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Robots in, buffets out: Asia hotels try socially distant hospitality

Safety trumps human touch as countries ease COVID rules and push staycations

A Pimalai Resort & Spa employee sanitizes doorknobs and other frequently touched spots. (Photo courtesy of Pimalai Resort & Spa)

SINGAPORE -- Decked in white and sporting a perfectly straight bow tie, Xiao Ya roams the hallways of Ascott serviced luxury residences in China, greeting guests and guiding them in the right direction.

Xiao Ya never asks for a tip. Money would not do a robot much good, after all.

The Singapore-headquarted Ascott has deployed the wheeled machines to reduce interactions between human staff and customers amid the coronavirus pandemic. This is just one example of how hospitality companies are adjusting as governments across Asia gradually ease restrictions and look to revive travel -- one of the sectors hit hardest by COVID-19.

One way or another, China, Singapore, Japan, Thailand and others are pushing domestic tourism as the ticket to an industry recovery. Some countries are gingerly reopening their borders as well. With the virus still lurking, however, it is anything but business as usual for hotels.

"Safe distancing in shared spaces and increased sanitation will be part of the new normal," said Alfred Ong, head of global operations at Ascott.

Establishments that pride themselves on "personal service" with a "human touch" are now forced to keep employees away from customers as much as possible, while also rethinking a host of other amenities guests used to take for granted.

"Old practices from the pre-pandemic hotel industry that can be done away with include buffets and open food in public, like a bowl of apples," said Tim Hentschel, chief executive of booking platform HotelPlanner. "Shaking hands with guests will also be a thing of the past."

Ascott properties in China employ Xiao Ya, a robot that guides guests in place of human staff.   © Ascott Limited

In Thailand -- where tourism accounted for nearly 10% of gross domestic product in 2018, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council -- checking into the five-star Pimalai Resort and Spa is now reminiscent of a production line. All visitors have their temperatures checked upon arrival and, at strategic entry points, three sterilization tunnels disinfect guests and luggage with automatic spray nozzles.

"The health and safety of our guests and staff is always our highest priority," said Patrice Landrein, general manager of the hotel, which is nestled in the island district of Koh Lanta.

The Thai government has approved stimulus packages worth 22.4 billion baht ($721.9 million) to boost domestic tourism, offering subsidies for airfares, hotels and food. At the same time, no one wants to undo the country's success at holding coronavirus infections to about 3,000, with 57 deaths.

"We are stepping up all our precautionary measures, in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the Thai authorities," Landrein said.

Owain Powell, digital marketing manager at UP Hotel Agency, which helps accommodations pitch themselves to visitors, said operators everywhere need to consider adjusting their hygiene protocols.

"Stickers and signs for appropriate social distancing will also have to be put in place," he said, adding that guests and staff should wear masks and temporary screens should be installed to protect employees.

Park Hotel Group, which manages properties in Asia-Pacific tourist destinations like Bali, Hong Kong, the Maldives and Singapore, is minimizing human contact by using online messaging -- even when guests are in its hotels.

At its Grand Park City Hall hotel in Singapore, guests can use a mobile app's chat function to send requests to staff round-the-clock. "While the delivery of amenities and in-room dining is contactless, our team will check in on the guests when the job request is completed to make sure that their needs are met, and that they feel well looked after," said Shin Hui Tan, executive director at the hotel operator.

Tourism is an important industry for the city-state, too, accounting for around 4% of GDP. Though tight border restrictions remain in place, the government in July started allowing certain hotels to accept local guests for staycations, after much of the economy was shut down for weeks to curb virus transmissions.

Genting Singapore's Hotel Michael, on Sentosa, puts TV remotes in zip-lock bags. (Photo by Dylan Loh)

Amara Group, which runs a resort on the holiday island of Sentosa in southern Singapore, told Nikkei it has increased the frequency of cleaning and employed enhanced sanitization measures. Like other hotels, it is also limiting human contact as much as possible, such as by encouraging credit card payments over cash.

"The Amara Group has invested a sizable amount over the past few months and will continue to invest to reassure guests that they will be staying in a safe yet pleasant environment during their travels," a company representative told Nikkei.

Also on Sentosa, Hotel Michael, run by gaming operator Genting Singapore at its Resorts World complex, has gone so far as to enclose guest rooms' TV remotes in zip-lock bags.

The dining experience is evolving as well. "Buffets have been modified to serve only a la carte buffet or with chef serving stations," said Neo Soon Hup, chief operating officer at Pan Pacific Hotels Group, which runs properties in Asian markets including Japan, Singapore, China and Vietnam. "In Chinese restaurants, shared dishes are now individually served and guests are discouraged from sharing serving spoons or cutlery on the table."

As painful as the pandemic has been for most travel-related companies, it is creating new business opportunities for some. GTRIIP, a startup that helps hotels implement digital check-in procedures using face verification software along with smartphone-based room keys, says it is receiving plenty of interest from new clients.

"Before the COVID-19 situation, we used to receive around three inquiries per week about our products," said founder Maxim Tint. "The current demand has at least tripled over the last two months. We receive an average of 10 inquiries per week."

A Pan Pacific Hotel housekeeper disinfects a guest room.   © Pan Pacific Hotel

For travelers seeking to get away from it all, the myriad precautions could actually increase anxiety rather than making them feel safe, warned Alan Christie, senior vice president at JLL Hotels and Hospitality. Nevertheless, he believes that it is better to err on the side of caution, and that the crisis could push the industry toward some positive innovations.

"Killing the traditional buffet, especially in resorts, will likely put pressure on operations to deliver other quality product and service options," Christie said. "Because of what we currently know about how COVID-19 can spread, it's advisable to follow safety guidelines."

Just about everyone agrees that the old ways of running hotels are ill-suited to the COVID-19 era. Technology could soon replace standard practices -- like physical check-ins -- altogether, reckons Terry King, regional director at security firm Guidepost Solutions.

Some things will not change, though, according to King.

"Making the guest feel comfortable, no matter the situation, is and will always be the aim of a hotel and its staff."

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