Hotels in Spain reopen with new Covid-19 measures – but no guests

Half of Spain has advanced to phase one of a four-phase plan to ease lockdown restrictions by July. Hoteliers can open their properties – though none of the common areas – and bars and restaurants can open a limited amount of outdoor seating. Although Madrid, Málaga, Granada, Barcelona and parts of Valencia are among the provinces and municipalities not yet cleared to advance.

Tourism is Spain’s third largest contributor to the economy, making up 11% of its GDP, and there is pressure to get hotels to reopen, despite the fact that until July no one will be allowed to travel between provinces. And until borders reopen, airlines start flying and the 14-day quarantine is lifted, there will be no foreign tourists.

In the meantime, to ensure health security and help restore confidence, government health-and-safety guidelines have been drawn up for every sector of the tourism industry. For hotels, this means vigorous cleaning and disinfection multiple times a day by staff wearing PPE, as well as changes to the guest experience, such as a ban on buffets.

“We’ll change all hotel services to ensure minimum contact,” said Manuel Vegas of the Spanish Association of Hotel Directors (AEDH). “Kitchens will be transformed to reduce handling and we’ll be demanding maximum guarantees from service providers. It is a radical change.”

Many hotels are installing screens between tables in their dining rooms, and introducing staggered dining hours and room service deliveries by staff in masks and gloves. Rooms are more wipe-down, with coffee makers, extra bedding and decoration removed. The government protocol also suggests removing carpets and minibars. And when common areas such as pools and gyms can be reopened, strict social distancing and disinfecting regimes will be in place.

Credit-card payment is being promoted in hotels and bars, and contactless technology is coming faster than anticipated. Until the lockdown, AEDH had been running a hotel digitalisation project, providing tools and expertise, said Vegas: “Planning apps to generate a welcome the moment you arrive at the hotel, to create a virtual key, for the lift to take you to the right floor without having to touch a button, to place orders in the restaurant and bar without contact with a waiter. We had been anticipating the crisis without knowing it.” This innovation needs to continue he said, to free up more staff to act as hosts to meet and greet guests.

Guests will be welcomed with a “safe smile” from receptionists (albeit from behind a screen) at Room Mate Hotels. “After so much time in confinement, we need that warmth. We are needy,” said the group’s founder, Kike Sarasola. Screens will be widespread – and the brand will ensure they look stylish. “We have designers competing to design the best screen and the public can vote on them,” said Sarasola, adding that hotels will offset the strict rules in common areas with personalised touches in the bedrooms, making “guests feel like kings” with personalised notes and messages. Room Mate has gained extensive practice of working with safety protocols, having made 13 staffed hotels available free of charge to healthcare workers and the elderly from the start of the crisis.

Whether guests will “feel like kings” or feel a little uncomfortable in an environment of screens, masks and none of the usual interaction, is another question.

“[Who wants to] go to a hotel and not be allowed to enjoy the swimming pool or the common spaces? To finally be free, after quarantine, and spend money to go and be confined in a hotel room?” said José Luis Zoreda, executive vice-president of non-profit group Exceltur (Alliance for Excellency in Tourism).

Post-Covid, seaside resorts and beaches will be very different. Senator Hotels and Resorts, a major presence on Spain’s Costas, plans to ensure physical contact is avoided in its kids clubs, and will monitor the spaces between loungers and disinfect them after use. The usual summer crowds of up to 40,000 will certainly not be gathering on the beaches of Benidorm this year; the most popular beaches are being divided into plots in order to manage social distancing, and access will be controlled by using QR codes for booking a patch (as in Valencia) and AI and sensors for monitoring (as they hope to do in Vélez, Málaga).

Those booking hotels can expect bargains but not a fire sale. Acknowledging that “many families will be in a situation that’s not good”, MP Hotels has two-for-one offers and free accommodation for children. The majority of hotels are offering no payment upfront deals and free cancellation policies.

“We’re aware that 2019 prices can’t be maintained, and we have to promote prices that are attractive, but we are promoting dynamic pricing not offers,” said Vegas. The industry is keen to avoid a potentially ruinous price war.

“I’m completely against it,” said Sarasola. “We should raise quality and service instead. This is the time for solidarity, to help small and medium hotels survive the summer.”

Smaller hotels may do better than most, especially those in the uncrowded natural locations 87% of Spanish people say they plan to holiday in post-lockdown. “They can offer more personalised attention,” said Vegas. “Those that will suffer most from the lack of international tourists are the biggest hotels in the top destinations, dependent on tour operators.”

Due to the uncertainty (and adding to it), it is estimated that around a third of hotels will not reopen this summer, or until there is the demand. Costa del Sol hotels are currently anticipating 30% occupancy. The holiday hotels that do open, said Vegas, will try to extend the season and, instead of closing in September as usual, will continue to November.” Hope also rests with the Canary Islands where the peak season starts in November and runs through the winter.

Spain has adopted health-and-security protocols that are among the strictest in the world, including antibody tests for all workers in the hospitality industry in the Canary Islands. They now need to ensure that when tourists eventually come, they don’t bring the risk of infection. The hotel chain Riu is among many of the major groups to introduce temperature control at the hotel entrance, while VP Plaza España Design in Madrid is even introducing rapid tests for arriving guests, who then must wear masks and gloves in common areas.

What’s needed, said Vegas “is confidence in the measures adopted, confidence in the protocols, confidence in the future … and then planes full of healthy guests.”

Keeping Spain’s hotels secure has to start with testing foreign visitors at the point of origin. Coronavirus arrived in Spain with a German tourist flying into La Gomera and, appropriately, from July the Canary Islands will be the first destination in the world to require tourists to carry a digital health passport, developed by the islands’ Laboratory Project with the support of the World Tourism Organization. If there are flights.

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