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Cleanliness theater for the post-pandemic world

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This too shall pass. However bad the COVID-19 situation gets that we are currently in the midst of fighting, business will eventually return to normal, hopefully sooner rather than later. But the fear instilled in people’s minds from this panic will linger for long after the all clear is given as part of a collective post-pandemic social anxiety.

What this means is that the newly adopted hygiene standards at your hotel will likely have to remain in place in perpetuity, no matter the cost increase to sustain them. People will almost irreversibly uphold a heightened sensitivity for proper cleaning practices in public areas or practically any other space utilized by strangers. And they will inevitably judge your property on this, whether consciously or not.

That is, a lack of pristine sanitization SOPs will lead to strongly negative reviews unlike in months or years past where a guest may have let it slide or only docked a single star. We all know that online reviews are a major influencer for booking as well as reflect the number of return visits you receive, so letting guests mark you down for cleanliness errors is an ever-riskier venture.

I would have you avoid this situation, with the first step being a sharp focus on continually updating your cleaning protocols in the wake of what has been compelled by the coronavirus. Like a tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it, though, how will your guests know about all these behind-the-scenes upgrades if you don’t broadcast them?

This brings us to the concept of ‘cleanliness theater’ based upon the previously established counterpart of ‘security theater’. The latter is a well-documented practice whereby it is not only about any crime-prevention updates you make but also ensuring that people see those countermeasures in place so they can feel safer. There are numerous examples of security theater in modern use to illustrate the point.

Simplest would perhaps be the decision between setting up a hidden camera to monitor an area versus installing a larger one protruding out from the ceiling with several conspicuous blinking lights to indicate that it’s turned on. Both accomplish the goal of allowing guards to observe the space, but only the latter is visible to the passersby. For regular people this means they know they are being watched and thus have a heightened sense of protection because a team will immediately see when something is wrong. For any potential lawbreakers, this is also a deterrent because they know there is surveillance.

The second instance worth highlighting as an analog to our current circumstance pertains to domestic airports’ responses following 9/11. With the shock of terrorism roiling nearly everyone’s attitude towards flying throughout the early aughts, any new security procedures had to both increase screening of threats as well as reassure the public that air travel was no longer dangerous. While there were many ingenious steps taken behind the scenes, there were also some that were – intentionally or unintentionally – mostly for show, like the stationing of soldiers wearing full fatigues and carrying assault rifles outside departure terminals. In reality, this type of action was totally ineffectual at stopping any new threats, save for making travelers feel safe as they walked by to check-in for their flights.

With our collective anxiety shifting from terrorism to viruses in the past weeks, mounting any such theater in the realm of cleanliness would be beneficial to restore guest confidence so that their satisfaction with your hotel does not suffer due to any perceived sanitation slights. Namely, it is not just about the increased cleaning your team performs but ensuring that these activities are carried out in plain view of the greatest number of guests possible.

While keeping in mind that these measures will still probably be of help for your guests, some ideas for cleanliness theater include:

Most importantly is to update your marketing literature to tell customers about your new hygiene standards starting with a newsletter to your loyalty base and posting on your website
Paper and pen bulletin boards indicating when a public washroom or other common space was last cleaned should now be readily observable for visitors to read instead of tucked away due to their unsightliness with regard to your interior design
Having your custodial staff clean public areas during the morning or afternoon busy periods instead of only during the middle of the night when your lobby is empty (but please don’t give up on the midnight shift for this task)
Installing more hand sanitizer stations in your public areas and corridors as well as performing refills or inspections of these units during times when guests are around to see you do it
Also consider putting hand sanitizers in guestrooms during the entrance and a supply of disinfecting wipes in the bathroom beside the tissue paper
With so much stigma around shaking hands or touching surfaces with your bare hands, perhaps it is time to bring back the traditional white-gloved service for bellhops, valets, front desk clerks, concierge, restaurant servers or practically any role that is unquestionably high touch
Also for the restaurant, consider more rigorous table setting cleanup procedures for after the patrons leave so that other diners can see you are going through the extra steps which may include wiping down each chair instead of only wiping the surface of the table.
No doubt more possibilities will come to you once you put a team together to brainstorm ideas. The key behind this principle is to understand that it is not just about keeping places clean but elevating moods while doing so. And as there may be a financial drawback for those hotels that are not deemed to be taking hygiene serious enough, cleanliness theater is a concept that you should definitely take into account as you work your way through this ordeal.

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