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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated coronavirus risk guidelines earlier this month, saying the risk of viral spread from touching surfaces “in most situations” is low.

It would appear that heralds a call to change the litany of heightened hotel cleaning protocols introduced during the pandemic and which many industry analysts see more as hygiene theater than an effective practice. Workers were cleaning public spaces every hour, companies like Hilton teamed up with cleaning brands like Lysol, and guests were encouraged to check in from their smartphone and use a digital key instead of a physical one.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and many of these cleaning practices won’t be dismantled in one either, experts say.

“What we’re seeing is while people are starting to travel, occupancies are still low because there’s a huge swath of people who still don’t feel comfortable traveling,” said Dan Ryan, co-founder of hospitality health and safety platform Blue Canary. “Theater is important to a certain extent because it’s visible and helps those people feel comfortable, which is a big piece of the pie of travelers.”

U.S. hotels last week had their highest average occupancy rates (just shy of 60 percent) since the beginning of the pandemic, according to STR. But that’s still not where hoteliers want to be in the long-term, and operators aren’t going to pull back on cleaning strategies until there is a more stable demand outlook.

Marriott is reviewing the CDC’s new guidelines but has no “immediate” plans to change its cleaning protocols, a company spokesperson told Skift. Hyatt’s Global Care and Cleanliness Commitment will remain in place during the pandemic and after.

“We continue to place the health and safety of our guests and colleagues first and constantly review the latest guidance and information from agencies worldwide, including the Centers for Disease Control,” an IHG spokesperson said in a statement to Skift. “We have not announced any changes to policies or procedures as a result of this new CDC report, but continue to review and adjust our recommendations and guidance for hotels regularly.”

Hilton indicated adjustments, but not a complete abandonment, to its program are possible:

“Although we have nothing to announce today, we are discussing how to adapt CleanStay for the changing environment,” said Nigel Glennie, vice president of global corporate communications at Hilton. “As always, we’re paying close attention to the science and the feedback of our owners and guests.”

Slow to Change

Leisure travel demand currently dominates the recovery while corporate travel and conventions have yet to significantly return. Continuing to hype cleaning and safety initiatives may be key in wooing those travelers and event bookers back into reservations systems.

But that doesn’t mean changes to hotel cleaning protocols will never emerge.

“I don’t see anything changing immediately,” said Jeanne Varney, a Cornell University School of Hotel Administration lecturer. “But what will likely happen over time is that some things, like the the frequency of cleaning, will probably diminish.”

There is no need to clean a hotel lobby every hour if there is nobody there, so hourly cleanings may eventually push back to every other hour or even longer intervals.

A growing threat of not enough hotel workers to meet summer demand will also play a factor in rolling back some of the cleaning frequencies. There are only so many times a short-staffed hotel can clean a lobby when there are a litany of other tasks at hand.

“There is this labor crisis, so you’re going to have to really go back to what works well,” said Chris Wilkerson, another Blue Canary co-founder. “The best thing we could continue to see is an end to the theater and get back to what actually works.”

Deep cleanings that normally took place at night moved to daytime hours during the early months of the pandemic to show guests high-touch, public areas were tended to. Those kind of cleaning theatrics will likely go back to the night shift at some point.

“It’s going to come down to what each property thinks that their guests need to see,” Wilkerson said. “If they think they have a particularly neurotic group of individuals who love technology, they’ll keep using UV lights and [electrostatic] sprayers to clean because it makes their guests comfortable. Do I think those are products that will have any lasting legacy in the industry? Absolutely not. They’re going to go away after some length of time.”

A Not-So-Theatrical Legacy

There are some aspects of these new cleaning and safety protocols that are here to stay. The push to contactless features like mobile check-in and check-out as well as digital room keys may have been marketed as a safety feature, but it also addresses labor shortage issues from before the pandemic, Ryan said.

While some of the electrostatic sprayers and UV light cleaning techniques appear to be more pomp and circumstance than permanent, some of the more industrial cleaning materials and chemicals will likely integrate into long-term operations.

But theatrics have always been a part of both the hotel industry and other travel sectors. The scented air in a boutique hotel lobby is operational theater to set the mood for the guest experience.

Signs in bathrooms warning employees to wash their hands before returning to work are pre-pandemic hygiene theater. Housekeeping once put strips of paper across toilets to signal they had been cleaned — a precursor to clean room stickers placed on doors during the pandemic.

“Most of what they call the guest experience is theater,” Wilkerson said. “Each hotel will choose what they need to attract the customer they want.”

Photo Credit: Pandemic hygiene theater will slowly fade away rather than snap back to the way things were, according to hotel analysts. Phil Roeder / Flickr