dining, for instance, before unlocking more accommodation, bar spaces and leisure facilities.
“As soon as it's safe, we really just want to get open," says Honor Byrne, Sales & Marketing Director at CLIFF Group, which has luxury properties in Dublin, Co Kildare and Co Waterford.
It is rewriting SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures] and manuals with guest safety first, with reviews ranging from “virtual check-in” options, to steps like bypassing reception and bringing guests directly to their rooms instead.
"We’re really trying to cut down any point through that journey that is unnecessary, or where the guest may be over-exposed.”
The Group has eight different opening scenarios, Byrne reveals, as well as dedicated staff overseeing new policies and procedures at each of its properties - light-heartedly referred to as "Covid cops".
"We think we will open with more of a residences model," she adds - with self-contained apartments and cottages at Cliff at Lyons, for example, or the new, €2,500-a-night Cliff Beach House in Ardmore, Co Waterford.
Around these, they may develop cook-in products or room-service innovations - what she describes as "fun and stuff that you don’t get at home, while minimising any unnecessary contact or exposure”.
But she says a tourism recovery playbook is urgently required.
“I would strongly urge that we get some form of nationally recognised cleanliness brand, or accreditation and safety brand, and get that out as both a safety tool."
Other countries have come up with similar systems - Portugal's 'Clean & Safe' stamp of approval, or Singapore's 'SG Clean' quality mark, for example - and there's a growing sense that Ireland needs to move quickly to reassure not just staycationers, but overseas tour operators, as to its safety.
"We are already such a clean country and it is such a pleasure to sell Ireland," Byrne says. "I do think there needs to be that standardisation… nothing is accredited.”
'Life comes back...'
Back in Kenmare, John Brennan is cautiously optimistic.
“Forget about us. If you look at the history of the Park Hotel, it has withstood Spanish Flu, 1916, 1922, World War I, World War II, oil prices, SARS, Foot & Mouth, 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis and Kerry losing the five-in-a-row!
"When you look at all of those things, life comes back," he says.
Survival is the only show in town for now, but he is confident that his team, a strong domestic market, pent-up demand and the resilience of Irish hospitality will see the Park through this latest crisis.
With qualifications, of course.
"It will be hard not to put out your hand and say 'welcome'."
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