Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreaks, air quality has become top of mind for operators and guests alike. Budgets that were once earmarked for other operational improvements have now been shifted to air-quality improvement efforts.
“The first questions usually asked by our guests used to be — what time is the restaurant or pool open until,” says Thomas Jacob, vice-president, Operations for K2 Group, a privately held fully integrated company that strategically acquires, develops, constructs and re-positions hospitality and real-estate assets throughout Canada. “Now we get questions about cleanliness and whether we are following all health-and-safety measures. Any aspect around filtration and indoor air quality have been pushed forward on our agenda.”
For many, improving air quality is not about wholesale rip-and-replace projects. Rather, there are mitigating steps that can be taken — from simple upgrades to existing equipment to more sophisticated options — that are proving to be highly effective in meeting, and in some cases exceeding, regulatory guidelines.
“At our properties in Niagara Falls, the Ramada Fallsview and Travelodge Lundy’s Lane, which were amongst the few properties in the region that stayed open throughout the pandemic, we upgraded our in-room packaged terminal air conditioner (PTAC) units to more energy-efficient models and increased the filter-change rotations,” says Jacob. “We also switched to Camfil filters which block PM1 – particles <1 µm in size — i.e. dust, combustion particles, bacteria and viruses.”
He adds that K2 Group is continually looking at innovative technologies to improve operational efficiencies and guest experience. “It’s not about just doing the bare minimum. While filters significantly influence indoor air quality (IAQ), it’s increasingly important to choose the right filter and efficiency for the targeted particulate matter. We will spend the money to ensure we always have proper filtration and energy efficiency at our hotels. It’s not a small line item and has moved up the list in terms of checks and balances.”
These days, any efforts relating to air quality and energy efficiency are posted at the entrance check-in desk, says Jacob. “Two years ago, it wasn’t a thing. Now, it’s of utmost importance for guests to know they are staying in a safe and clean environment.”
There are some properties that are pushing the envelope to discover new and innovative ways to improve air quality without disrupting operations. The Holiday Inn Longueuil in Quebec, for example, agreed to being a beta-test site for an artificial-intelligence monitoring platform from BrainBox AI that provides a single control platform to oversee its entire HVAC system.
“With this project, we were able to automate air flow in public spaces and banquet rooms,” says general manager, Antonio D’Alesio. “We were able to automate the HVAC system using variables like weather, demand changes, pollutants and occupancy rates. A particular heating and cooling challenge was the giant atrium. “
The monitoring units were attached to the rooftop units, as well as thermostats in the lobby. “Eventually we would like to get the individual PTAC units online,” he says.
The project, which launched in 2018, has paid considerable dividends for the 141-room property once COVID-19 first appeared in Canada. Before COVID, the property used to recycle a significant amount of air to reduce the cost of heating or cooling outside air. “When we re-opened we made some adjustments to the algorithms to ensure a higher percentage of outside air.”
That includes the dampers that manage the amount of fresh air and removal of contaminated air, he explains. “The AI system constantly monitors in real time so we can see any inconsistencies, including whether a damper is malfunctioning. We can use it to foresee possible breakdowns and address them right away.”
Many industry observers have their eye on the Vogue Hotel Montréal, which is reported to be the first hotel property in North America to install Clear Inc.’s advanced air and water systems to reduce the risk of exposure to viruses, pathogens and bacteria. The project will become a benchmark for other Sageblan Investments properties in Canada and the U.S. in its efforts to re-instill confidence among travellers, says Gaurav Gupta, managing partner and president.
“We wanted to deploy the technology and services in a five-star asset first to better understand how it would be received by guests and the positive impact before rolling it out to our other current properties and any future assets. I’m happy to report we are getting a lot of positive feedback from guests,” he says.
The pharmaceutical-grade air-purification technology combines advanced filtration with bipolar ionization and UV-light technology to disinfect indoor air as well as monitor air quality, and requires no changes to existing systems.
The nine-storey Vogue Hotel has 20 air machines installed in the lobby, corridors, elevators and amenity rooms. The entire installation was completed within 48 hours. The wall-mounted air units disinfect airborne pathogens, bacteria and viruses, as well as provide 24/7 monitoring of a number of important air components. “There is no need to penetrate the existing duct systems,” says Gil D. Blutrich, founder and president of Clear Inc. and former president of Skyline Investments.
Real-time monitoring of air-quality vitals is displayed on a digital screen in the lobby area. “We’re not just telling guest it’s a healthy environment. They can see it for themselves,” says Blutrich.
“With guest expectations as high as they are these days, it’s important for the industry to instill confidence,” says Gaurav. “Transparency can go a long way with guests.”
Research bears that out. Beyond the environmental and health-and-safety benefits, air- and water-quality improvements also make good business sense. Blutrich cites a study by Ontario-based environmental consulting agency Savanta that provided insight into how much of a premium clientele would pay for clean air and water maintenance. “Guests are willing to pay a USD$9.50 premium per day per room, while the actual cost of the subscription-based system averages out to 30 to 40 cents per night per room.”
While the project may be relatively new, Gaurav notes that this is part of a growing trend, as many brands introduce their own protocols for cleanliness and air quality. “As we enter a new post-COVID [era], clean air and water will be standard in all properties. We want to be at the forefront of that.”
By Denise Deveau