46 – Action Planning for COVID-19

by | April 8, 2020

In this episode of the Suite Spot, we continue our discussion on COVID-19 and the virus’s impact on the hotel industry. Host Ryan Embree welcomes Jason Lee, Vice President of Product & Technology, back to the Suite Spot to get his perspective and insights on this unprecedented global crisis.

With years of experience as a hotel owner and general manager, Jason shares the similarities and differences between this crisis and those from the past, like 9/11 or the Great Recession. Ryan and Jason give tips and ideas on how to reassure your hotel’s guests and future travelers utilizing social media, online reviews, and review responses. They provide some thoughtful advice on how to “stay in the today” and control what you can in these uncertain times.

If you are looking for help with a hotel action plan during this time, reach out to us by phone or text at 407-984-7455.

Episode Transcript
Our podcast is produced as an audio resource. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human editing and may contain errors. Before republishing quotes, we ask that you reference the audio.

Ryan Embree:
Welcome to Suite Spot, where hoteliers check-in and we check out what’s trending in hotel marketing. I’m your host, Ryan Embree. Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of the Suite Spot. This is your host, Ryan Embree. We are continuing our educational content on the current COVID-19 situation that our industry is in, our nation, and globally is in. So for this discussion today, I figured I’d pull in a little backup, a very seasoned veteran of the hospitality industry. You’ve heard his voice many times here on the Suite Spot, that is Mr. Jason Lee, he is our vice president of product development and technology who joins me remotely. So usually we’re in the office together, but Jason, I appreciate you taking the time to join me today.

Jason Lee:
Awesome. Thank you for having me, Ryan. Yeah, it is a departure from being able to look you in the eye, but I do appreciate you having me on.

Ryan Embree:
Yeah, absolutely and we’ll kind of jump right into it. As I mentioned before, you know, we did an episode in the past about the beginning steps to this situation. It’s been a couple of weeks since, so I figured, let’s go ahead and get you in here. You’ve been on both sides of the front desk as a general manager, owner, and then on the other side working with Travel Media Group, you know, so I wanted to get your input on, because you’ve been through this, you’ve been through some sort of crisis, whether that’s something like 2001 in 9/11 or the 2008 financial crisis, you know, we have those ebbs and flows in our industry and in our economy. How is this crisis, this COVID-19 crisis, in 2020 different from maybe those that you’ve experienced before?

Jason Lee:
Well, I mean, I think there’s the good and the bad of the situation and the bad is just how drastic the occupancy swing was. So in other areas, like even during 9/11, there was obviously a huge swing in travel in general, so people didn’t want to travel. The people didn’t have money or didn’t have as much discretionary money at the 2008 financial crisis, but in this case, it’s something where it’s a full shutdown of everything, you know, so it’s a shutdown of restaurants, its a shutdown of travel, of just movement – so that’s the bad side. The bad side is like how drastic of a cut it is. The good side, unlike the other ones, is that there is a clear end in sight. And even though it may not seem clear from maybe nightly news or from the stuff you read, there is a clear end from every country that’s experienced this, where you see the path back and this is something that is temporary. It’s something that has an end and so it’s understanding that and being able to weather this time period. So with the financial crisis, the uncertainty and like the literal like cut of discretionary money or people’s uncertainty about their financial future, stopping them from spending money. All of those things is, you know, made those times I think a lot – there wasn’t a clear end in sight and 9/11 the same thing. 9/11 lasted a very long time in terms of people’s appetite for travel or fear of travel. So I think with this, you know, we’re going to see it come back faster, I think it’s going to come back a lot better than it did in terms of time. But, you know, when you think about where we’ve been headed for the last 10 years, I mean we were just getting back to that, you know, 2006-2007 occupancy/RevPar. So we’re just barely getting back there, but we also had a ton of supply come into the market during that time as well. So I’m still very optimistic about where we’re headed and I’m very optimistic about people’s appetite for travel.

Ryan Embree:
I agree. We were riding, you know, we talk about it, we were riding record highs, you know, going into this crisis, very strong ADR/occupancy. You know, we would go to these conferences and we would hear that this time period was a great time for hoteliers. Our biggest issue was actually finding those people to help us at our hotels, you know, employment. So I think it is very different from what we’ve seen, but the other thing that you’ve really honed in on in conversations that I’ve had, you know, is all the innovation that comes out from these crisis, lessons that have been learned. In 2001, I’ve seen some articles about the rise of the OTAs, 2008 Airbnb. Obviously you don’t have to give me your big idea that’s going to change the world, but what type of lessons have you learned from maybe those crisis past that you can share with hoteliers today?

Jason Lee:
For me, I feel like it’s always about the same thing. It’s about product quality and in some ways innovation. So you look at a traditional continental breakfast and you go, “Hey, we can do pre-packaged continental breakfast for people to take with them and leave, you know, so they don’t sit where they’re contagious.” I think we’ve seen some of these things – there are certain hotels that did that before this, but I see this kind of process of wanting to protect our guests, wanting to protect our staff – where we’re starting to like innovate little areas. When I say product quality, I’m talking about that on any given day at any hotel there are – I mean this is going to be gross – but there are blood-borne pathogens, there are all kinds of stuff inside of hotel rooms. The type of disinfectants, the type of cleaning, the type of studiousness of cleaning a hotel room needs to be there. And I feel like it’s times like now that we really need to think about what exactly is going on this side of our house. So we have all these housekeepers, we train them, we give them chemicals, we do all of these things. What exactly is happening there and how can we get really good at making sure that our rooms are really clean – and they should be clean anyway – even without a pandemic, these rooms should not have stuff that could potentially harm our other guests that come in. Cleanliness has been an ongoing issue. And if you look at reviews, which is what we do, cleanliness is probably the number one issue of guest complaint. I’m hoping that through this we all take a look in this industry. We take a look at our process, we take a look at the chemicals we use, we take a look at the training that we’re doing, and we do a really great job of making sure that our rooms are super clean. And that’s what we start to tell people, we show our guests what we’re doing. We talk about it in social media, we talk about it on our website, we back the fact that we’ve got very clean rooms, and that we practice this level of hygiene. And I think that’s something that maybe will come from this situation specifically when you talk about innovations like Airbnb during the financial crisis, I think that was born out of the necessity for different types of travel and for renting a room in someone’s house and things like that were born out of a financial crisis. From this, I think that alternative lodging might take a hit, honestly. I think that vacation rentals may take a little bit of a hit because that is where there is sort of a question mark on cleanliness. And if you’re a hotel and there’s a question mark about cleanliness in your reviews, I would quickly fix that.

Ryan Embree:
Agreed. Yeah absolutely.This is the time to really get back to basics here. Create these habits today so that when you start to ramp up tomorrow, these processes are put in place that is overall, you know, going to help your hotel. I completely agree with you. I’ve never seen a review that has said this hotel is too clean, right? Or they did too good of a job of cleaning their lobby or cleaning their amenity areas. So that is just something that if we can create those habits today and communicate with our guests, that’s going to have peace of mind for them today, but it’s also going to set the foundation for better habits tomorrow. And I want to switch over to communication with guests, guests that are coming into our property or guests that are currently staying on our property. You mentioned social media. That’s just one outlet that we can communicate to our guests, whether it’s, you know, sending them a Facebook message or telling them to connect with you on Facebook so that if they need anything they don’t need to have that face to face interaction with the front desk or if they don’t feel comfortable picking up the phone, they can use their cell phone to connect with you that way. Other types of communication are not as verbal or over text. You know, there’s a visible communication there. If they see someone cleaning at the property that’s telling them about the cleanliness. What other type of messaging should hoteliers be communicating to – let’s just start with onsite guests and guests that are coming in through our front doors?

Jason Lee:
I think definitely having a clear cut process, a way to check-in that puts the guest at ease. A way to get to your room, a way that a maintenance person might be accessing that room that puts that guest at ease. In hotels we have standard operating procedures or SOPs, you’ve got to have an SOP, create an SOP around this situation. And that should be around check-in, around checkout, around housekeeping. So not just the cleanliness procedures, but what a maid does when someone’s in the room. So what is it that, you’re going to clean around this person. So you’re putting your maid at risk and putting this guest at risk. So you’ve gotta have some stuff in place. You know, somebody says their TV doesn’t work, you send a maintenance guy up there, what’s the procedure? But having it clear cut so your staff feels good and so guests feel good, you know, makes all the difference. Yeah, I went to Trader Joe’s this week, you know, and they made a line to get into Trader Joe’s. So there was only so many people that could be in the store at one time and then they made you go from one side of the store to the other. So you had to start on this one aisle and then go to the other side. And so everyone coming in, was going to this one area and everybody leaving was coming from this other area. So they created this whole area and they made it so that as you walked in, they handed you a cart that had been cleaned. Like all of those things put me at ease, so if you have a lobby that has a sliding door, then you’re probably great. If you have a lobby that has a door that people have to touch, then you should create something around that. Either have it open or you have, you know, someone that’s cleaning it regularly.

Ryan Embree:
Yep, some signage there or just again, communicating with that guest for peace of mind. I, experienced something very similarly. I had a couple of local takeout places, over the past couple of days. One of the two places that I went to had a sign outside that showed everything that did in order to assure their guests that were coming in, that everything was clean. They had different timeframes of when everything was going on. Again, just for the reassurance of their customer. The other place I went to didn’t have anything like that. So I think it’s important to be communicating with the guests, but you also make a great point about the staff as well. Your guests are going to be able to sense that, everyone right now is in a state of kind of that consumer fear and anxiety about everything they’re touching and everywhere they’re going, every decision that they’re making. So if you don’t have clear SOPs for your staff, your guests is going to feel that, they’re not going to feel that confidence of that guest to be able to assure them that, “Yes, you know, we’re here to protect you. We’re here for your safety.” So I think that’s super, super important to not just be communicating with your in room guests, but also your, your staff as well. But what about future travelers? What type of messaging should we be communicating to future travelers that might still be deciding on, “Okay, am I going to take this, I am weighing this decision of whether I’m going to stay at this property or if I’m just going to stay home?”

Jason Lee:
I think it’s definitely around the same thing we’ve been talking about. It’s what you’re doing to ensure safety. It’s what you’re doing to ensure safety of your staff and safety of your guests. And I think you can create social media posts that, – and I think there’s great ideas to show off. Show off your team, you know, show off your team and their routine, right? Take a picture of a maid with a mask and a guard on and with gloves on, you know, cleaning a counter. There’s nothing – I think those kinds of images and that kind of reassurance that this is not something that we’re taking lightly at this hotel. We’re not business as usual. We’re making sure that our staff is – so ensuring that your staff is safe really ensures – if your staff is safe and they’re following those measures, that is ensuring guest safety. And so those things together are really important. And so the more that you can communicate that stuff from – Google my business just opened up a spot inside of their application where you can post, specifically post, COVID-19 related posts. And I’ve seen some hotels that have said, “During this time we have limited lobby access.” They’re talking about some of the things they’re doing. I think in saying things like that, it sets the expectation for the guests, but it’s also telling the guests that, “Hey, this hotelier is not messing around.” They’re buttoned up, they’re ready for business, and I’m going to be safe. So I definitely feel like that, but I think there’s this other thing too. So there’s a time where we need to start focus back on our regular, you know, guest acquisition. And there is this thing, so there’s a book called, “The Peak” and it’s using Maslow’s hierarchy of need in business. There is a part in there that talks about survival mode, right? When you’re in this survival mode, your occupancy is super low, you’ve got debt service issues, you’ve got payroll issues, you’re in survival mode. The next mode after survival mode is transformation. Is that transformation mode and then you go into success mode. But transformation mode I think is that space that is coming. And that’s the space that we need to have kind of maybe a foot in both sides of that. So we might be just surviving, but we also need to be thinking about transformation. And that transformation is, how do I go from where I am today to a full hotel and if I’ve laid off staff and what is it that I’m going to do? So looking at future reservations is a great indicator of where you’re going to be. And so making sure that you’re assuring guests, that you’re going to be open for business, that you know you’ve taken these measures, and that you’re going to be transitioning from this place of very low occupancy and back to full tilt.

Ryan Embree:
Yeah. If you’re not preparing for that, if you’re not putting things in place now, you’re not going to be set up to be in that position where you’re going to be able to invite all these travelers – that again, were at a peak time before this. We were, you know, prepping for an episode, prior to this crisis, about prepping your hotel for your busy season. We are about to jump into the summer season where travel is at a peak for most of the hotels out there. So, well let me pose a question to you this way. We see that dip in occupancy. Give me a value proposition for why hotel reviews and review response matter at a time of crisis like this?

Jason Lee:
Well, I think any time that you’re in any situation, right, you want to get the most out of every available traveler. So right now, when there’s not that many travelers, they’re still a share of travelers that are in your market. You want to get the most out of that share. So your value proposition is probably at its most taxed. And so any information that a guest has has said about your hotel that’s negative, you need to quickly offset either with more positive reviews or with a resolution type response. A response that resolved that issue and has left that issue – especially if that issue is, “I came to the hotel and the hotel was filthy.” That kind of thing in this environment could be a killer, even for future future bookings. But in this environment right now, making sure that you have, that the guests are staying with you are number one, leaving reviews and that those reviews are positive, but they’re having great experiences with you. But that is leading, you know, your future guests into a mindset and that your value proposition is constantly increasing. And I think that’s where reviews become extremely important. And I do feel like guests are going to be cautious. I’ve been through really downturn, I mean I took over a hotel with 16% occupancy in 95, so I remember times, I mean “.com bust” and some of these other times in our economic history where, you know, where we had very low occupancy and we were scrapping for guests. We have had a very great run. There are new hoteliers that maybe have never experienced, you know, so for the last 10 and a half years we’ve had year over year growth. There could be a new hotelier that came up during this time that has never experienced this. So thinking about your guests, and this is maybe a mindset shift all the way around where we start to really get back to what we do in this business, which is focused on our guests and focus on hospitality. So it’s delivering a great product, clean, and well maintained, having friendly staff and giving guests a great experience and not taking them for granted. Sorry, that’s a very long answer to reviews.

Ryan Embree:
No, you’re right on point. And I would tell hoteliers the game has changed right now. You know, you could be a hotel that has been at the top of your market, your reviews have been stellar over the past six months, but if you don’t get that review in this span right now, today, those reviews that you’ve had in the past, those travelers aren’t looking at, the game has changed. This whole situation has changed. What they’re looking for is reassurance today that your hotel, in the time that this has all happened, is clean, they’ve put the proper things in order, and you need to be responding to what you’re doing. If you’re able to get all of a sudden a slew of five star reviews talking about all the precautions that you’re doing to make sure you’re protecting your guests, those travelers that come into town and they read those reviews, you’re going to capture that some market there, because they’re going to have that peace of mind about their stay.

Jason Lee:
Yeah, definitely. Yeah.

Ryan Embree:
I know you still have a lot of ties in the hotel industry. What are you kinda hearing from hoteliers? What sort of sentiment are you hearing out there about this situation? What type of feelings? And is there optimism? I know there’s that certainty of this is going to ramp up, but what are you hearing?

Jason Lee:
It’s a mixed bag because I’ve talked to people I’ve known for years who really enjoyed the last bit of growth and they’re in panic. I’ve talked to other hoteliers that are, they’re steadfast. They were like, “Yep, I’ve done, you know, all of my, my variable costs. I’ve cut back my fixed costs. I’ve tried to like mitigate as much as I can and I know that I’m going to be open for business here in a couple of months or that I’m gonna be back to my level of occupancy.” And there are still other people that I’ve talked to that have actually, you know, seen occupancy tick up during this time because they’re, you know, roadside hotels. They’ve got a hotel where they’re getting a lot of trucking business and a lot transportation business. You know, there’s some hotels that have taken a lot of hospital business. So it’s funny, you know, I was talking to a guy out of LA and he’s close to one of the major hospitals in Hollywood and he’s full. He’s full of staff, the staff that don’t want to go home. And that’s not everybody, right? I mean most hotels are experiencing a real downturn. I have a friend of mine that’s running a hotel in La Hoya and he’s spending most of his time, you know, doing preventative maintenance right now. So, so he knows his summer is going to be big, he still has great reservations still on the book, so he’s still sold out for July and August. So they’re like, you know, taking this time, he brought on actually another maintenance guy because they’ve got open rooms and they’re like doing all the things they wish they could have done because they’ve been running 90% occupancy. And now that they’ve got half that, he’s like, they’re going to town on, you know, adding stuff, putting in new mattresses, like they’re spending money on FF&E right now. So it’s interesting.

Ryan Embree:
Yeah, I love that. Repurposing of their energy. You know, we cannot afford to stay idle. We’ve talked about this a couple times, whether that’s physical energy by doing that preventative maintenance, doing some maybe projects that you haven’t been able to accomplish or whether that’s mental energy: trying to listen to podcasts, hospitality webinars, networking with industry experts. So one thing we can’t afford to do during this time is stay idle. So what kind of advice or any final thoughts would you give to hoteliers out there that might be in that emotional state of, not panic, but fear and uncertainty?

Jason Lee:
I think everything in life is always about the things that you have control over. So there’s always those things you’re going to be concerned about. There’s always those things you’re going to have fear about. There’s always those things that you can stress about. But what you can do today is really what it’s always about and it’s never about these big giant swings. It’s always about steady, consistent, and focused work. And I would say, you know, just like you said, “don’t be idle.” Look at this time as a time to really prepare yourself for what’s to come. And that’s always great advice. I talked to a hotelier who was really stressed after they spent a ton of money renovating his hotel right before the 2008 financial crisis and it turned out that he had some of the best occupancy and some of the best QA scores, but he had the best occupancy in his area for his hotel class during that time because he had done that. And yes, it’s scary, you know, I’m just saying, it’s not always about what our financial situation is today or what our occupancy is today, but it’s about how do we get our product in the best possible position when this comes back and it’s going to come back. It’s going to come back – we’re going to look back on this and go, “Wow, that was crazy,” but I definitely feel like the more you can focus on the things that you can physically control – and I spin out, you know, it’s human nature to spin out on things that the, “what if” the “what if stuff” – but the more you can focus on the stuff you can control every day, you know, the better off you’re going to be, the better mindset you’re going to have, the better place your staff is going to be. And you being confident and you being a leader during this time is super important too because I guarantee your staff is scared. They’re scared they might lose their jobs, they’re scared you might close the hotel, they’re seeing this stuff happen all through the industry. So the more you can, you know, be confident and be pushing forward and be driving towards a positive outcome, I think the better for everybody.

Ryan Embree:
Your advice, “stay in today.” Don’t look too far ahead because we don’t know what that future holds. But again, I can’t be the only one with the mindset of as soon as we’re done with this social distancing, I’m going on a vacation. You know all those healthcare workers out there, I’m sure the same way. Same with you. So that is something to definitely look forward to but right now control you can control and stay in today. So love that advice, Jason. As always, really appreciate the insights. You know, if you’re a hotelier out there at Travel Media Group, we’ve helped hoteliers through a couple of these crisis that Jason mentioned today. If you need help with an action plan, recovery plan, or just want to bounce some ideas off of, please feel free to contact us. Right now we are here for you in this time of need. You can either call or text us at (407) 984-7455 or visit us at travelmediagroup.com. Jason, again, I appreciate you coming on the Suite Spot and hopefully next time you’re on, we’ll be back in the office together. I appreciate it and I appreciate all of you for listening. Stay safe, stay healthy out there, and we’ll talk to you next time on the Suite Spot. To join our loyalty program, be sure to subscribe and give us a five star rating on iTunes. Suite Spot is produced by Travel Media Group, our editor is Anne Sandoval with cover art by Bary Gordon. I’m your host Ryan Embree and we hope you enjoyed your stay.

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