By Kayla Voigt, Contributor
A Jetsons-style world of flying cars, aliens, and holograms may be far in the future, but you can find one aspect of a 2062 lifestyle the next time you check into a hotel: cleaning robots.
They’re not quite as friendly looking as Rosey the Robot, the Jetson’s beloved robot maid/nanny—they look more like an R2-D2 unit crossed with a vacuum cleaner—but they effectively sanitize a room in seconds with a burst of ultraviolet light.
More than one in three Americans say they are looking to travel now that COVID-19 restrictions have loosened or lifted in many U.S. states, and hotels and resorts eagerly want to welcome them back after a catastrophic Q2. Major brands across the industry posted net losses and layoffs, from Marriott (-$234 million), Hilton (-$432 million), and Hyatt (-$236 million). “Leisure is the only thing holding up the business right now,” says Chip Rogers, American Hospitality and Lodging Association (AHLA) CEO and President. “We won’t see recovery until 2023. This is a major, multi-year problem for us.”
Making Hotel Stays Safe for Travelers
But staying in a hotel won’t look the same. In a scramble to keep up with changing pandemic guidelines and assuage consumer fears, the AHLA created a set of cleanliness standards called SafeStay.
“SafeStay was built on the idea of What will it take to get consumers to feel confident to travel again? And the answer came down to cleanliness,” says Rogers. “They want confidence that the room is being cleaned in a professional way on a continual basis, and if there’s a problem, there’s someone they can immediately turn to for help.”
“SafeStay was built on the idea of what will it take to get consumers to feel confident to travel again…And the answer came down to cleanliness. They want confidence that the room is being cleaned in a professional way on a continual basis, and if there’s a problem, there’s someone they can immediately turn to for help.”
-Chip Rogers, CEO and president, American Hospitality and Lodging Association
This varies by hotel, but the guidelines include adding hand sanitizer and hand-washing stations, physical distancing in all public places, in-room amenities like gloves and masks, front-desk area partitions, and air purification filters. Sixteen of the top global hotel brands, including Accor, Marriott, Hyatt, InterContinental, and Omni, advised the AHLA to create the guidelines.
“We started to hear from our guests that cleanliness was a top priority,” says Phil Cordell, global head of new brand development at Hilton. “Cleanliness was always a part of what we do, but we took this opportunity to make it a double exclamation point. It’s a decision criteria more than it ever was before.”
For Hilton, that meant bringing its traditionally behind-the-scenes service front and center via its CleanStay initiative, a rigorous set of protocols that go above the standards set by the AHLA. “We implemented this in over 6,300 hotels around the world and 18 different brands,” says Cordell. “We’re taking this seriously, and we also know it’s going to evolve over time. What guests expect today they may not expect tomorrow.”
A Room Cleaned by Robots?
COVID-19 put a spotlight on these cleaning protocols, especially between guests in rooms and for public spaces like the lobby, pool, or restaurant. Two cleaning technologies have risen to the forefront: electrostatic sprayers and Ultraviolet (UV) light technology.
Electrostatic sprayers—already used in hospitals and labs around the country—work by combining a specialized cleaning solution with electricity into a mister. Once sprayed, the particles pick up a positive electric charge that cling to surfaces, making sure every inch of a given room is sanitized without needing to actually touch anything. “That kills 99 percent of bacteria,” says Rogers. “And it works so well you can have people back in that room [after a spray] within 45 minutes, so many hotels are deploying that.”
UV technology, on the other hand, uses UV-C rays, which destroy microbes on a cellular level by attacking the nucleic acids and other proteins. While it can’t get into nooks and crannies, it’s increasingly an effective and attractive sanitization solution for the general public (or for sports teams like the Miami Dolphins).
“I think some things are still in such early stages,” says Cordell. The Beverly Hilton and Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills are testing the Xenex LightStrike UV robot as a final touch after the housekeeper completes a sweep of the room and before they seal the door. “We think UV lighting is part of the longer term answer that sits on top of our cleaning protocols,” he adds.
But what’s the right format for this technology? As romantic as robots can sound, both Rogers and Cordell had concerns about their practicality, as well as the safety for cleaning staff, partially because UV-C rays can damage human cells through prolonged exposure. The UV light technology already exists in smaller sterilizing wands, within filtration systems, as metal-detector-like portals, and as stand-alone light bulbs or boxes that fit your phone, keys, and other essentials, which may be a more practical starting point for cleaning protocols before guests walk through the door.
A Seamless Check-In Process Powered by Technology
Once guests arrive, contactless check-in makes it possible to go straight to the room. “The industry was already moving in this direction,” says Rogers. “We’ve seen technology deployed within phone apps, but also kiosks that can dispense a more traditional door key, so you don’t have to stand there at the front desk.”
That’s something many brands have been doing before the pandemic began, but are accelerating now. Hilton launched its digital keys in 2015, with 24.6 million downloads since, and it’s now going one step further. “We’re testing now what we call Connected Room,” says Cordell. “You can check in online, generate a key on your mobile device, but then also turn on and off the air conditioner, television, and light switches with your phone.”
“We’re testing now what we call Connected Room. You can check in online, generate a key on your mobile device, but then also turn on and off the air conditioner, television, and light switches with your phone.”
-Phil Cordell, global head of new brand development, Hilton
So far, Hilton has implemented Connected Room in 500 hotel rooms across four hotels in the Memphis area, but it’s expanding to multiple locations and five more brands.
Technology Is Part of Every Hospitality Moment
From reservation to check-out, technology is embedded in every hospitality moment for the post-COVID traveler, from pre-arrival emails reminding guests of social distancing and masking rules to sealing a room after cleaning and sending notifications through an app rather than in-person. “None of these [individually] sound huge,” says Cordell. “Our goal is to send little signals along the way that help make everyone safe and comfortable. We’re going to be prepared to welcome people back.”