When the COVID-19 pandemic began to seriously impact international travel in March 2020, it interrupted a thriving tourism infrastructure. Supply chains were broken, airline travel dropped and a multitude of health and safety protocols were immediately implemented. When it became clear that the pandemic would last longer than anticipated and suppliers would need to re-open in some capacity to regain profit, a search for a middle ground between accessibility and safety began. How could attractions and restaurants assure guests that their safety was guaranteed while also offering an uninhibited experience? The result was several implementations that ranged from the obvious (masks and surface cleaning) to the subtle and seamless (QR code usage, unobtrusive temperature checks). So what is here to stay, and what will hopefully be discarded when the pandemic concludes?
Hotel occupancy plummeted by 59% in March 2020, and hotel groups quickly realized an initiative was necessary to both draw back lodgers and minimize spread of the coronavirus. The majority of hotels enthusiastically embraced safety measures, and America’s largest providers responded; from Best Western’s “We Care Clean” to Wyndham’s “Count on Us,” major hotel conglomerates across the world quickly developed protocols to assure guests. Unifying all these companies’ protocols was “Safe Stay,” an industry-wide initiative overseen by the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
What united all of these plans? In short, an approach to guest safety and virus spread that includes not just room sanitation but social distancing measures, social etiquette and workplace procedures in the age of COVID. Representative of this approach is Hilton’s “CleanStay” program. In addition to sanitation stations placed throughout the property and rooms disinfected in between stays, Hilton has introduced ways to reduce social interactions with the hotel staff.
Guests can opt into contactless arrival that eliminates a visit to the front desk for check-in and allows them to access their rooms with digital room keys on their phones. You can also personalize your housekeeping service and order contactless meal delivery, and communal spaces like lobbies and breakfast rooms will have limited seating.
The silver lining to this increased workload is job growth in the hospitality sector. Best Western estimates that the “We Care Clean” program takes 50% longer to disinfect a room because of added touchpoints like door handles and faucets, and certain surface disinfectants take longer to become effective. A larger and more specialized hotel staff is needed to oversee these procedures, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the summer of 2021 saw the largest increase in leisure and hospitality pay in 20 years. Since cleanliness has proven to be an effective pitch to consumers, expect these initiatives to last for the indeterminate future.
THE QR CODE REVOLUTION
Another revived innovation that seems poised to stay for essential travel is the QR code. Short for “Quick Response Code,” the technology was pioneered in Japan to streamline car manufacturing in 1994.
These black-and-white squares are a more sophisticated version of a barcode that allow customers to take pictures with their smartphones and be directed to a website or app. While popular in Asian markets for decades, QR codes failed to break through in America due to clumsy marketing and the inability for popular devices like iPhones to scan properly. But the combination of smartphones updating their software and the COVID-19 pandemic proved how practical the codes could be in an environment that needs to limit multiple customers sharing menus and phonebooks.
Restaurants and hotels in particular have gravitated to this innovation, since individual customers can scan individual menus or hotel guestbooks without touching the same surface as another guest. Like hotel cleaning protocols, this technology seems here to stay. Not only does it ensure more safety for customers, but it cuts down on paper costs for business and allows guests concerned about allergies or nutritional information to research information that wouldn’t fit in a traditional menu. QR codes can also be used as receipts or vending machine payment systems to eliminate human contact during checkout or the end of a meal. Suppliers enjoy the codes because they can build databases based around their customers’ order history and create customized ad campaigns for repeat business.
FLYING THE SAFE SKIES
While not at its 2019 peak, air travel has increased significantly since the initial surge of last spring. While part of this growth can be attributable to increased vaccination rates and conscientious travelers, air travel’s recent success is due to the TSA’s consistent and effective safety messaging and guidelines. Shortly after the pandemic began, the TSA introduced the “Stay Healthy. Stay Secure” campaign, which aims to limit the spread of coronavirus throughout the screening process. In addition to universal mask mandates and signage that encourages travelers to socially distance, TSA officers use fresh gloves for each unique bag inspection, use new swabs for detection procedures and frequently decontaminate screening equipment. Temporarily, flyers can bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer through security as an exception to the rules that cap liquid or gel carry-ons to 3 ounces.
TSA also has installed several Computed Tomography (CT) scanners at checkpoints to give TSA officers a 3D image of a carry-on bag’s contents. That image can be rotated for a better view of the bag’s interior, which enables TSA officers to resolve alarms by getting a better view of the items without needing to have the Jacob Lund/Shutterstock.com bag opened and searched, again reducing touchpoints. This technology offers speedier security even post-COVID, and it’s likely to remain in the TSA’s arsenal long after the threat of the virus has subsided.
Without the teamwork displayed by the travel industry, the COVID-19 pandemic might have proved even costlier. Unprecedented times have led to a sense of camaraderie and a push for innovation. While many of the social distancing measures these businesses use are hopefully temporary, the pandemic has accelerated the integration of groundbreaking technology into the tourism sphere. From QR codes to CT scanners, the travel experience has been streamlined for the 21st century, and these helpful innovations will benefit customers for generations.