Buyers Look to Manage Traveler Expectations in New Hotel Terrain

In early July, Hilton Worldwide did away with automatic daily housekeeping at its non-luxury brands in the United States, and instead now offers housekeeping services upon request, with rooms to receive a full cleaning on the fifth day of a stay. Guests at Waldorf Astoria, Conrad and LXR properties, as well as at all Asia-Pacific properties, still receive automatic daily housekeeping, unless requested otherwise, according to the company.

Reduced housekeeping is one of many changes that business travelers will find at hotels as they begin to hit the road again. Kiosk-based or mobile check-in, mobile room keys, contactless checkout, fewer available staff, reduced or fully closed food-and-beverage venues, robot-delivered room service, and closed or limited availability for the fitness center and pool are just a few of the other shifts that have hit the lodging landscape. And that assumes their favorite hotel has reopened.

The changes are broad enough to surprise experienced business travelers accustomed to pre-pandemic service levels.

“One of the biggest perceptions from a traveler viewpoint is housekeeping,” said Anthem director of travel and events Cindy Heston. “They’re not accustomed to not having the room changed every day, and the perception is negative. It’s a disservice.”

Availability poses another challenge. “If you’re in a city center, it’s easy to get a room,” said Areka Consulting managing partner for the Americas Louise Miller. “If you’re on a frequently traveled highway, it’s hard to get a room.”

For those in city centers, “food choices are really narrow,” Miller added. “You have to do a little more research. Before, if staying at a four-star hotel in a metro area, you had the opportunity to select food venues right on property. Those choices are very limited right now.”

Further, a lot of three-star properties “shut off food services a long time ago and didn’t turn them back on,” Miller added, noting the elimination of some happy hours, hors d’oeuvres and breakfast buffets, replaced by grab-and-go bags and marketplaces. “But I think that is OK. You buy what you want. We got used to that during Covid.”

Once travelers realize how easy it is to get an on-demand food service delivered to a hotel, and it’s materially cheaper than most room service options, hoteliers will not get a percentage of those travelers to use those services when the services come back.”

— BCD Travel’s April Bridgeman

Still, according to preliminary results from a survey of 5,000 global travelers conducted July 6-15 by BCD Travel, 51 percent of respondents said they have experienced limited services at hotels while traveling for business, according to BCD Travel SVP and Advito managing director April Bridgeman. “That is a pretty high percentage that are noticing and labeling that lack of service as an issue,” she said.

Some amenities travelers noted as limited were services closed in the name of Covid, like fitness centers and pools or public spaces like the lobby, bar and coffee shop made unavailable for congregation. People used to meet up there for a cocktail or a quick morning meeting, but “all those things now have to happen elsewhere,” Bridgeman said. “It’s getting better because things are opening up, but in a lot of places, they still aren’t.”

She also echoed Miller’s comment about food-and-beverage services definitely being a challenge. In fact, the 2021 J.D. Power North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study, released this month, found that the biggest complaint travelers had was around breakfast—either the diminished options for it, or the lack of it at hotels where it used to be available. 

Traveler sentiment company TrustYou has seen the same thing on a global level. “Definitely F&B is something that has been on a lower end, and it hasn’t quite recovered,” said TrustYou VP of marketing Valerie Castillo. “We see that mostly in the European region, where people are used to having the complimentary breakfast buffet.” 

Bridgeman noted hotels need to be particularly “thoughtful about the long-term impact” with room service. “Once travelers realize how easy it is to get an on-demand food service delivered to a hotel, and it’s materially cheaper than most room service options, hoteliers will not get a percentage of those travelers to use those services when the services come back,” she said. 

Mitigating Dissatisfaction

Some travel managers have increased their communications to travelers about current service levels before they get on the road to try to head off any negative sentiment.

“Before they go, we give them information, including everything around the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and Anthem policies and procedures, as well as what to expect and what will be different out there,” Heston said, adding that she is working with Anthem security and HR as well the company’s environmental, social and governance team to help with communications. “The awareness is key. Where they get upset and feel like the service is lower is when they walk in without the knowledge of why.”

For example, to mitigate any negative reaction to the changes regarding daily housekeeping at some properties, Heston’s ESG team helped to craft a message that some of the differences that travelers are experiencing are good from an environmental standpoint, “and here is why,” she said. “We’re looking at this as a way to change habits. When we message it from that perspective, we are getting a much different response from travelers.”

Another travel manager from a technology company gave a similar example, about putting a positive sustainability spin on the change in housekeeping. The travel manager also cited pre-trip traveler communications via the third-party tool Tripism as well as Covid-related information and hotel policies regarding cleaning protocols. 

“It’s so they can be aware; we’re preparing them for being on the road,” the travel manager said. “We just changed our travel policy from executive level approval to putting in a pre-trip automated approval process, and travel has just started to pick up. We haven’t had any complaints.”

Many companies are in the early stages of pre-trip communications, especially as “a lot of them are still not in offices and not traveling,” Miller said. “Human resources departments are being very careful. Companies are not letting travel departments communicate widely about what it is like out there because they haven’t yet told people when it’s OK to be out there. Twenty percent are starting to talk about life on the road; 80 percent are not. But all are totally having online booking tool messaging, and travel management companies talk to those people out on the road. People are conservative regarding broad education or communication about travel. It’s more on-demand, trip-level communication and education. They don’t want to influence demand.”

Possible Changes to Rate Negotiations

Dwindling service levels also could affect future corporate hotel rate negotiations, as buyers may turn their attention to other aspects of the deal in lieu of those amenities.

“We aren’t doing that yet, but we are seriously looking at it in the future,” said the technology company travel manager. “Pre-Covid, if full-service, you could probably get breakfast included. Now everything has changed. Wi-Fi should be included wherever you go, that’s a no-brainer. But would it benefit us to not negotiate those nonstandard amenities? Not many people even take advantage of the amenities. Sometimes, they’re often buried in the online booking tool and you might not know [what] is included.”

Right now, service levels are at a steady pace, but I wouldn’t be surprised after the summer months, if hotels aren’t properly staffed, they will get dinged a bit. It takes a couple of months for the data to catch up with what is strongly trending.”

— TrustYou’s Valerie Castillo

Bridgeman and Miller didn’t think the change in hotel services would impact corporate rate negotiations on amenities, not least because current hotel amenities and services are changing, practically on a daily basis, as hotels begin to ramp up operations amid a challenging labor situation.

Still, amenity availability could become an issue, especially come fall, when many suppliers anticipate that people will begin to return to offices and business travel will more meaningfully recover. TrustYou’s Castillo said she believes guests then likely will start commenting on the staff shortages. “Right now, service levels are at a steady pace, but I wouldn’t be surprised after the summer months, if hotels aren’t properly staffed, they will get dinged a bit,” she said. “It takes a couple of months for the data to catch up with what is strongly trending.”

Could Rates Creep?

Some buyers now are seeing rates beginning to increase. In BCD’s preliminary survey results, 21 percent of travelers reported higher hotel prices, Bridgeman said. “Limited-service is the biggest issue,” she added. “People are seeing prices crawl up in certain markets. We are seeing it in our own data. We shop across multiple booking channels to understand what is happening with prices. We definitely are seeing things creep up quite dramatically. It’s leading with leisure, but it’s starting to impact business travel.”

Bridgeman added that if prices continue to go up without corresponding high demand for business-travel-oriented properties, “we will start to see that value equation really be challenged,” she said. “We have several clients that expect to be treated like partners, [and] right now, a majority are willing to make changes to their program when they either perceive or actually are not being treated fairly by the supplier community.”

Miller agreed, citing a recent Tripbam report that projected some rates would reach 2019 levels by year-end. “It’s very inconsistent, again between hotels on the roadway and those in city centers,” she said. “But generally, we are seeing rates start to rise.”

Some buyers are taking that in stride. “At the end of the day, people are expecting prices to be higher all around,” said the technology company travel manager. “You’re going to see rates increase because there is wage pressure and labor shortages, and goods and services shortages around the world in different categories. People will chalk it up to, if milk has gone up, hotel rates will go up. Breakfast and Wi-Fi will be buried in the rates, and they’re a small piece of the hotel rate pie.”

RELATED: Challenging Airport Experiences Could Await Business Travelers

For now, some buyers and consultants said securing flights and car rentals that aren’t canceled pre-trip has proven more of a challenge than rising hotel rates or reduced amenities, particularly given the choices in the category. But that could change as business travel continues its recovery.

“The biggest factor when it comes to business travelers, who haven’t been back at hotels in quite some time, is that the reviews a business traveler left in 2019 won’t be as relevant today,” TrustYou’s Castillo said. “A hotel should put emphasis on the recent reviews, so business travelers can look for hotels that are putting their best foot forward and [the traveler] can assess the hotel in a proper way, in terms of what amenities they have now versus what they had previously.”

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