Hotel Stays During Covid Time

I recently drove through ten states to check in on family and also attend a spontaneous funeral from a death occurring while I was visiting.

During my trip, I was observing how states differed in their responses to operating in the waning tail of our Covid experience in America. Counter to what you may hear on the media, who have a vested interest in fomenting rage & fear to make revenue, America looks to be on the same page regarding dealing with a virus.

From California, through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada I saw traffic billboards along the interstates asking for people to be vigilant in wearing masks and be cognizant of distance.

However, life can’t operate in a vacuum. It must go on. People have responsibilities, they have children to provide for, they have crops to harvest, and groceries to buy for feeding their family.

So, I saw that most people were proactively wearing masks in public, they were utilizing hand sanitizer offerings, and trying to be conscious of keeping approximately six feet apart from one another in lines.

One larger change that I saw pertained to the Hilton chain of hotels. I first saw it in Texas, the state that the self-righteous West/East Coasters & media deride for not shutting down its economy to surrender to groupthink that would result in depression.

Hilton has enacted a policy change called “Hilton Clean Stay” where the hotel chain will prepare your room, seal the door with a type of chain-of-custody sticker that you must break upon entering, and inside you will see additional signage informing you that the room was cleaned with Lysol to eliminate viruses. In addition to the literature, a few of the hotels had lain out little packages of clean wipes near commonly used items such as telephones and TV remotes.

I think this is a good innovative change for a large hotel chain that may even have a good use during non-virus times for the sake of eliminating concern of guests questioning whether their room is really cleaned in all of the areas that are important or if it was just wiped down with a wet rag. This is a large reason as to why I will not stay in AirBNB accommodations where people are just renting out an extra room in their homes. I want to make sure that my environment is clean and that I can just go in and relax during my travels without questioning my surroundings.

Props to Hilton for taking it upon themselves to go the extra mile to both help protect patrons and staff members. The marketer in me knows that it’s also a co-branding marketing opportunity with Lysol most likely helping to split the costs to build brand loyalty and trust with travelling customers. That’s OK. It’s a smart business move on both sides.

So, in the wake of a tragic event such as Covid, we are still seeing businesses trying to adapt to operate in this environment with some performing better than others.

I’d also like to leave you with a gentle reminder to remain very skeptical of our media and their agendas. What we see published from their establishments has told a very different story than what I and others have witnessed in person across this country. Don’t let them divide you with politics. This isn’t a political issue. It’s a health crisis issue that doesn’t care about politics and is not the fault of an administration, but rather the fault of a foreign regime that tried covering up the outbreak and did nothing for the sake of others.

A Divine Restaurant Experience

Recently, I was on a short road trip with a friend and I saw a sign for a restaurant that I adore from back home in Arkansas, Cracker Barrel.

I know, it’s a chain restaurant, but so what? I generally stay away from chain restaurants, but Cracker Barrel is very consistent all across the country and, in the end, I’m a Southern boy far way from home without anything close to Southern food nearby.

As we were driving by Sacramento, California, I did a quick search for where this Cracker Barrel was located in the city. Unfortunately, it turned out that the restaurant was on the opposite side of the city and I wasn’t willing to turn around on this leg of thew trip. I figured we would just have to make plans to stop by on the way back.

Just when our hopes were dashed for the day, and stomachs grumbling, there was a new hope. The skies parted, the sun shown through, and I spotted the divine brown and golden sign of Cracker Barrel a mere 30 minutes away in Rocklin, California.

Could it be? Yes, it was a second location in the Southern food desert of West Coast. I had already missed the interstate exit for that restaurant because there was no warning ahead of time that this glorious establishment resided there in Rocklin. This time, I wasn’t going to resist turning around. It was going to happen. We had been in lockdown far too long to pass up the chance to go to Cracker Barrel.

I took the next exit, turned around, and sped back to the previous exit, cautiously making sure to take the correct part of the exit to ensure that we had no more barriers between us and that simple comfort food housed behind that humble exterior lined with rocking chairs.

We pulled into the parking lot and I wanted to make sure to set our expectations low and told my friend that we may just have to get a to-go order and eat in the car. However, as we got closer to the door, I saw the magnificent message on an outdoor banner saying “The Dining Room In Now Open.” Yes, you read that correctly, it was a restaurant where you could eat inside of the establishment in the state of California.

Whiskeyriff.com

After we walked through the door — with masks on — we felt like kids in a candy store, but I guess we were literally in a candy store too. We were seated promptly, walking through the dining area with walls adorned with the typical antique kitsch. We found a dining area with every other table closed off in order to give diners space between each other. Aside from the spacing, cutting capacity down by half, the dining experience was the same. We both had to order our obvious choice, Chicken Fried Steak with gravy. What else would you order at Cracker Barrel after having not had that luxury for so long? It was a no-brainer.

Cracker Barrel, Chicken Fried Steak

What struck me as odd, after the fact, was our absolute elation of being able to do something that used to be normal and mundane. Eating at chain restaurants were just a given and a way to end being hungry while driving across a state during a trip. Now, it feels like a luxury or a event to simply go sit inside of a restaurant and have some sort of semblance of normal life which we have had stripped away from us after six months of a virus changing everyday life across the globe.

I look forward to the time, hopefully soon, where we can go back to doing the things that were just normal, assumed, uneventful, and taken for granted. We don’t know what we have until it’s gone. Don’t take your Chicken Fried Steak & Dumplings for granted.

Cracker Barrel, Chicken & Dumplings

We all deserve to be able to enjoy time with our friends and family eating in America’s restaurant, Cracker Barrel.

Nothing Will Change…And That’s A Bad Thing

People are desperate for a feeling of normalcy, whatever that may be for them. Not just now while we’re all on lockdown with nothing but bad news 24/7 but constantly.  When this is all over, and we switch to other news in the late Fall, I think most people will be desperate to forget this ever happened.  If we do talk about it, it will be only to discuss the lingering economic effects.

In 2009, I contracted the H1N1(swine flu). It put me flat on my back for over a week and I didn’t feel completely healthy again for over two weeks. Looking back, not only did I not alter my behavior, but less than a year later I quit a job with 50% work-from-home in favor of a job that involved 60% travel. While considering my career switch, I didn’t even consider how much more exposure that travel would cause me. It was a pretty bad risk assessment on my part.   Most people believe they are much better at assessing risk than they actually are.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

The H2N2 pandemic, in 1957, killed over 100,000 Americans. The US population at the time, according to the 1955 census, was 171 million.  That means the death rate in the US was approximately .05%.  With a projected death rate of over >100k for COVID-19 as of this writing and the current US population of 328 million the death rate is .02%.  While I’m not a professional researcher by any stretch, what I could find in the papers from 1957 were many articles about the flu outbreak while it was in full effect.  However, it seemed like it was being reported on like the weather. The weather was terrible for a while, but once it passed, not many mentions at all. I couldn’t find anything encouraging people to change their behavior.  After 1957 almost no mentions of this major pandemic in media of any kind.

Today’s world is much more interconnected and media-saturated than in 1957. However, I think the same thing is about to occur this fall that occurred after the 1957 H2N2 pandemic. We here in America, for example, will happily change our focus to the upcoming presidential election and do our best to forget all about COVID-19.  

I believe this so strongly I made a fairly significant(for me) investment in Carnival cruise lines. If it goes back to half of it’s pre-CORONA-19 price then I’ll be taking all of my friends and family on a cruise with the profits.   

Photo by jonathan leonardo on Unsplash

The major cruise lines have reopened their reservation systems and are taking reservations for as early as the fall of 2020. While most reservations are for discounted cruises in 2021. Let that sink in a bit. People who by in large are at home sheltering in place due to COVID-19 are booking cruises for as early as this fall!

Many people I respect are claiming that things will change forever but what they point to are trends like the death of movie theaters, malls, and more working from home.  These trends were already in full effect before the pandemic.  When was the last time you had a good experience in a movie theater not named “Alamo Draft House?”   Office space is often one of the largest expenses a business will have so, of course, companies are extending their work from home policies in an attempt to bring these expenses under control.

People are desperate to get back to “normal,” whatever that is for them. I fear this will lead to us being completely unprepared for the next pandemic which is sure to follow.

Caveat: If COVID-19 reinfection turns out to be possible and we are on lockdown for 3 years and not 3 months, throw this article in the nearest waste bin.

Covid-19: Uniting and Dividing Us

There is a Chinese curse that supposedly says, “May you live in interesting times.” Whether we like it or not, we now live in interesting times. Regardless of the duration, or the costs we might need to bear, we will overcome this crisis like we have overcome others in the past. When we come out on the other side and take off our masks, our social behavior will be permanently altered. Will we do what we did after World War II, pull together, and build a global community, or will we be torn apart and drift towards another Cold War ?

We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological.

Rebecca Solnit in How to Survive a Disaster

Coming Together

Facing a common enemy has sparked a communal spirit within us. Social distancing has, ironically, encouraged us to turn outward, care for our neighbors, and reconnect with our friends and families. By way of an example, I am doing something I haven’t done for years: calling my friends and family more often and having long, meaningful, and engaging conversations. Having everybody in the world going through similar experiences has inspired many of us to help out in our respective communities. There is an unprecedented outpouring of help and support from online community groups for people in high-risk categories and those in need. As the lockdowns spread across the world, it brought along the practice of collectively stepping out and applauding health-care workers. It’s an act that is part defiance, part support, and part celebration – we are all in this together. We feel helpless, but we are still here!

The collective cheering ritual started in Wuhan and spread across the globe in the virus’s wake.

This solidarity goes beyond a personal level. Doctors across the world are sharing their knowledge, treatments, and procedures. Researchers are collaborating on a global scale to create vaccines and improve virus detection. Industries across the globe are volunteering skillsets for research, as well as retooling their machines to make personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. It has even compelled tech giants Apple and Google to team up and create a contact tracking system.

Doctors exchanging research notes on twitter

DRIFTING APART

The threat that is unifying us is also threatening to reverse the globalization trend toward Cold War levels. As the virus spread, it brought about competition due to the limited supply of existing ventilators and PPE. Several U.S. states were in conflict with the federal government regarding access to ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile, in addition to bidding against each another to acquire the much-needed PPE and medical equipment. The friction between U.S. states/local municipalities and the federal government was most evident in the case of New York and SF. Would the states ever depend on the central government ? Should they?

On a global scale, problems in regard to acquisitions surfaced with news of nations stealing masks from each other. The pandemic exposed and even widened the divisions in the EU. This was evident during the early days of the epidemic in March when Italy got hit the hardest, and other EU nations refused to offer medical help and supplies. As the lockdown takes a financial toll on Italy and Spain, economically stable northern countries disagree on sharing the burden, causing the worst crisis since the EU’s inception. The tensions and the resulting distrust will likely surpass the damage caused by the virus.

It’s a reciprocal interest that Europe meets this challenge. Otherwise, we must abandon the European dream and say, everyone is on their own. Either we all meet this challenge, or the tribunal of history will judge us.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte In an interview with Bild newspaper

Even after some semblance of normalcy has returned, travel restrictions are likely to continue. Travel across countries, something we had taken for granted, will never be the same. Borders that inhibit not only the entrance but exit as well have returned to a level beyond what the most ardent nationalist ever advocated. National sovereignty is being advocated as the best defense to an international threat


These contradictory trends are not new. They are an extension of the struggle between global solidarity and nationalism, now accelerated by the pandemic. As we continue to struggle, we are creating a new reality that will define us. We are not just observers; we are building history and performing together in this new and strange reality.

Photo by Filip Filkovic Philatz on Unsplash

Stay safe; stay well.

Al Fresco

On the lighter side, no one knows how restaurants will be able to operate yet, to keep their customers safe but just as importantly their serving staff too.

Here is one restaurant in the Netherlands that has an idea for diners outside.

One thing I particularly enjoy about life is serendipity. In fact, the reason I’m contributing to this blog is because of a connection that goes back to my college days.

When something like the above comes along, curiosity gets the better of me, and I simply MUST know more about it. What language is that? Where is this place? Who thought of it, the owner or the waitress? I appreciate cleverness, and this is both timely and clever.

Now for the serendipitous part: the language is Dutch and a friend helped track down the visual clues to a restaurant in Amsterdam.

Wait…Amsterdam? I was there 3 months ago! In fact, I stayed in a hotel only 1.3 km away from this place. It was my first time in that part of Europe. Rainy and gloomy that time of year, but I’m sure the canals are beautiful in the summer. Hopefully I’ll get to go back to Amsterdam when the world begins traveling again, and when I do, this restaurant will have a new customer.

That’s what I’d humbly suggest everyone takes away from this ordeal; that this may be our new normal, and we haven’t figured it all out yet. So try to recognize and relish the little things that you would not have ordinarily encountered in your pre-COVID-19 existence. For instance: outside of Italy, “al fresco” dining simply means eating outside, like the video above, loosely translating from “in the cool [air]” according to Wikipedia. Italians though, say “fuori” for outside or “all’aperto” for “in the open [air]”. If you were to say “al fresco” in Italy, the expression means “in prison.”

Photo by Krisztina Papp on Unsplash

How apropos for us now.

How Travel Will Be Forever Changed

And why vacation rentals will bounce back first

Have you made eye contact with a stranger lately? I found myself at the local grocery store yesterday milling around other humans without any eye contact — a careful 6-ft radius surrounding each of us. And with masks, it’s difficult to read body language too. We’re really disconnected from other humans we don’t know right now, and it’s sad.

Indeed, the world today is a strange and scary place. In public, we need to be on high alert all the time. Despite our rational thoughts about science, it’s fear that keeps us vigilant and ultimately, safe.

Humans are naturally curious and love to explore. If you’re like me, you’re excited to plan your next trip. It’s in our blood. Travel is a force that cannot be stopped by a pandemic. It’s our human nature to explore. But how will we manage through this current state of uncertainty?

Photo by Krivec Ales from Pexels

I’m a CEO in the travel industry. My company, Hostfully, makes software that helps thousands of vacation rental managers across 80 countries. We believe the best travel experiences are when people get closer to locals and local experiences. Our mission is to help every manager and traveler make the most of every stay.

Chart: Travel is a Megatrend (Skift)

This past week someone asked me: “What will be the most difficult thing for travel providers to overcome after COVID-19?” I sighed and answered: “Fear”. 

What will be the most difficult thing for travel providers to overcome? Fear.

What does fear have to do with travel?

Most people know travel as aspirational and adventurous. It’s exciting. But few realize that travel is also about managing fear. 

New experiences, places, and people pique curiosity and broaden our minds, and they simultaneously cause anxiety. Our travel choices depend on our appetite and tolerance for fear. That’s what makes it thrilling.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

Now let’s talk about change.

We know that adult humans resist change. An instinct, designed to protect us, can also overwhelm us and cloud our judgement. It’s why we stay in bad relationships and jobs for too long. It’s why we helicopter-parent and why we propagate stereotypes. We’re afraid of change. And this includes adjusting to new people, places, and experiences that look, smell, sound, and feel different from what we’re used to.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Identifying sticking points

When we start traveling again, it will be the specific fears — what I call “sticking points” — that will drive travel decisions. 

There are key questions we’ll ask ourselves during the planning process of any trip.

Travel sticking points

Big questions:
  • Is it worth it for me to go on this trip, putting myself and my family at risk?
  • Do I have the money/energy/time to afford to travel?
  • Will I feel comfortable anywhere? Am I forcing myself to go on a trip to “have fun”?
Practical questions:
  • Do I want to be on an airplane with random people for several hours?
  • Do I want to expose my family to a new place during this trip?
  • Do I believe that the place I’m staying at is clean? Will it stay clean?
  • What about food? Will I feel comfortable in restaurants? Buying coffee? Groceries? Gas?
Safety questions:
  • Can I safely reach and enter my accommodation?
  • Will I feel safe in this new place?
  • Will I feel safe with these new people? What if I don’t speak the language?
  • Will I have everything I need?
  • What if things get worse while I’m there?

What this looks like for different phases of the travel experience

Planning
  • Travelers will be even more focused on planning than before, as a method of assuaging anxiety and uncertainty
  • Within groups of travelers, we will see different preferences arise. The group will most likely go with the least risk-tolerant perspective.
  • Bucket List Planning: Travelers ask themselves the question “Where have I always wanted to go but never made the leap?” Added uncertainty around future waves of epidemics will expand the trend to do ‘bucket list’ travel.
  • There will be different waves of socially accepted travel:

Wave 1: Road trips to nearby destinations 

This is already happening, even during the height of the pandemic. Families are escaping cities to rural areas and staying in vacation rentals for longer periods of time. This type of travel will be the first to bounce back because travelers can interact with very few people on the way to and at roadtrip destinations. It feels the least risky.

Wave 2: Travel to visit family

The need to stay connected with family will overcome people’s fear of flying. In the U.S., Thanksgiving will be the first major holiday that will occur when Americans traditionally see family. This will be a turning point in how Americans think about their own preferences for airline travel.

Wave 3: Travel for work + leisure travel

Work travel will be much slower to return compared to travel to visit family. Companies will be cautious with exposing employees to increased risk.

Leisure travel will increase around the same timeframe. Because the leisure category includes more predictable accommodations and experiences, it will not be considered as risky as adventure travel.

Wave 4: Adventure travel 

This will slowly emerge with Wave 3, but fewer people will embark on adventure travel than before. Travel in this category will be slow to return, and it will happen gradually over 2-3 years. 

Special note: International / Overseas travel

Because travelers will be reluctant to travel on airplanes (and of course cruise ships!) overseas travel will take time to return to normal. There will be an additional reluctance to visit new countries where it is difficult for travelers to assess risk and/or feel secure if another global emergency arises.

Booking travel / Making payments
  • Travelers will be less likely to pay in advance because they believe that the trip may change
  • Travelers will be less likely to pay for optional services
Reaching the destination
  • Travelers will choose forms of transportation that give them the most control and optionality
  • First choice in reaching destinations will be by car, then public transportation (bus, train, rideshare), then flight
Travel experience
  • Travelers will feel less comfortable interacting with people and experiences that feel different from them
  • Travelers will prefer experiences that keep them away from crowds (e.g. theme parks and casinos)
  • Travelers will avoid “off the beaten path” experiences because of risk of the unknown
  • Trust symbols and references will become even more important
  • New standards will emerge around cleanliness and hygiene in accommodations (hotels and vacation rentals)
  • Travel experiences will be more homogeneous
  • Travelers will fall into two camps in their mindset of mitigating risk: 1) Be more planful and less spontaneous about activities and restaurant choices at the destination or 2) Go with gut feel: wait to evaluate what seems safe once they are at the destination
  • There will be more advance reservations and fewer last-minute bookings
Reminiscing / Sharing
  • Travel will continue to be a topic of interest and social sharing
  • There will be a heightened sense of accomplishment around travel
  • Social sharing about travel will expand and be an even bigger area of focus compared to before
  • New products to help “re-experience” travel will emerge: tools to create travel videos, share content about personal trips, highlight destinations, print out and display travel photos, etc.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

How vacation rental providers are preparing 

Vacation rental providers were hit suddenly, and hard, by COVID-19. Our clients manage more than 17,000 vacation rentals around the world. Starting mid-March, many saw their business go from 85% occupancy to 0% overnight. In a study comparing cancellations in 2019 to 2020 across all bookings platforms (Airbnb, Vrbo, Booking.com, etc) they were up 500% year over year from February to March.

Instead of licking their wounds, many companies are looking ahead. They’re investing in giving travelers more flexible ways to book and also guaranteeing a hygienic and trusted travel experience. Leading examples include:

Investing in tools that provide more flexibility for travelers to book. 
  • Different payment plans and discounting
  • Accommodating different lengths of stay including switching to mid-term and long-term rentals
  • Broadening distribution across more bookings channels to reach a bigger audience and protect against platform dependence
Cleaning and hygiene
  • Having the cleaner wait 48 hours before cleaning the rental to protect cleaning staff
  • Guaranteeing that rentals haven’t been touched in 48 hours after being cleaned
  • Stocking the home with more hand sanitizer
  • Publishing cleaning practices and processes
  • Updating marketing photos to showcase cleanliness  
More personalized attention and assurances
  • Investing in software tools to deliver in-stay travel information via mobile
  • Preparing for increased level of traveler anxiety, more questions, and more hand-holding to help travelers reach their destination
  • Enable self-check in with new operational software and home automation 
Chart: Length of stay >14 days is increasing  starting in March 2020 (Price Labs)

Why vacation rentals have an advantage over hotels

The biggest challenge in vacation rentals is managing the operations of a myriad set of properties in different locations. But this is also what gives vacation rentals the advantage in bouncing back from COVID-19.

Here’s how:
  • Typically, vacation rentals have no lobby or common area. Travelers don’t want to be pushing the same elevator buttons everyone else has been pushing. This reduces exposure to other guests
  • Hands off hospitality is expected and done well by many vacation rental operators. Guests won’t mind a fully automated entry experience.
  • Smaller operators can pivot more quickly to new cleaning standards and operationalize them with staff.
Other advantages:
  • Vacation rentals can supply accommodations for Wave 1 of road trippers; will also benefit from Wave 2 of family travel
  • Rural markets will be the first to bounce back and vacation rentals dominate there 
  • Vacation rentals usually include a kitchen for in-unit food prep, further reducing exposure. This is compared to restaurant dining which is required for a hotel stay.

 

Lego diorama made by Ari, Ben, and Margot Schmorak

The ultimate resiliency of travel

Travel will come back, and it will be stronger than before. But it will look different for awhile. Travelers will demand more assurance about safety and cleanliness. Accommodations and service providers will differentiate on these. 

We will recover from the trauma of this global event.  It will take time. People will be on edge for awhile. It will take patience to collectively manage our anxiety. Travel will be forever changed. But perhaps the innovation on cleanliness and hygiene was a natural evolution that accelerated, not an unnatural change catering to a global pandemic. 

My biggest focus is helping us quickly get back to a world in which we can look a stranger in the eye without fear. Not just in the grocery store, but also when we’re in a new place that smells, sounds, and feels different. When the language is one we don’t understand, and when the face we’re looking at looks different from ours. Then we’ll know travel has truly moved on.