Coronavirus: Digital check-ins and lots of disinfecting as Singapore hotels gear up for new normal

A Marina Bay Sands staff member disinfecting room key cards. The hotel's senior vice-president of resort operations, Mr Paul Town, says that all key cards are sanitised before being reused. A Marina Bay Sands hotel staff member using electrostaticall
A Marina Bay Sands hotel staff member using electrostatically charged mist to disinfect the air and surfaces in a guest room. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
A Marina Bay Sands staff member disinfecting room key cards. The hotel's senior vice-president of resort operations, Mr Paul Town, says that all key cards are sanitised before being reused. A Marina Bay Sands hotel staff member using electrostaticall
Hotel NuVe Group director Lim Wei Siong says the real problem for the boutique chain will come after the circuit breaker, when the migrant workers staying in its six hotels return to their dormitories or home countries.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Offering hospitality with stepped up hygiene and safety steps means it won't be business as usual

Even as hotels grapple with some of the worst occupancy rates in history, they know it cannot be business as usual when they are allowed to reopen. Concerns over coronavirus transmission mean learning to deliver hospitality despite minimising contact between visitors and staff, with a heightened focus on hygiene.

"Post-pandemic visitor expectations of the 'new normal' - public health conditions, sanitisation and hygiene standards - across the tourism industry will be unlike anything we have experienced before," said Mr Paul Town, senior vice-president of resort operations at Marina Bay Sands. "At the hotel, this means sanitising all our key cards before they are reused, and using hospital-grade disinfectants to clean guest rooms, especially high-touch items such as TV remote controls and light switches."

It also means escalator handrails that self-sterilise, high-touch points with special coatings that kill the virus, and the use of ultraviolet light to sanitise meeting rooms. Guest rooms will be left empty for a day after a guest checks out, to allow thorough cleaning of surfaces and even the air. Other measures include limiting pool capacity and staggered check-in and check-out timings to prevent crowds. Linens will be washed at 70 deg C to kill viruses and bacteria.

Already, at Pan Pacific hotels, including those in Singapore, the temperature of every person who enters is taken, and masks are provided to all guests. Markings at lobbies and restaurants keep people apart.

Mr Arthur Kiong, chief executive of Far East Hospitality, said that beyond sanitisation of high-touch points and placing hand sanitiser throughout its hotels, it will even disinfect all pens used. He also believes that in the new normal, travellers will have lower tolerance for anti-social behaviour and appreciate establishments that ensure strict enforcement of rules and regulations.

But hotels, which had to stop receiving new guests when the circuit breaker started on April 7, are not expected to reopen any time soon after it ends on June 1.

Said Mr Keith Tan, chief executive of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB): "Tourism businesses that attract high human traffic and social interactions will likely reopen later. We will need to proceed cautiously, working closely with industry players to make sure that workplaces have appropriate safe management measures and practices in place before restarting."

He added that STB's current priority is to save jobs and help tourism enterprises prepare for the "new normal", including getting the new SG Clean certification, which sets rigorous audited standards of cleaning and sanitisation. As of April 29, 85 hotels - including hotels within the integrated resorts - have received the SG Clean mark. Certification work will resume after the circuit breaker.

Until then, hotels are doing what they can to fill their rooms by temporarily having their premises used as government quarantine facilities and lodging for foreign workers and nursing home staff.

 

March was one of the hotel industry's worst months on record, with occupancy at 38.3 per cent, down from 51 per cent in February and nearly 100 per cent just before Chinese New Year in January.

The fall in occupancy was first felt at hotels in Sentosa on Jan 25, two days after the Ministry of Health revealed that Singapore's first coronavirus case, a 66-year-old tourist from Wuhan travelling with nine companions, had stayed at Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa hotel.

Preliminary data for last month shows occupancy rising to 65 per cent. And in the first week of this month, it was trending above 70 per cent, according to global data and benchmarking firm STR.

NO RAPID RECOVERY

I don't think the tourism numbers are going to come back any time soon. You see that quite clearly in China - the first country to be in and out of this crisis. Effectively, it turned to domestic tourism. The fear of imported cases is still there.

OCBC BANK CHIEF ECONOMIST SELENA LING

A Ministry of National Development spokesman said about 80 hotels are being used for a variety of Covid-19-related purposes, including serving as swab isolation facilities, community recovery facilities, and stay-home-notice hotels.

However, STR area director Jesper Palmqvist said the latest numbers should not be seen as a sign of recovery when most of the occupancy is Covid-19-related, and revenue for each room is hovering around $100 or less.

Job cuts will be inevitable, said OCBC Bank chief economist Selena Ling. "I don't think the tourism numbers are going to come back any time soon. You see that quite clearly in China - the first country to be in and out of this crisis. Effectively, it turned to domestic tourism. The fear of imported cases is still there."

Last year, Singapore saw a record 19.11 million international visitor arrivals. The hotel industry sector hires about 35,000 people, according to recent figures.

Ms Kwee Wei-Lin, president of the Singapore Hotel Association (SHA), said: "It is premature to predict when international visitors will return to our hotels. SHA is hopeful that Singaporeans will be allowed to enjoy staycations at our lovely hotels once again at the earliest sign of recovery."

The future is more uncertain for smaller players who do not have deep pockets.

A Marina Bay Sands staff member disinfecting room key cards. The hotel's senior vice-president of resort operations, Mr Paul Town, says that all key cards are sanitised before being reused. A Marina Bay Sands hotel staff member using electrostaticall
A Marina Bay Sands staff member disinfecting room key cards. The hotel's senior vice-president of resort operations, Mr Paul Town, says that all key cards are sanitised before being reused. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Tourists who were once the mainstay of the 42-room Bliss Hotel in Chinatown have disappeared, save for a handful stuck in Singapore and trying to get a flight out, said its operations manager Donald Htut.

Its occupancy rate is down to just 40 per cent, half of its usual before the Covid-19 situation, he said, adding that the majority of occupants are Malaysians who are unable to return home.

 
 
 

A few of the rooms are also occupied by healthcare workers who Mr Htut understands have decided to stay away from their families to avoid spreading the virus.

"I believe all hotels across the island are facing the same issues," he said, adding that profits are close to zero and room prices slashed by half to about $50 for a room for two.

"Thankfully, we have not retrenched anyone, but who knows what will happen in June," he said, adding he is not optimistic that things will pick up in the next few months.

For the Hotel NuVe Group boutique chain, the experience of receiving families on holiday or staycations has come to a halt, said its director Lim Wei Siong.

Of the 230 beds across its six locations, about 70 per cent are occupied, but at around $70 for a room for two - half of its usual rates.

Most of the guests are workers from Malaysia, or Chinese or Bangladeshi workers who were living in dorms but have been temporarily put up at hotels by their employers to reduce their chances of getting infected by the coronavirus.

"I think the real problem will come after the circuit breaker, when these migrant workers head back to their dorms or when they return to Malaysia," said Mr Lim, adding that relying on domestic demand for staycations is not viable.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 17, 2020, with the headline 'Digital check-ins and lots of disinfecting as hotels gear up'. Print Edition | Subscribe