By Amy Bostock
TORONTO — After a two-year hiatus due to the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, attendees gathered at The Chelsea Hotel Toronto last week for Hotelier magazine’s annual Housekeeping Forum. The full-day conference highlighted the pivotal and ever-important housekeeping department through panel discussions covering how hotels are adapting new cleaning technology; what’s new in the area of product development to keep hotels clean and safe; how cleaning technology benefits guests and employees alike; and how labour shortages are changing the face of housekeeping.
“For many years, the housekeeping department was viewed as a silent partner in the success of the hotel industry, not because it wasn’t important, but because of operating in the background and efficiently going about its duties without being seen,” said Rosanna Caira, editor/publisher of Hotelier magazine to kick off the program. “But as we’ve seen over the last two years, the housekeeping department is no longer operating in the background, but rather it’s front and centre and often very visible.”
The opening panel, moderated by Caira, brought together four hotel general managers to discuss the changes made to their housekeeping departments to address the post-pandemic hotel landscape. Titled Re-vitalizing the Housekeeping Department Amidst Today’s Challenges: The GM Perspective, panellists included Tim Reardon, GM of The Sheraton Centre Hotel; Patrick Pollak, GM, Four Seasons Toronto; Robert Housez, GM, The Chelsea Hotel Toronto; and Alexi Hakim, GM, The InterContinental Toronto.
The leaders began by sharing their stories of how operations have changed over the last two years of running their hotels during a pandemic.
“The past couple of years have really affected the industry in general, but specifically speaking about housekeeping, it has totally changed the dynamics of how we operate,” said Pollak. “Our team has had to be agile to respond [to these challenges]. Currently, the biggest challenge is how do we re-build the team? How do we keep the team motivated? How do we keep the team believing that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel?”
For Hakim, whose hotel is situated right next to the Metro Convention Centre in Toronto, the pandemic was very challenging from a business point of view as COVID caused the events segment to come to a grinding halt.
“[When COVID hit,] we felt like we were living in maximum security prison,” he recalled. “To enter the hotel, guests and employees had to answer a questionnaire, wear a mask, have their temperature taken and there were Plexiglas barriers all over the place — it was not pleasant. For housekeeping, we immediately had to determine what we needed to do internally to ensure the safety and security of our guests — and our housekeeping department went above and beyond the requirements.”
Thinking back to before the pandemic happened, Reardon said, “no one could ever have imagined what was about to happen. For a long time, we operated in this environment where we didn’t know what was going to happen, information came quickly and requirements changed all the time. So, it really forced us to be agile, because the safety of our associates, especially housekeeping who had so much contact with our customers in the rooms, was important. We needed to make sure we were doing the right things, and listening to the science.”
Housez, who helms Canada’s largest hotel, actually started his hospitality career in housekeeping and has a “soft spot for this department,” he said. “I appreciate how critical this department is to the success of a hotel operation.”
Housez said the impact of the pandemic on his hotel was devastating, as he watched business drop from record highs in 2019 to almost non-existent.
“But we’re fortunate,” he added. “The majority of our housekeepers have worked here a long time — some from almost day-1. And while we lost a couple to retirement, and there were a couple that might have been reluctant to come back initially, the majority, were ready to come back when we were ready for them.”
The Theatre of Clean
The second panel of the day, The Theatre of Cleaning, offered a supplier’s perspective of the impacts of COVID-19 on hotel housekeeping departments.
Panellists included Adam Mogelonsky, consultant, The Hotel Mogel; Kevin Smith, GM of Life & Device Solutions Division and Visual Solutions, Panasonic Canada; Shannon Hall, vice-president, Sales & Distribution for Dustbane Products Limited; Andrew Rees, corporate account manager, Facility Care, Ecolab; and Rishi Mistry, principal consultant & president, Elevate Technology Consulting Ltd.
Moderated by Hotelier’s managing editor, Amy Bostock, the five panellists discussed the supplier’s role over the past two years in helping operators make their hotels safe for guests, while keeping their housekeeping staff safe and increasing revenue through efficiencies.
“The whole idea of theater is that it’s production,” said Mogelonsky. “So, from the guest perspective, whatever is going on behind in the back of house, they don’t know or care. They’re focused on just having a good time or going off to a conference.”
He said something as simple as two-way texting with the hotel can make a huge difference to a guest’s comfort level and overall experience. “The second the room is cleaned, you have an automated message that says your room has been cleaned and is ready and serviced according to XYZ standards for cleaning and sanitization. Just something so simple as that is the delivery of peace of mind. You don’t need to have a full list of your cleaning standards on the website — they’re not going to read that. All they care about is that the hotel has a standard and that you’re looking out for their best interests.”
“The last three years was definitely a roller coaster,” said Rees. “Many would think, ‘oh, that chemical provider, they must have been skyrocketing in profit.’ But I have to tell you, in our industry, we’re as busy as our customers — and our customers are all hospitality and healthcare. So, we had to re-examine — on top of meeting the product demand that has gone up times 60 overnight — how we can additionally support them with ensuring that those who were still travelling and staying in hotels can do so in a safe way?”
The panellists all agreed that guests are now looking beyond just whether the room is clean, they want assurance and understanding of what heightened procedures are being used to also disinfect the rooms and public spaces.
For Mistry, that meant his company had to pivot and “shift [their] thinking for solutions,” adding his team looked at alternate ways to use their thermal cameras to help make properties safer. “[It was about] finding solutions, finding different systems and tactics to presents to hotels because they, my clients, are not coming to me and saying, ‘Hey, so how do I mitigate the risk? How do I solve quarantine floors, quarantine rooms?’ Finding solutions for them kind of helped me get through the last few years.”
Supply-chain challenges were another hot topic, as all the panellists shared stories of two-week turnarounds for products stretching into six- to eight-week turnarounds, if they could get product at all.
“It’s been a real challenge,” said Hall. “What we started to see was things that you wouldn’t anticipate — shortage of trigger sprayers for bottles or, all of a sudden, you couldn’t get any bottles. You couldn’t get containers; all of us that manufacture chemicals have a chemical, but we couldn’t get substrate to be able to serve our customers. It was an experience that I don’t think anybody ever wishes to go through again. But we’re still seeing some of those supply-chain shortages today.”
She said an unexpected challenge was that with the advancement of technology, smart chips and chargers are some of the shortages that were seen. “So, products and equipment that may be less technical, in some ways, can be to your advantage at this time.”
According to Smith, the biggest challenge — and one that’s yet to fully work its way through the business — is the cost of moving goods.
“We think we’ve got inflation now,” he said. “It would be much, much worse if suppliers, in large part, had not absorbed some of the costs involved. Three years ago, I was paying USD$4,500 for shipping containers to ship product from Asia. Today, I’m bidding at USD $17,000 to USD$20,000 for those containers. And for the most part, what I see is suppliers eating that at this point and cutting into the margins. If not, we wouldn’t be looking at nine per cent inflation, we’d be looking at 15 to 20 per cent inflation as a result of that.”
For additional coverage of the Housekeeping Forum, be sure to read the June 27 issue of Hospitality Headlines.