There is no better experience in the hospitality sector than opening a hotel, Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise general manager Gregor Resch says. It’s like opening a show on Broadway.
Having been called back to work in May with the goal of reopening the Chateau Lake Louise for the first time since COVID-19 hit North America, many of Resch’s crew members got their first taste of the experience. The weeks leading up to the launch date are manic as staff stresses over even the smallest piece of furniture not yet delivered, but the anxiety can help foster a deeper sense of camaraderie.
For Resch, one of the few who has previously been part of an opening team, this time was different. Instead of eagerly waiting on the delivery of a leather couch for the lobby, Resch was stressing over the arrival of a face-mask shipment. And rather than visiting every room to ensure that pens and stationery were placed inside, Resch’s task was to ensure those items, even the coffee makers, were all removed instead.
“Because of the safety prep, we took things out of the rooms,” Resch said. “It feels a bit awkward as hotelier to say, ‘Let’s take the coffee maker out.’ For so many years we worked so hard to get the coffee maker into the rooms.”
According to the Hotel Association of Canada, 4,100 of the 8,298 hotels in Canada closed as a result of the pandemic. With the loosening of provincial restrictions surrounding COVID-19, Canadian hotels like the Chateau Lake Louise are beginning to once again open their doors to guests. Those managing this process know the industry has had to make significant changes to operate during a pandemic, many of which will alter the experiences of workers and visitors alike.
When guests walk into the front entrance of Chateau Lake Louise, for example, they’ll immediately notice the plexiglass shields that have been put up in front of counters, the face masks that employees are mandated to wear and the thermometer in the hand of a staff member waiting to take their temperature.
Guests will be spaced out in the 450 rooms that are currently open at the hotel. In restaurants, seating will be arranged with social distancing in mind. There will be no buffets and Resch doesn’t plan on reintroducing them any time soon. Room service will be done via contactless delivery.
The gym, spa and pool experience will also be altered. Resch said guests will have to make appointments to use them and their occupancy levels will be capped. Only four guests will be allowed in the gym, which will have plexiglass barriers separating machines, while eight can be in the pool.
Once guests check out, their rooms will be given a deep clean and quarantined for 48 hours before someone else can book them.
Don Cleary, the president of Marriott Hotels Canada, said Marriott franchises across the country will implement similar changes. Of the 250 hotels Marriott operates across Canada, only 77 closed down. In the past month, 31 have reopened and those that remain closed are focused in urban hubs such as Toronto and Montreal, where business travellers are the main source of revenue.
Changes made to Marriott hotels in Canada will depend on the province in which the particular hotel operates and the individual running the franchise, Cleary said. Many of them already made face masks mandatory for all staff and gloves for others, installed plexiglass shields at counters and pivoted away from buffets, he added. Most Marriott locations also offer contactless check-in through the company’s app, which allows guests to unlock their doors digitally.
With the changes made, traffic within certain Marriott hotels is rising, Cleary said.
“What we’re seeing come back throughout Canada first is the leisure travel, especially coming into this summer season, and so hotels that can cater to the drive-by leisure market tend to be seeing higher occupancies,” Cleary said. “Obviously I don’t think we get back to the pre-pandemic normal without a vaccine.”
Obviously I don’t think we get back to the pre-pandemic normal without a vaccine
Don Cleary, president, Marriott Hotels Canada
That’s the main challenge the industry is going to have to confront in the coming months. While there is a group of Canadians that has already begun to seek out travel and visit hotels, another demographic may not risk doing so again before a vaccine is developed. With several provincial and territorial borders still shut and international borders closed down, even the hotel industry’s access to the first group is restricted.
Resch wouldn’t say what Chateau Lake Louise’s occupancy looks like, but did say that fewer guests can actually lead to a better experience.
“It almost feels like we’re closer than we were before despite the fact that we’ve got the safety glass that we have between us,” he said.
That isn’t the case — at least not yet — all the way across the country at Newfoundland’s famed Fogo Island Inn.
Until Newfoundland and Labrador’s borders reopen, the inn will have no choice but to remain closed, said Amanda Decker-Penton, the hotel’s executive chair and director of guest experience.
More than 60 per cent of its guests are visitors from other provinces, with the bulk coming from Ontario and Quebec. Without them, the inn has no business. Even if the province were to open to Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and New Brunswick, that still wouldn’t give the inn, which only has 29 rooms and is committing to only operating half of them for social distancing purposes, enough reason to open.
Time is running out on this season, Decker-Penton said, and that’s why the inn and several other hotels, airlines and airports are lobbying the federal government to begin opening borders in a campaign called Time to Travel.
Decker-Penton has started accepting reservations for August and September, hoping that by then, she’ll be back in business. The inn is planning on making a host of changes similar to the rest of the industry: gyms and saunas will be visited by appointment only and the latter will have to be cleaned after each use and social distancing will be implemented.
The Fogo Island inn faces other unique challenges that would not affect a standard hotel. The residents of the island work in close connection with guests — they pick them up at the airport, guide them through the island’s walking trails and set up shops for guests to visit. The experience heavily relies on being embedded in the culture of the people that live on the island and that may prove difficult due to social distancing.
The hardest thing for us is (going to be) not to hug people when you leave
Some of the problems can be worked around. Appointments can be set up to visit shops and the inn can assign one host to guide a visitor throughout their entire experience, instead of multiple residents of the island. It’s simple enough to make these changes and to take items out of rooms and space out furniture. That may not change the experience. It’s the intangibles that Decker-Penton will have a harder time letting go of.
“We build our business on the love of a stranger — that’s what makes Fogo Island special,” said Decker-Penton. “The hardest thing for us is (going to be) not to hug people when you leave.”