… and five solutions to help improve trust and win back travelers
The hotel sector continues to hope and pray for a vaccine or effective treatment for the COVID-19 pandemic that has devastated an industry. As states began to lift lockdowns several months ago, it was everyone’s wish that, by summer, the crisis would have simmered down, and people would get back to the business of traveling. Instead, we continue to see a rising number of cases with no clear end in sight. While consumers are eagerly planning trips for 2021, there are no sure bets these days.
There have been a plethora of studies examining consumer travel intentions, yet, there have been relatively few that have looked at a critical factor in the decision to travel: consumer trust. While trust is partially based on one’s previous experience, it is an emotional response based on the natural drive to defend oneself. If someone does not believe something is safe, it takes much more than words or persuasive arguments to convince them otherwise.
The hotel industry, like other industries, has undertaken a great deal of thought and effort to assure guests they will be safe upon their re-opening. For example, the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) has advanced industry guidelines for keeping hotel guests safe with their Safe Stay practices, which were developed in accordance with guidance issued by public health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and has been endorsed all major U.S. hotel brands, travel & hospitality associations, along with individual hospitality associations from all 50 states.
The major brands have made significant investments to implement upgraded health and safety protocols called for in the Safe Stay guidelines. They have aggressively marketed the steps they have taken to assure prospective guests that they are safe when they stay at their properties. What has been the result of all the efforts that have been taken? Have travelers been reassured to the point where they can put complete trust in the hotel brands to keep them safe?
Efforts to Drive Trust, Thus Far, Have Not Been Working
Magid has conducted two waves of a consumer study tracking travel attitudes and intentions, surveying 1000 U.S. residents over the age of 18 in each wave. One of the areas this study addressed was the amount of trust travelers have in the various travel industries to keep them healthy and safe. The first wave of the study was conducted April 7-April 10, 2020. At that time, 42% indicated they had either a ‘good amount’ or ‘complete’ trust in hotels to ensure their health and safety. On April 27, 2020, AHLA launched its Safe Stay guidelines designed to keep guests COVID-free. The second wave of this tracking study was conducted from June 2nd-June 6th.The results showed traveler trust in hotels was virtually unchanged, with 41% indicating either a ‘good amount’ or ‘complete’ trust.
While this is obviously disappointing news for hotel brands, the news was worse in other sectors where trust went down significantly from Wave 1 to Wave 2. For example, airports declined from 38% to 32%; coffee shops dropped from 47% to 42%; museums from 48% to 41%; and restaurant/bars from 47% to 40%. Out of 19 sectors Magid evaluated during both waves, 13 showed significant declines or, at best, showed no change from the previous wave. Despite the many efforts made to reassure safety, there was not one travel, hospitality, or leisure vertical where trust improved.
Why Aren’t Efforts to Improve Trust Working?
When asked about why they have either high or low trust in hotels, the survey respondents gave answers that can be boiled down to three primary categories.
1. Travelers Do Not Trust Hotels to Keep Them Safe
Despite the upgrades in health and safety protocols, only 43% trust that hotels are sanitized and disinfected between guests. This number is exactly the same as in April prior to the AHLA Safe Stay standards being launched. There is also concern that hotels will not follow through and enforce the necessary protocols. For example, over half (53%) do not trust hotels to enforce social distancing. As differences of opinion exist regarding things like mandatory mask wearing, it is likely that hotel owners and operators will not consistently enforce these types of policies. The data, however, suggest most hotel guests would prefer greater enforcement of health and safety protocols, rather than less.
2. Travelers Believe Hotels are a Petri Dish for COVID-19
In April, two-thirds (66%) believed that COVID-19 was ‘easily spread’ in hotels. In July, the percentage dropped to 55%, which is a significant improvement, but still a very high number. Interestingly, fewer people believed COVID-19 was easily spread in vacation rentals. Forty-two percent (42%) believed vacation rentals were a breeding ground for the virus, down from 55% in April.
3. People Do Not Trust Their Fellow Travelers
A primary reason why there is greater trust in vacation rentals is because there is limited interaction with people outside of one’s immediate traveling party. Even if hotels can stick to their own safety protocols, there is skepticism they can control the behavior of others who stay at the hotel during the same period. Two-thirds (62%) do not trust others to properly wear a mask when in common areas of the hotel. Fifty-eight percent (58%) feel ‘worried’ by the number of people who stay in hotels and resorts.
How Can Trust Be Improved?
Until a vaccine can be developed, hotels will work hard to persuade travelers their properties are safe places to stay. As is typical, perceptions will be more important than the actual reality. Here are some necessary steps that will help.
1. Seeing is Believing
People are much more convinced by what they see than by what they hear. The messaging around upgraded health and safety protocols has not, up to this point, resonated. Travelers get a daily dose of alarming news about the rise in COVID cases in the United States. To alleviate the resulting fears, hotels must be extremely visible and constant in their cleaning efforts. There has been some discussion regarding the ‘theatrics of cleaning’, described as maintaining constant visibility of cleaning procedures. Even if it seems like overkill, more is better.
2. Guests Want Stringent Enforcement of the Health and Safety Protocols
More is better in another sense as well. While some consumers want personal freedom and choice as to whether to wear masks in public places, Magid research shows that the majority want the hotels to strictly enforce health and safety protocols. If a hotel owner or operator is wondering whether guests should be required to wear masks and practice social distancing, Magid’s research shows the business answer is clearly affirmative.
3. The ‘Smell of Clean’
Our research indicates people find the ‘smell of clean’ to be reassuring. Guest room smell has been frequently identified as a key driver of guest room satisfaction. In the past, the smell of strong cleansing agents has frequently been off-putting to guests. This, however, may be changing, as it suggests the room has been thoroughly cleaned.
4. Guest Communication is Critical
Unlike mass campaigns, one-on-one pre-communications can help provide assurances. Informing travelers the hotel has strict policies around health and safety protocols prior to arrival warns guests that the hotel is serious. Telling guests they will be subjected to temperature checks and forewarned they will be asked to leave if they are ailing will cause travelers to re-think their travel plans if they are feeling ill. Of course, it will be necessary to have flexible cancellation policies to extend consideration to guests who would rather be safe than sorry.
5. Utilize Social Media to Spread the Word
Travelers frequently post their travel experiences to social media. Perhaps hotels can encourage, or even incent through loyalty points, guests to post positive messages and images of the hotel’s efforts to keep them safe and healthy. Given that cleanliness is so important, asking loyal guests to reinforce messages of hotel hygiene on review sites is the best way to encourage others that it is safe to give the hotel a try.
Some hotel executives continue to express optimism that trust will grow over time and experience. However, fear is a powerful emotion to overcome. In other recent recessionary periods such as after 9-11 and the economic collapse of 2008-09, there was no concern that you could get sick and possibly die from a hotel stay.
Combined with the unfortunate fact the U.S. still does not seem to have the virus under control, hotels will need to work harder than ever before to convince consumers that they can travel without reservation or concern. The key message will continue to be ‘more is better’ when it comes to alleviating concerns, at least for the foreseeable future.