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Optional coronavirus tests are another layer to Marriott's approach to combatting the threat of the virus. But testing is not a standalone solution to getting back to pre-pandemic performance levels.

The hotel sector is the latest within the travel industry to offer coronavirus tests as a way to boost confidence with business travelers and jumpstart the moribund meetings sector.

Marriott plans to roll out optional coronavirus tests in January as part of its group meetings and events division, the company announced Thursday. The protocols include self-administered tests the guest could take prior to arrival or a coronavirus test administered by a third-party provider at the hotel.

These latest health measures, similar to what some airlines offer on business traveler-heavy international routes, are part of Marriott’s Connect with Confidence program that offers heightened health and hygiene practices around the meetings and events sector.

“Building upon the work of our Global Cleanliness Council, we engaged industry-leading experts and through a thorough review process, identified third party providers capable of offering the health protocols that meeting professionals want and need for future events,” said Tammy Routh, senior vice president of Marriott’s global sales organization, in a statement.

The types of optional testing offered will range from 15-minute rapid antigen tests to PCR tests — deemed the “gold standard” in coronavirus testing — that take between 24 and 48 hours for results.

Marriott’s Gaylord Hotels and Resorts convention hotel brand will be the first to offer the coronavirus tests in January at properties in Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and Colorado. The health measure will eventually be available at all Marriott brands that wish to participate.

“Meeting professionals tell us they want to return to meeting in person,” said Julius Robinson, Marriott’s chief sales and marketing officer for the U.S. and Canada. “With that in mind, we continue to develop initiatives to give planners and attendees confidence to meet face to face.”

Optional daily temperature checks at the entrance to an event area as well as pre-arrival health screening questions via a dedicated mobile app are also included in this latest initiative aimed at group meetings and events.

The program works as a complement to Marriott’s Commitment to Clean initiative launched earlier this year in response to the pandemic. While heightened health and safety programs like Commitment to Clean are aimed at restoring hotel guest confidence and getting travelers back into hotel rooms, Marriott has a good reason at focusing specifically on the group meetings and events business.

Group business travel accounts for nearly a third of all room revenue at luxury and upper upscale U.S. hotels, according to McKinsey & Co. The sector also accounted for 51 percent of room nights at convention hotels and 40 percent at resort hotels in 2019, according to CBRE. Group business travel generally hovered between 22 and 24 percent of overall U.S. hotel occupancy between 2012 and 2019, according to STR.

While the group meetings and events sector tanked during the pandemic, there are signs it is set for a rebound in 2021 — especially once a vaccine is in widespread distribution. Nearly 90 percent of respondents in a Global Business Travel Association survey released Thursday said they expect to attend an in-person meeting or one with attendees outside their company by the third quarter of next year.

But airlines offering coronavirus testing and verification programs garnered criticism earlier this year at Skift Aviation Forum from virologists, who labeled the practice as “hygiene theater” rather than an effective solution. Someone could theoretically take a coronavirus test but contract the virus between then and arriving for a flight.

“Diagnostic testing is not meant for this,” Dr. Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease specialist at George Mason University, told Skift. “Testing is not a strategy.”

But Marriott defends its practice as one of several measures in place to drive a comprehensive approach to combatting the virus — a strategy Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson previously labeled the “Swiss cheese method.

“Put it all together, it makes a substantive difference in safety, a provably reduced risk of the spread of the virus, and collectively engaged in a theater that tells us or reminds us all to be careful,” Sorenson said at Skift Global Forum earlier this year. “By being careful, we’ve further reduced the real risk associated with it.”

Company leaders also note they worked with experts on crafting a health and safety solution rather than something critics may see as cleaning and health theatrics.

“We have worked with experts in food safety, public health, hygiene and infection prevention to come up with solutions that are effective to maintaining high quality cleanliness standards,” Robinson said. “At the same time, we recognize the needs of our guests and understand what practices give them confidence to return and meet in our hotels. We believe that both are vital to connect with confidence.”

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Tags: coronavirus, coronavirus recovery, marriott

Photo credit: Marriott plans to roll out optional coronavirus tests as a component to its heightened health and safety protocols with meetings and events at select hotels (pictured: a socially-distanced meeting at the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner). Marriott International

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