I risked staying in a hotel and I won't do it again for a while

COVID hit the hotel industry very hard. And, much as hotel companies try to recover, the current experience makes one wonder whether technology can really help at all.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

What's that smell?

Normal is new, but not necessarily improved.

COVID-19 has utterly altered many of the things we used to take for granted.

My wife and I used to enjoy the occasional escape. By changing locations, the hope was that we could escape our daily minds and return, even if briefly, to a heightened level of sanity.

So, spurred by excessive nighttime mutterings at inanimate objects and curious, spontaneous daily ululations at walls, we booked a three-night stay at a hotel in wine country. Northern California wine country, that is.

It's not such a long drive from home. And, to be frank, we just wanted to be somewhere else and sleep somewhere else.

We chose a hotel we knew. It's part of a well-known chain. How different would it be? Most importantly, how would it make us feel?

Silence Isn't Always Gilt-Edged.

The hospitality industry has been crushed by COVID-19. So many people have lost their jobs, not knowing if they will ever return. How can a hotel be hospitable when a virus is all around?

The first thing that struck us was eerie quiet.

Hotel lobbies are often places where you see people lingering, staff chatting, luggage lurking.

The last time we'd stayed at this place, the staff was positively chirping, offering a glass of champagne on entry. Just because.

This time, an echo. We checked in with a staff member who did his very best to be cheerful. But it's hard to do that when everyone's wearing a mask.

Masks make it hard to see expressions. They can even make it hard to hear what someone else is saying. And then there's the piece of glass separating you from the employees.

This hotel didn't check our temperatures. Many do.

As Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson explained to Skift: "A temperature check is a very dubious tool for ID'ing those who have the virus. Nevertheless, that temperature check is hygiene theater, if you will. It's communicating to folks we care about what you feel and want you to stop and think about if you're having any symptoms, and we also want to communicate to you that you're now entering a place in which we've got protocols in place to protect you and others in the environment."

All of these precautions are understandable. They're part of normal life now. All of them create a distance that's the enemy of warmth.

The Hotel's Changed. We've Changed.

Next, the new elevator rules. Only one party in an elevator at any given time. You find yourself stepping in and then having to reverse, not because the elevator is full, but because it contains one person.

Then there's the room. It was exactly the same sort of room we'd booked on previous occasions. Yet we found ourselves scrutinizing it like tax attorneys, wondering whether it was clean and when it had last been cleaned. We're not usually like this.

A feeling of freshness is something you always hope for on entering a hotel room for the first time. Here, though, the usual freshness was replaced by a curious smell. Not exactly of detergent, but of a product that hadn't originally been intended for hotels.

Many hotels have made great play of their new cleaning procedures.

None of this was the hotel's fault. Hotels have been confronted by something they never anticipated and they've reacted as swiftly and intelligently as they can, especially when it comes to cleaning.

Yet the theater can only go so far. You had to stand in line for breakfast. It was then brought to you in a polystyrene box. This wasn't good for bacon, eggs or appetite.

Many people took it back to their rooms because there was no real option. Eat in the lobby? There were hardly any seats and none was conducive to eating.

Our room wasn't cleaned for the entirety of our three-night stay. The hotel explained that this was its way of keeping out anything extraneous. Rooms were left vacant for a couple of days between stays.

Again, I can understand why the hotel did this. I have enormous sympathy for the decisions hotels have made.

None of it, however, was likely to make a customer feel better.

What Can Technology Do To Recreate The Feeling? Not Much?

Which left me thinking whether technology could have improved anything about the experience.

Of course, tech's first impulse is to take the humanity out of an experience. Contactless payments, contactless entry, your phones can be used as a room key. 

And what could be more warming than contactless check-in? Or, as hotel technology company Enseo has developed, a member of staff projected onto a screen, offering their heartfelt greetings.

"The future of hotels is sleek," says my colleague Greg Nichols. "But oh-so impersonal."

Indeed, I couldn't conceive of anything technological that would have truly added to the human experience. Because hospitality depends on the people who deliver it and if that contact is withdrawn, what do you have left?

You have a quite basic Airbnb where you never meet the owner.

COVID-19 has made people think about why they used to do things and what role those things played in their lives. It's made people consider what is truly important and what is a mere frippery.

When it comes to business, the pandemic has exposed what some businesses really are. The hospitality business is all about creating a feeling and being able to consistently deliver it.

That is, it seemed to us, simply impossible when virus rules are so restrictive, when masks mask humanity, and when everyone is very slightly on edge. Again, none of this is hotels' fault.

Hotels have an additional burden because, unlike restaurants, your stay is much longer so there's so much more time and space to either create good feelings or let them dissipate.

Both of us admitted we'd felt slightly uncomfortable. More uncomfortable than we'd felt in restaurants, the few times we have gone out to eat.

Perhaps permission for indoor dining -- albeit with social distancing -- will change the atmosphere. Perhaps technology will find a way through this. Perhaps we, too, just have to get used to the new hotel world. Nothing will change that much very soon.

Still, why would you stay in an atmosphere-free hotel when you might get an Airbnb for much less?

Ah, but then again, you have no idea how your Airbnb has been cleaned, do you?

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