Tourism Will Reboot When Industry Faces COVID-19 Reality
The devil we cannot see
Invisible But Deadly: COVID-19
When you can see it, there is no challenge to keeping surfaces clean and sanitized. Find dark particles on the desk top from construction, dust bunnies hiding in corners that escaped the vacuum, cobwebs on windows that have not been opened in weeks, wine stains on the rug from the party last night – no problem…Mr. Clean, Lysol, a carpet sweeper and problem solved.
But what about COVID-19? What is driving everyone nuts is that the COVID-19 “dirt” is a devil that we cannot see. Not only does the virus jump quickly from one person to the other, it clings to all exposed surfaces from building materials and fabrics to people and pets. The “clinging” quality of COVID-19 creates a general surface phobia, characterized by an ever-increasing fear of door handles, handrails, water faucets, toilet flushers, bus seats, office desks, computer keyboards, the living room sofa, forks, knives, teaspoons, plates, table cloths and people.
According to virologist Neeltje van Doremalen (New England Journal of Medicine), the COVID-19 virus lingers for 2-3 days on surfaces that range from plastic to stainless steel, materials that have been used repeatedly, for decades, in hotels, restaurants, attractions, and just about every other “built” structure on the planet. The virus can remain active on cardboard for up to 24 hours and, although the virus eventually dies on copper, it is alive and well for up to 4 hours.
Hotels, restaurants, attractions, movie theatres, concert halls and stadiums, airlines and airports, once important hubs for travelers are now considered danger zones for these enclosed spaces are likely to be epicenters for COVID-19. There is evidence (from hospitals), that patients in isolation rooms where SARS CoV 2 patients were receiving care were shedding virus and the buggers were found in air/surface samples. Even air collectors that were more than 6 feet away from patients detected the virus, calling into question whether current social distancing guidelines are sufficient to prevent the spread of disease and whether current HVAC units installed in hotels, restaurants, etc. are filtering out the virus particles or spreading them throughout the facility. According to aerosol scientist Lidia Morawska (Queensland University of Technology, Australia), “In the mind of scientists working on this, there’s absolutely no doubt that the virus spreads in the air…. This is a no-brainer.”
Wear a Mask
In a study from the University of Hong Kong, researchers found rhinovirus, influenza and human coronaviruses in respiratory droplets and aerosols, and determined that surgical masks worn by sick patients reduced the detection of coronavirus in both transmission forms. Another study in Wuhan, China hospitals, found that staff movement, floor cleaning, and the removal of personal protective equipment could transmit the virus through the resuspension of virus contaminated aerosols.
It is interesting to note that the World Health Organization (WHO) “thinks” that airborne transmission “may be possible,” during certain medical procedures (i.e., intubation or open suctioning), but recommends “caution” and recommends further studies…”to determine whether it is possible to detect COVID-19 virus in the air samples from patient rooms where no procedures or support treatments that generate aerosols are ongoing. This reminds me of the cliché, “My mind is made up – don’t confuse me with the facts.”
Even if there is the possibility that WHO is right and the other scientists are wrong, public policy, as well as all partners engaged in the hospitality, travel and tourism industry should “err” on the side of caution, instructing all staffers and guests to wear face coverings and follow guidelines for social distancing. It would be better for everyone if all people interacting in public spaces wore face masks when they are out and about.
From You to Me to You and Yours
There are least two ways for the virus to enter our body: autoinoculation and airborne. A person touches a contaminated surface (generally considered a secondary route for infection) while the airborne transmission, inhaling droplets after someone has sneezed or coughed, appears to be more common. There is evidence to suggest that clothing is a facilitator for virus transmission and that the infectious droplets linger on fabrics.
Duty of Care: Getting to Clean and Safe
In order to diminish the opportunities for COVID-19 to spread from person to person, partners in the hotel, travel, tourism and related industries have the obligation to create environments where guests will have reduced opportunities to become infected.
The following suggests systems, procedures, and products that can lead the way to a healthier and cleaner travel/tourism experience.
Breathe. Wait 60 Seconds
Designed by Professor Gabby Sarusi, an Israeli affiliated with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, this coronavirus test break-through determines if you have the virus or not in one -minute. The 60-second electro-optical test looks at nose, throat or breath samples that identify both asymptomatic and affected carriers of the COVID-19 virus with greater than 90 percent accuracy. The system can be installed at US global entry points (i.e., airports, cruise terminals, railroad stations) as soon as it is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Each test kit is priced at approximately $50, far less than standard, laboratory-based polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.
Diminish Human Contact
Hotels are adapting to using robots at key points in hotels to minimize contact with guests. Aloft Hotels introduced robots in 2016 and they travel throughout the entire property, making deliveries.
Hilton started using Robot Connie (named after the hotel Founder, Conrad Hilton) in 2016. The Crowne Plaza has a delivery robot (San Jose Silicon Valley) that delivers snacks, toiletries, and other amenities while monitoring its power usage, returning to the charging point when it needs to reboot. The Henn na Hotel (Sasebo, near Nagasaki, Japan) has a robot at the reception desk to greet guests, while another robot regulates heating and lighting and provides weather information. The Yotel Hotel robot collects and delivers luggage to rooms, and Hotel EMC2 (Chicago, Il) delivers towels, and other amenities, freeing up staff to handle other responsibilities.
Smart Phones are Very Intelligent
The Front Desk as we “have known it” is being swept into the dust bin of hotel history. There is no longer a need for a Reception Desk, a Concierge, or a Tour /Entertainment staffer as all these tasks are now being addressed through the visitor’s Smart Phone. Guests will not have to see an employee or touch any surfaces en route to their room. In addition, all requests, from martini’s to extra towels will be ordered through their cell phone and delivered by robots.
- Check-in via smartphone.
- Keyless room entry.
- Touchless digital menu systems (restaurants, hotels, cruise lines).
- No touch TV remote control (from smartphone app).
Bathrooms will be touchless with water faucets turned on through pedals or electronics, shower temperatures will be controlled through technology, and toilets will self-flush (Toto).
Public restrooms may lose their doors entirely, replaced with S-shaped toilets that do not have an entrance door but rather use a winding shape to keep stalls private. All loos are likely to become gender neutral preventing lines during high-traffic events where women have to wait in long closely-packed groups while men’s rooms remain fairly empty.
If hotels and cruise ships are really serious about monitoring the health of staff, they can add the precision health toilet technology designed by Sanji Gambhir, MD, PhD. This unique device can sense multiple signs of illness through automated urine and stool analysis.
Social Distancing Technology
The technology designed to warn staffers and guests when they are too close to each other is ready to be introduced at airports, hotels, cruise ships and attractions. From devices that “hear” someone else’s device, to ultra-wideband technology that enables precise distance measurements between devices there are low-cost methods to keep us apart. In addition, Bluetooth Low Energy (used for headphones and portable speakers) produces consistently accurate distance information while sound can be used to determine distance to others (think bats) where echoes identify obstacles along the pathway. Wearables (i.e., bracelet or rings) can be added for social distancing and workplace wearables can be programmed to buzz an alert when staffers and guests are within 6 feet of each other.
Robots Replace Employees
In keeping with the need for social distance and sanitary environments, travelers want fewer and fewer opportunities to interact with others, making robots the perfect addition to hotel, cruise line, restaurant and attraction services.
- Robotic delivery (luggage, amenities, food, beverages, linens). Robots are able to ride elevators, make calls to rooms upon guest arrival; avoid obstacles through sensors; integrated into a property management system through software that tracks tasks and accomplishments.
- Wayfinding robots escort guests to their rooms.
- Personalized robotic communication: detects facial, body and voice cues; provide answers to property-specific questions, gives directions, tells stories, dances and poses for selfies.
At the Seoul Incheon International Airport, Airstar (LG Electronics) takes photos, answers to its name, scans airline passenger tickets and directs them to their departure gates. Airstar is fluent in English, Korean, Chinese and Japanese. In the arrival hall, Airstar reads the bar code on luggage tags, directs passengers to their baggage reclaim zone, and offers transportation information to assist visitors to reach their destination.
HVAC Systems vs. COVID-19
Hotels, cruise ships, restaurants, stadiums, conference centers and a wealth of other hotel, travel and tourism partners are looking for ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19 focusing on the HVAC system through trapping, diluting and/or inactivating the virus. Ventilation helps with dilution by flushing the building with outside air at rates that would not be sustainable for comfort control. Improved filtration can be achieved by upgrading filters to a higher MERV rating.
For inactivating the virus, two technologies have proven to effective with pathogens: UVC light (surface decontamination or coil cleaning – at a higher intensity that inactivates the virus as it moves through the that section of the system) and bipolar ionization which generates positive and negative ions that fold through the system and into the spaces they serve to inactivate viruses.
Is There a Future?
Currently the travel dialogue is fraught with uncertainty and fear. There is an assurance that there will, eventually, be light at the end of the tunnel, but how long this journey will take is in the hands of government officials, corporate executives, research scientists, and others who think they have the answer. However, Pogo had it right when he said, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.” (Walt Kelly, April 22, 1970).
A few researchers and academics have analyzed the current challenge and unless/until there is a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 from attacking and/or a cure is discovered to help us overcome the disease, there are precious few steps that we as consumers can implement in an attempt to maintain good health.
The good news is that the steps are easy and inexpensive; the bad news is that, thanks to people living in Washington, DC and the White House who use their public relations skill set to move COVID-19 from a health and wellness issue to becoming a political debate, the steps toward mitigation have become a metaphysical comment. The disastrous outcome of politicizing a health issue is divisive and the decision to wear (or not wear) a face mask while keeping a minimum of 6-feet apart, is based on politics and not on the advice of doctors and scientists.
Will hotel, travel and tourism leadership eventually wake–up and realize that press releases are not going to change the perception of the consumer in regard to the potential health hazards of travel? Until there are changes at the grass roots level of the industry: incorporating new anti-microbial construction materials, using anti-microbial fabrics on everything (i.e., furniture, bed linens, staff uniforms), introducing an updated HVAC system, contact-less technology from reservations through check-out, robots and access to doctors/nurses via TeleMed or other medical assistance when an emergency occurs – people are going to be reluctant to leave their homes and their comfort zone.
One bright spot is likely to be domestic travel. Whether the trip is by car, van or RV, self-contained holidays will provide the change of scenery so desperately desired, and the controlled space offered by personal transportation provides relief from the fear of flying and using public transportation.
The step to international travel is likely to start with friends and family who are eager to see their loved ones after months of forced social distancing. These “pioneers” will find accommodations through local B&Bs for they do not perceive the hotel environment as safe and sanitary.
It may take years for travel to return to the 2019 level; perhaps lessons learned between then and now will make the next travel wave one that is “new and improved”.
© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.