What do Berlin’s Adlon, Copenhagen’s Hotel d’Angleterre, the Baur au Lac in Zürich, the Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, the Britannia in Trondheim and the Hassler in Rome have in common? All six not only survived World War I, they also successfully weathered the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20. (The pandemic is believed to have begun in Kansas and shipped to Europe with the doughboys. It earned the name “Spanish Flu” because King Alfonso XIII caught it and survived. When it finally petered out, it had killed an estimated 50 million worldwide.)
Sadly, none of these hotels seemed to have kept records of how they dealt with the Spanish flu, even if they actively did. Like the police in Philadelphia in 1919, did the staff wear masks? Did they rearrange the restaurant tables? All we do know is how these six hotels, plus many other “grand” hotels, have faced, analyzed and sought remedies to the horrific obstacles presented by COVID-19.
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A recent segment on NBC Nightly News discussed how midlevel U.S. hotel chains are reopening, focusing on increased automation, the elimination of staff-guest interaction, a constant cleaning of “touch points,” the closing of restaurants and the termination of room service. A “grand hotel” doesn’t long remain a “grand” if you take away the smiles, the bows, the graciousness, the amenities, the service. So, these hotels—plus many other “grands”—have spent days and hours appointing committees and creating solutions to meet the challenge. And it has become our job not only to convey those solutions to the media but also to weigh in with ideas, suggestions and answers.
Most of the twenty or so “grand”—aka five/six-star—hotels on our roster shuttered when the pandemic lockdowns set in, giving them the luxury and leisure to come up with solutions for their eventual reopening. But the Adlon, the d’Angleterre, the Baur au Lac (and the Dan Tel Aviv) never closed down, so their solutions had to be wrought on the run. Yes, they closed off floors. Their restaurants were closed by government order, but room service continued full tilt. And now, as Europe cautiously reopens, they’re being joined by more and more hotels that reopened in late May and June or are set to reopen in July, August and September.
The solutions have a lot of similarities: windows installed at reception and concierge desks; rearranging tables and seating groups for social distancing; installing hand sanitizers everywhere; taking temperatures at the hotel entry; eliminating most buffets; no more cute little bowls of nuts and olives in the bar; sanitizing key cards or their gorgeous and clunky old-fashioned keys; no more stationery or pens in the rooms; clear disposable covers rolled onto TV remotes; minibars either emptied or massively sanitized between guests; packs of wipes and sanitizers in the rooms, and so on. One of the biggest quandaries is “yes, masks” or “no, masks,” “gloves or no gloves.” When governments don’t set the rules, some hotels felt these would alarm guests. Our counsel was and is that Americans will be reassured by staff wearing masks and gloves.
Then there’s the question of “cleaning.” It’s hard for an already hygiene-obsessed and spotless “grand hotel” to boast of additional cleaning measures, the inevitable implication being it wasn’t formerly quite clean enough. What many are doing is deep-cleaning each room between guests, leaving rooms empty for 24-72 hours between guests, and twice daily opening the room windows to enable any lurking virus particles to escape. Indeed, opening windows may become another new must that post-COVID luxury hotel guests demand.
Beyond the opulence and grandeur, it’s the service that makes a “grand hotel.” People paying $1,000 a night don’t particularly care to schlepp their luggage to their rooms. The solution? When porters deliver the bags, they flamboyantly cleanse each case—especially the handles—with alcohol wipes in full view of the guests. Elevator operators are making a comeback, with gloves and masks beneath the pill-box hat, so guests don’t need to touch elevator buttons. Instead of those open trays of chocolates or bowls of exotic fruit on the coffee table, everything will be wrapped. And then there’s something as natural as tipping. Does the waiter or maid really want those euro notes you’ve snuggled in your pocket next to your used Kleenex?
Yet each of the “grand” hotels with whom we work seems to have come up with a way to go above and beyond government requirements and client expectations. Heckfield Place in England is enabling guests to have lunch or dinner at a private table anywhere they choose in the 400-acre grounds and gardens. At Schloss Elmau in Bavaria, guests can reserve an hour for sole use of one of its six spas. At Ireland’s Ashford Castle the banished breakfast buffet has been replaced by masked-and-gloved waiters pushing trolleys to carve ham or squeeze juices tableside. At the Orania.Berlin waiters wear masks as well as photo pins that show their smiles. Copenhagen’s Hotel d’Angleterre has guests reserving half the pool for their private use. At the King David and all Dan Hotels, Israel’s massive and iconic breakfast buffet has been retained, but it’s behind glass, and a masked and gloved waiter fills your plate. At the Adlon in Berlin, staff wear dozens of pairs of white cotton gloves a day instead of latex. And at both the Adlon and Schloss Elmau, guests can opt for “privacy” that stretches way beyond a “do not disturb” sign. “Privacy” means no staff member will enter the room during a guest’s stay, with room service trays, linens and towels delivered to the door. It’s the guest’s choice to turn the “grand” experience into “do it yourself.” At resorts like the Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne and Ischia’s Regina Isabella, chaise longues at the pool are arranged in couple- or family-groupings; the Regina Isabella’s spa has taken on an even more clinical veneer, and in Lausanne, the brand-new Cinq Mondes spa is opening with built-in COVID protections. The least draconian “grand hotel” is the Britannia in Trondheim, where virus-sporadic Norway has required socially distanced tables but no masks.
When Americans can freely get back to Europe, they’ll still find plenty of grandeur. But, until there’s a vaccine, it will be a grandeur elegantly protected by sanitizer, glass, masks and gloves. What service staff will have to concentrate on is ensuring that their eyes are smiling.
Geoffrey Weill is President of WEILL.
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