While housekeeping staff used to do their jobs discreetly, since COVID their role has assumed utmost importance as travelers look for properties which prioritize cleanliness and are scrubbed clean.
Hoteliers have been investing in personal protective equipment, upgraded cleaning techniques and disinfecting infrastructure, and many of these new methods include adopting latest technology to ensure every corner is clean and disinfected. As the hotel industry copes with the ongoing labor crisis, these new techniques offer hoteliers an opportunity to get the work done with minimal workforce and maximum efficiency.
While major hotel brands refused to participate in this story about how technology can aid the housekeeping challenge, several suppliers were willing to share their thoughts.
Vacuum cleaning robots are a common sight in many hotels and are generally seen as a quick fix to get large surfaces clean. However, these tiny machines are best suited for simpler, repetitive tasks and to some extent, guest satisfaction, said David Grossman, president of Renue Systems. Robots need to improve and evolve a lot more before they can be used for daily housekeeping and nightly janitorial work, he added.
Although they utilize less electricity, cleaning robots can be ineffective to hoteliers and can’t compensate for human intelligence in the cleaning procedure, said Albert Sledge, sales and business development manager, Visual Matrix. “Robots fail to detect stains on a carpet, whereas humans can, and robots are unable to reach tight corners. Robots are also unable to provide detailer, deep cleaning of a surface,” Sledge said.
While robots fill in gaps as the industry deals with the labor crisis, the best way to manage is to automate jobs that can be automated and focus staff on jobs that require critical thought and hospitality, said Mark Heymann, CEO, UniFocus, which has software for automatic shift scheduling and focuses on optimizing staffing needs. Housekeepers can feed in information about their availability and shift preference, helping head housekeepers jump in and assist in room turnovers.
Renue offers electrostatic disinfection, which involves spraying electrostatically charged mist and then allowing for the chemical to disinfect the targeted surface. “Relative to a low-tech fogger it is quick and more effective since it reaches the entire surface including the sides not visible,” Grossman said.
Some hotels have also installed UV-C lights to disinfect high-contact items. While these lights are highly effective in locating contaminated surfaces, it is not a very pocket-friendly option. “UV-C lights are very expensive making the economic case difficult. As they come down in price, they could be a viable option,” said Sledge, whose company has a tool to help eliminate confusion and deal with wasted labor as well as modules like integrates texting, Alexa integration and an employee safety device.
Deep, restorative cleaning is required for disinfecting surfaces, as opposed to daily housekeeping, with the frequency ranging from yearly to quarterly.
“Our cleaning has been particularly needed since the pandemic recovery began due to hotels’ labor shortages and guests’ increased desire for clean properties,” Grossman added. “For many years now, we have offered disinfecting services, but there was very little interest before COVID.”
Grossman felt this reluctance was largely due to the fact that as opposed to all other services where there is a very visible difference before and after the job, that there is nothing visible in disinfecting. “Since this pandemic began, we have received some interest in disinfecting, but still very little,” he added.
Renue and other providers have been offering cleaning solutions to hotels to address areas and needs like carpets, tile and grout, drapes, furniture, marble/natural stone, concrete and kitchens. “We have measured our productivity versus in-house staff and can clean at least three to five times as many rooms per day, lowering the labor cost per room and allowing for hotels to utilize them more quickly,” Grossman said.
The ROI on Renue’s cleaning methods is derived from increased guest scores, boosted RevPAR (through both rates and occupancy) and deferred capital expenditures.
For Heymann at UniFocus, ROI is a two-fold issue. “The first issue focuses on increasing the productivity of existing staff,” he said. “As the industry stands right now, overstaffing is not a concern, so our focus is on maximizing the productivity of our existing staff. The second ROI is the balancing of productivity with guest expectations. Our systems have the ability to survey guest experiences and examine the scores to determine ‘the right amount of service’ to ensure that guest experiences and value expectations are being met or exceeded. This, in turn, can lead to repeat guests and returning business.”
Persistent staffing crisis
The biggest challenge in housekeeping is the severe staff shortage and lack of experienced employees. Rooms are often not as clean as they are supposed to be due to the lack of housekeeping staff, which in turn impacts hotel sales. The significant shortage of employees has carried over in 2022.
Last-minute bookings can prove to be difficult in understaffed properties and it can be challenging for hotels to have staff simultaneously supervise critical ongoing line functions like the front desk and housekeeping. In fact, some hotels have been forced to turn guests away as they lack staff members to operate at full capacity.
“The hotel industry is desperately seeking to minimize their human resource needs. Tactics range from automated check-in to grab-and-go limited meal service to reduced frequency of housekeeping. Some of these developments likely will remain even when labor supply recovers,” Grossman said.
Suggesting that hoteliers and companies need to adopt an “employer-first” mindset, Heymann said even increasing wages has not been enough to retain employees.
“Employees value schedule flexibility and a work-life balance. Even with improved employee attraction and retention measures, guest expectations are difficult to meet. This requires hoteliers to get creative with staff productivity to meet guest satisfaction goals while managing staff burn out,” he added.
Future of housekeeping
With the persistent labor crunch at hotels, will housekeeping become an opt-in service at hotels? Although travelers have become accustomed to hotels not providing daily cleaning services, there seems to be emerging a 60:40 ratio between those wanting the service and those who don’t, Sledge said. “Because of staffing issues, hoteliers are finding creative ways to reduce the amount of stayover cleaning they perform on a daily basis. From offering points in lieu of providing housekeeping services to only providing stayover cleaning only upon request.”
Housekeeping will become opt-in for many brands, although compulsory cleaning will be done every three to five days, Grossman suggested. “Some of the higher-end properties will continue with daily housekeeping. Many guests prefer less frequent housekeeping, so assuming this desire continues, less than daily service will remain. One caveat is that leisure guests tend to cause greater wear and tear than business travelers. So, some hotel managers want at least to inspect rooms frequently to minimize any major guest room damage.”
Eventually, housekeeping will have lower room quotas, offer higher wages and attendants will spend more time per room, Grossman says, adding that while housekeeping was mostly a behind-the-scenes act, it will now become intentionally more visible.