With countless economies and million livelihoods at ransom as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, countries around the world are looking at ways to keep tourism businesses afloat. In the face of a global pandemic and hotel industry meltdown, it is clear that the hotel industry is sailing into uncharted deep waters. Instances from the US hotel industry (and airlines) came back strong after 9/11 when travellers were afraid of terrorism. Regions affected by the SARS, MERS and Swine Flu outbreaks were followed by similar bounce-backs. But somehow, Covid-19 feels different.
Nonetheless, businesses will return only once employers, employees and travellers feel that it is safe to do so from a health perspective. As the global lockdown concludes and restrictions are being softened, people will be motivated to ‘stretch’ their legs and therefore will like to spend times outside at destinations that offer some sort of ‘freedom’ after prolonged lockdown restrictions. This will contribute greater numbers as travellers are assured and convinced of safety protocols at these facilities including hotels. What measures and how will hotels in Ghana consider based on evidence from the past to ensure smooth operations?
Hotels as infection hotspots
Hotels can be a critical component in the evolution and or spread of a local disease outbreak into a global pandemic. The spread of SARS (first coronavirus outbreak) in 2003 became visible to the world when an infected 64 year old Medical Professor, Dr. Lui Jianlun and his wife from Guangdong checked-into room 911 (renumbered 913) on 21st February, 2003 at the Hotel Metropole (rebranded Metropark) in Kowloon in Hong Kong. They constituted the source of infection for multiple hotel guests who then disseminated the virus to their home countries upon their return. Environmental sampling (using Polymerase Chain Reaction, PCR) on the carpet outside their room, and elevator area showed a hot zone which tested positive for the SARS virus, 3 months after their stay in the hotel. Also, during the H1N1-Swine flu virus outbreak, a 25 year old male Mexican (index patient) arrived in Hong Kong and stayed at the Metropark Hotel in Wan Chai in 2009 which led to the isolation and quarantining of all guests and staff by the Department of Health in Hong Kong. The hotel became the epicentre for the virus as it marked the first case in Hong Kong and the Asian continent. In the case of Covid-19, a British businessman, Steve Walsh has been identified as a ‘‘super spreader’’ (a generic term that means someone will disproportionately infect a large number of people with a virus) after contracting the virus at a conference at Singapore’ Grand Hyatt hotel in January.
Although rebranded 12 years on, a review submitted by Richmond Hill on tripadvisor on December 9, 2015 suggests that the impacts of the virus are still felt. ‘‘…the infamous Room 911 has been rebranded as well, now numbered 913. They are trying to shake the label of what once was. It was indeed 12 years ago, but when you see that they cover the elevator button with plastic and have signs stating that they clean and sterilize this film hourly, well, please understand if this disease or anything like it were ever to return, an hourly cleaning is not going to do anything’’. It has been only five years after Hill’s review and it only takes a second to contract the disease from an infected person. Also, a CNBC columnist, Tom Huddleston Jr. on February 16, 2020 added that ‘‘now, 17 years later, that hotel (Hotel Metropole) is still remembered as the infamous ground zero for one of the worst global disease outbreaks of the century.’’ These accounts put forward that outbreaks can stimulate lasting negative brand image on hospitality facilities, especially hotels.
Adjusting to the new normal
In order for hotels to sustain their businesses, the Hong Kong hotel industry adopted an industry-wide recovery effort and emphasized on mutual support. For such a move to work in Ghana, there must be a unified front for all registered hotels with an authoritative executive body to represent the voice of all hoteliers in the country. Additionally, past experiences have led to calls for better preparedness of the hotel industry for future crises and outbreaks. This means that the industry moving forward will experience a lot of changes to ensure health-wise safety of guests. It has therefore been suggested that the long term impacts will see a highly digitized operations to reduce person-to-person contact, pervasiveness of Covid-19 and any other future outbreaks, provision of extra health assurance and disinfectants. However, the cost intensive nature of such digitization processes, accumulation of health related costs among others will render most hotels in Ghana unable to keep up and the few that can afford will experience resultant hotel job losses. What is clear is that the hotel business may not return to normal in terms of hygiene, cleanliness and distancing as a higher percentage of guests will add up to the formerly germophobe sect. As such, hotels will have to make timely adjustments by emphasizing high hygiene standards, person-to-person contact and general management and operational modifications. Thus, owners must reimagine their businesses as health safety companies first, hospitality providers second.
It is suggested that hoteliers consider the following before opening for business; a) the safety of employees must come first. Once staff are assured and convinced of their safety, they will go every mile to ensure guests adhere to outlined health protocols in order not to put their own safety in jeopardy. b) Create an incident command centre. This will require liaison with qualified health professionals to be at post on the facility to instantly attend to health emergencies. b) Universal precautions and training for employees to reduce chances of contracting disease. This will be defined by the issuance of ‘Clean and Safe’ certificates that could be instituted by the Ghana Tourism Authority (GTA) as the regulator. This clearance certificate has details outlined in the World Health Organization’s interim guidance on the ‘operational considerations for Covid-19 management in the accommodation sector’. This ‘Clean and Safe’ and similar approaches have been adopted by the Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH), Singapore (SG Clean certification) and Marriot International (Global Cleanliness Council), and can serve as the primary source documents from which GTA can adapt to suite the Ghanaian industry. c) strict cleaning protocols including for instance, mounting hand sanitizer dispensers inside and outside rooms or near high-touch areas such as elevators and stair wares, providing hand and surface wipes inside rooms so wary guests can perform their own wipe-down whiles in their rooms as well as information on chemicals, disinfectants and cleaning agents used d) investment in technology to support a move towards ‘low-touch’ and person-to-person interactions such as mobile check-ins, issuance of digital room keys, restaurants will have to do away with physical menus to embrace soft displays on screens, online orders virtual tours of facilities such as itours should take centre stage when it comes to the projection of available hotel facilities on websites etc. e) physical distancing will dominate to eliminate waiting rooms and crowded lobbies. More spaces between tables in in-house restaurants will have to be created. Creation of physical barriers such as plastic barriers, ropes or signage and plexiglass (this has particularly experienced demand hikes as a result of Covid-19 in restaurants, movie theatres, grocery stores, pharmacies/drug stores and even considerations are being made in airline seating to be used as clear partitions between passengers) between employees and guests at highly frequented locations such as front desk, concierge and casinos.
Hoteliers should see the current break in demand streams as a time to reflect and reset their operations in the face of overarching vulnerabilities to infectious disease outbreaks. This is against the strong belief that hotels could provide additional line of defence beyond entry border screening, and they could offer another layer of protection against Covid-19 and any prospective outbreak especially in situations where screening of travellers occur during the incubation period without visible signs to detect infections. As declared by an Executive Director of World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Michael Ryan ‘‘I don’t think anyone can predict when or if this disease will disappear…it is important to put this on the table---this virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities…and this virus may never go away’’. This statement was made following an analogous declaration by the Chief Scientist of WHO claiming that coronavirus could potentially be under control in four or five years’ time as was reported by the Independent News outlet. It has been almost 2 decades after the Hotel Metropole episode and till date, the hotel is constantly fighting to gain credibility on the eyes of guests. With growing fears over a second outbreak of Covid-19, nations across the globe have planned a gradual lifting of bans in order to pay much attention to avoid such an occurrence, and hoteliers must pay attention to critical details before considering opening for business. Therefore, until such pragmatic modifications are made to reflect the ‘new normal’ prompted by Covid-19, it is recommended for hoteliers not to be in haste reopening their facilities to customers, be it those from intra or international borders.