Article by Giovanni Angelini

Recent Epidemics and Pandemics ; SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) 2003, origin; Guangzhou-China. No. of worldwide cases; 8,098, No. of casualties;774 (9.6%), H1N1, pdm09 Virus (Swine Flu) 2009, origin; Mexico/(USA?) No. of worldwide cases; millions, No. of casualties; over 200 thousand/related, MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) from 2012, origin; Middle East No. of worldwide cases; 2,494, No. of casualties; 858 (34.4%), COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) from late 2019 to present, origin; Wuhan-China

At present, No. of worldwide cases; over 90,000, No. of casualties; over 3,100 (3.4%?)

Those epidemics and pandemic/s created a serious negative impact on the hotel business in Asia and the present COVID-19 is no exception, perhaps even worse as it spreads very fast. It is a new virus/infection that can cause pneumonia, and at present there is no available vaccine to prevent it, which is creating panic all over the world. Justified or not, this is the situation. Pneumonia is nothing new and is faced every winter. As reported by the WHO, hundreds of thousands of people die of pneumonia every year around the world (around 50 thousand per year in the USA alone).

Coronavirus "CoV"

SARS, MERS, COVID-19 are all coronaviruses, which cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases. Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, raking coughs, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure, and even death. As of this date, the percentage of deaths is low compared to other epidemics/pandemics. Most patients are isolated/treated at hospitals and released after a brief period.

Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people. Detailed investigations found that SARS-CoV was transmitted from bats or civet cats to humans while MERS-CoV came from dromedary camels to humans. Several known coronaviruses are circulated in animals that have not yet infected humans (more to come?). The WHO says 70% of disease-causing pathogens discovered in the past 50 years have come from animals, so which animal/species has caused the COVID-19?

At this stage, no one knows exactly where it comes from, how it slipped into a large city of over 11 million inhabitants, and what triggered it to spread so fast? the first person to be infected has not yet been identified. After SARS and now COVID-19 it is clear that the wildlife trade in China has to be regulated and put under strict control.

Standard WHO recommendations to try to prevent the spread of infection are to follow strict hygiene standards including regular and frequent hand washing, covering the mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meats and eggs, daily changing and washing of clothes, daily disinfection of shoes, and avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing.

At present, the whole focus is on the COVID-19, a novel coronavirus since it appeared in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. Since then, the virus has sickened tens of thousands of people in all continents starting from China, reaching the Middle East, Europe, North & South America, and Africa. And unfortunately, it has claimed a few thousand lives.

Regardless of whether this nasty and fast-spreading virus is classified as an "epidemic" (like SARS, Ebola, and Zika) or a "pandemic", it has created and continues to create serious problems along with panic and overreaction among the population.

The impact of COVID-19 on the economy in general, and on travel and tourism in particular, is very serious and is shifting daily as the number of confirmed cases and deaths continues to rise and governments and organizations around the world take steps to address the problem. Every company/brand associated with travel and tourism; hotels, airlines, agents, etc., are negatively impacted in Asia, with Greater China feeling the worst of the effects to date.

China's travel market is now the largest in Asia and one of the fastest growing in the world, and therefore the losses are expected to be much bigger than those from the 2003 SARS outbreak. With over 150 million outbound Chinese travelers per year, the global tourism industry will suffer, Asia more than the rest of the world. In some cases, volume/occupancy at some hotels has dropped to single-digits and worse. While no-one can predict when it will be over, it may take several months.

Another problem that hotels within Asia are facing is that a number of local governments are not recognizing the importance/contribution of the hotels to a city’s tourism and in some cases are excluding those hotels from relief measures that some other lines of business are receiving, in a very parochial approach. Hotels are in most cases left on their own in the managing of the crisis.

The situation at the hotels;

Business is seriously affected and hotels have to adjust, and very fast. Cash vanishes much more quickly than it is accumulated and hotels must switch from adherence to a profit mode to one of strict cash conservation. Crises are clear reminders of the importance to plan and to always be ready for emergencies. It is also necessary that all of the managers/leaders respond with courage, clarity, calmness, and always with a sense of compassion when people's health and safety are concerned.

Accept that when faced with a nasty crisis or an obscure virus affecting the core of the organization, like now, a situation that creates panic and serious concerns, "people follow people", not ideas or policies, a case of survival... This is the time for owners and leaders/managers to reassure the workforce that the company is ready to provide assistance and security as needed. A clear message that health comes first and no expense should be spared to assure the safety and well-being of all the team members and of the guests. Preserving jobs has to be a priority.

A mantra for all hotel companies;

"The safety and well-being of all colleagues, of all our guests/customers, owners, and partners are a top priority for......... Hotel/s"

As is the case with any crisis, emergency, or epidemic, it is imperative for hotel leaders to react quickly to the situation and avoid confusion and panic. Executives must be prepared with the right strategy and tools to keep staff and guests updated on hotel services that can be offered and of best practices on hygiene, health, and safety.

Clarity on insurance coverage and responsibility;

In the unfortunate case that an employee contracts a virus while working (on-site or on a business trip), whether he/she spread it to family members, to other employees, or to guests, the hotel must be clear on what is the coverage and who pays for what, including the best or most suitable treatment, time off, medical expenses, permanent disability benefits if any, death benefits, and others. Hotels must be covered and prepared for any scenario.

This is a time to review all insurance coverage to check what is included and what isn’t, such as loss of business, business interruption, claims, and others. It is time for leaders to be precautious, pro-active, focused on hygiene, and to align the whole team to manage the situation. It is a proven fact that during a crisis, a caring attitude from the top can see the entire workforce respond positively, contributing whatever they can to the needs of the hotel or organization.

Considerations, precautionary measures, and actions by operators;

(risk communication, health measures, infection prevention, cost savings)

Of course, different locations call for different actions and responses, so the following are guidelines and suggestions for operators:

  • Formalize containment strategies addressing safety/health, revenue, and expenses/ cost containment measures.
  • Monitor the situation and keep owners/shareholders informed, especially in case of needing funds to operate.
  • Have a plan B, and be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
  • Waive cancellation fees and allow guests to cancel or change reservations with no penalties.
  • Loyalty/recognition programs; offer club points relief and extend benefits.
  • Assess if it is safe to hold large guest functions/MICE at the property, including staff activities.
  • Assess if it is necessary/appropriate to renegotiate group contracts, packages and promotions.
  • Obtain the past 14 days of travel history from all checking-in guests and of staff as well. Do not accept guests who have been in infected locations. Isolate/quarantine staff who have been in infected locations as defined by the WHO.
  • Conduct temperature checks for guests and customers in and out of the hotel.
  • Conduct temperature checks for all staff on reporting to work and every 4 hours thereafter.
  • Daily communication/meetings with staff addressing safety measures and personal hygiene in general with the objective to limit the spread of infection.
  • Daily messages/communications with in-house guests and arriving guests on safety and hygiene in general.
  • Provide sanitizers to all guests and to all staff including alcohol-based disinfectants.
  • Provide face masks for all staff (policy if must use or not) and to all guests if they wish to use it. Note that the wearing of a mask is a useful preventive measure and a cultural habits in some countries/locations in particular if one has a cold or flu, but it must be accepted that the mask does not provide an adequate level of protection when faced with an infected person.
  • Use proper disinfectant products and disposable cleaning tools.
  • Regularly disinfect anything that guests and staff would touch frequently (lift buttons, light switches, door handles, toilets, telephone, all surfaces, tabletops, chairs, crockery, cutlery, tableware, floors, disinfectant rugs at the entrance/exit, etc...
  • Apply strict food safety processes.
  • Time to wash those bed comforters/duvets and pillows? Plus keep them clean. Note: the in-room TV control is normally one of the dirtiest items in the room.
  • Continuous reminders to all guests and staff to wash hands with soap for at least 20 seconds, to avoid handshakes, and not to touch eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Closing of outlets or facilities based on demand and on safety.
  • Special attention to sport/recreation areas and facilities; adequate chlorine for the swimming pool, clean gym equipment after each use, close saunas/steam/Jacuzzi. Assess if spa treatments are appropriate. Continuous cleaning of children areas if any.
  • Closing of room floors if appropriate and if there are savings.
  • Reduce labor costs without retrenching staff; clearance of all leave for all, advance leave, splitting of functions/multi-tasks, unpaid leave from top executives down, reduction of working days/pay, freeze all hiring as per location/needs.
  • Elimination of all travel.
  • Strict instructions to all staff with signs of cold or flu symptoms not to report to work until they are well. Also not to report to work if there are confirmed virus cases in their housing complex/communities or they had to visit hospitals, attended funerals, or assisted sick people.
  • It is an appropriate time to review and update the staff vaccination policy and ensure compliance.
  • Sharing of good practices as received from the authorities/health officials, from the industry, and from colleagues. How to better manage through crises.
  • Ensure that the hotel central and individual air filtration and purification system is clean and it works well. Assess if there is a need for UV air sanitation and where it helps.
  • Look at speeding up any planned renovation/product upgrade work during the low period (if funds are available).
  • Look at the possibilities to renegotiate with vendors and suppliers with the objective to reduce some costs.
  • Create a strategy for the brand image and for tactical advertising activities.
  • Prepare a welcome-back campaign/package ready to go and to implement as soon as the situation improves.
  • Inform business partners, suppliers, and office visitors of the hotel measures to ensure compliance.
  • Coordinate with local health officials for advice and updates on the situation.
  • Consult company policies for quarantining guests and staff if needed, and take advice from appropriate medical services/authorities.
  • Take further measures as appropriate.

Have we reached the peak yet, and when is the situation expected to improve?

While there have been suggestions that the novel coronavirus outbreak may weaken as the weather grows hotter, as appeared to happen with SARS in 2003, some scientists say COVID-19 could pose a health risk for some time to come. Coronaviruses are known to be seasonal but it would be wrong to expect this will fall into same pattern – but let's hope so. Also, some experts maintain that similar coronaviruses can recur every winter – so let's hope not for this one. Both SARS and COVID-19 have taught us the lesson that the very first infections must be reported immediately to prevent the virus from spreading. It cannot be hidden and there can be no delay in making the information public if containment is to be achieved.

This too shall pass...

Avoid stigma and discrimination;

It is a must to separate the virus from any one people or culture. At times, panic and ignorance spread faster than the actual coronavirus. Beyond the economic headwinds, Chinese around the world are targets of mounting xenophobia and discrimination. Bullying, shunning, and racist behavior have been reported in many parts of the world, as a result of unfounded fears that people with Chinese features are more likely to carry the virus. This is simply ridiculous and embarrassing for the western world and other cultures, and serves as clear proof of ignorance and racial insensitivity. We must all focus on facts, not on misinformation and disinformation.