Moving towards the front office, another distinct operating department of a hotel, many nostalgic memories cloud my thoughts. This was where I started my career during a period when quite a number of people would raise an eye brow hearing of a young lady working at the front office of a hotel. Somehow it seemed to be more acceptable to work in the kitchen as a cook than in housekeeping as a room attendant or at the front desk as a receptionist.
The front office was also where I was involuntarily ushered to work the night shift because my reliever did not show up. Those days, you were compelled to continue the shift! Cell phones did not exit! Today we have numerous options to transfer information from one person to another; by text, Skype, Zoom, social media post, digital app, or live media stream. How times have changed!
Indeed, the world is changing, and so is the global hospitality environment. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new safety culture is emerging, requiring social distancing even among hotel workforce and between them, management and guests; and it is this change that spurred this expedition.
The front desk is described in various ways; the hub of the hotel, the nerve center, the face of the hotel and even the eye of management! This is the place where guests form their first and last impressions of a hotel.
During this era of coronavirus consciousness, the hotels who have identified the front desk as a high-risk area have enclosed the previously opened front desk/counter with fiber glass. What else is new at this department? I have with me our Guest from one of the high rated hotels in the country and the Head of the Front Office department, to educate and satisfy our curiosity.
HOST: The front office usually sees the raw statistics and monetary figures of a hotel’s business operations; room occupancies, no–shows, and inflows from revenue centers e.t.c when it closes the day’s business. What were your initial thoughts seeing a nose dive of business activities in your hotel during the pandemic?
GUEST: It was difficult to comprehend initially as we had good forecast for the next 3months. We were preparing for a group that was supposed to arrive when we got the call that the group was cancelling due to travel restrictions. Numbers dwindled each day and there was a feeling of frustration all over.
HOST: That must have been difficult. Generally, hotels have not quite returned to normal business. In our expedition we want to keep in step with them. The departments we have visited so far are adjusting themselves and incorporating new ways of carrying out their responsibilities.
Change may sound easy, but I know it requires lots of planning and determination. We are just coming from the housekeeping department and I must say, there’s quite a lot going on there. What would front office be considering as new normal practices?
GUEST: The front of house is ‘key’ to any guest experience as a result of numerous interactions that take place constantly, however the pandemic has made us rethink how we do business.
HOST: Perhaps you can start us from the beginning of the guest cycle activities?
GUEST: When a reservation is confirmed, a pre-arrival email is sent to the guest outlining the Covid-19 protocols and measures the hotel has taken to curb the spread. The guest is also informed about new cleaning guidelines introduced i.e. receiving service every 3 days.
We allocate the rooms and block them 24 hours prior to guests’ arrival. A “Make Ready Team” is in place to inspect and ensure all guidelines have been followed to make the rooms available for sales.
HOST: That’s interesting. Would you mind telling us who the ‘Make Ready Team’ includes?
GUEST: The ‘Make ready team’ is made up of the housekeeping supervisor on duty, engineering supervisor on duty and the rooms controller.
HOST: How different are your rooms looking now compared to before the coronavirus pandemic?
GUEST: The rooms are not different from pre-covid. We have always had sanitizers in our rooms. We have however added alcohol wipes and face masks.
HOST: Is the front office responsible for the movement of the hotel’s Airport shuttle? How are the protocols being carried out there too?
GUEST: The Airport shuttle is disinfected after every trip. The maximum number the bus is allowed to transport at time is 5 people. It used to be 15.
HOST: We often associate multitasking with our smaller hotels. I observed that multitasking was embraced by the bigger hotels during the pandemic. Has it come to stay in front office operations? If it has, do explain it.
GUEST: It has become necessary to multitask since there have been a number of job cuts. Front desk agents responsible for check ins and check outs have also had to take up other roles such as guest relations, at your service (switchboard operator) etc. Door men double as concierge and bellmen.
This is possible because occupancy is still quite low and they can afford to play these roles without affecting guest experience. In the event that occupancy goes back to normal, we will still have a versatile team in place.
HOST: So how do you proceed when guests arrive?
GUEST: Before entry, (to the lobby) guests have their temperatures taken and are asked to use the sanitizer stationed upfront. They proceed to the front desk for their check in.
The front desk has a new protective shield that protects both the guest and the associate. Sanitizers are also positioned on every desk.
HOST: Yes, I have observed that COVID-19 has forced hotels to make changes in line with the physical distancing requirements which may make communication more difficult. Several properties have installed plexiglass windows at the front desk to separate employees and guests. Most employees, as well as guests, are wearing masks that obscure the mouth and muffle speaking voices. Are these communication challenges real?
GUEST: Most definitely true! Communicating now is difficult as compared to pre covid. With the face mask and social distancing protocols it is almost impossible to have a simple conversation. Hearing each other is very difficult. Sometimes one must speak loudly and risk being heard by a third party.
HOST: A pen is a very small tool. A lot of people can be careless with them. I see a whole accessory to hold used and sanitized pens. The front desk cannot be careless with pens then?
GUEST: In regards to use of pens, we make sure guests go according to the signs in order to keep everyone safe. From the picture, you notice used and unused are wide apart.
HOST: If we are being so careful with pens, how about guestroom keys? What is new?
GUEST: Marriott globally has launched a new key system known as the mobile key.
This is where guests use their mobile phones as ‘keys’ to their rooms. Guests are encouraged to get the Marriott ‘bonvoy’ application on their phone for this to work. This eliminates the use of keycards.
However, guests who do not choose this option are given the traditional keycards. Every keycard is sanitized before given to another guest.
HOST: Another area of concern must then be modes of payments. Should we see hotels strictly operating a cashless system?
GUEST: With payments, guests who have cards that have the touch-less technology use the touch less POS devices.
HOST: Social distancing is a new norm but there is the tendency for it to escape guests now that restrictions have been relaxed. What are your observations about guests?
GUEST: For social distancing, stickers have been placed on the floor to show where each guest should stand.
HOST: Do you foresee the front office being operated remotely?
GUEST: That is a possibility because face to face communication is now at a minimum. However, I think face to face interaction is important in this industry. That human touch and recognition is essential to every guest experience. Processes can be handled remotely but guests prefer a human face when it comes to complaints and issues.
HOST: Great! Once again thanks a lot.