As states are buckling under the economic damage of stay-at-home orders, no industry has felt the effects of this order more than travel. The very nature of travel is the opposite of staying at home.
Many states are desperate to reopen; yet, fears of a second wave of infections are legitimate. To combat this, major behavioral changes are needed from the entire travel industry. Beyond new safety and cleaning protocols to be implemented in transportation, lodging, and hospitality, it has to feel safe to leave home if travel is to begin again, restarting this sector of the economy.
The airlines have been first to seize the initiative, and as of early May, most major carriers, including American Airlines, Delta, United, Southwest, Frontier, Alaska, and Jet Blue have mandated face masks be worn by passengers and staff on flights. Several have extended this to cover check-in areas, premium lounges, and boarding areas.
OUR NEW HOUSEKEEPING STANDARDS AND CANCELLATION POLICIES ARE NOT ENOUGH
VRMs have also responded quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic. Enhanced housekeeping protocols have been established to neutralize any trace of the virus, and most vacation homes will be cleaner than ever, which we can shout from the rooftops. Many VRMs are making cancellation policies more flexible so people will not be afraid to book. But this is not going to be enough. This is only the beginning of the changes that need to happen.
THE VIRUS IS STILL HERE
Incredible gains toward reducing the growth of infections by “flattening the curve” have come from social distancing and a multitude of stay-at-home orders. But the US is still reporting between 20,000–30,000 new cases per day, as it has for the entire month of April. COVID-19 infections have stabilized through social distancing, but they have not gone away. Simple logic tells us that opening for business without keeping some strict social distancing measures in place will be risky, and right now the travel industry cannot afford to be blamed for a new surge in infections, which are likely with or without tourism.
SOCIAL DISTANCING—THE NEW NORMAL
Social distancing measures are going to be necessary until a vaccine is available. Few medical experts dispute this, so we better get used to it. We can sit at home and wait for a vaccine (call me in two years), or we can be proactive and outline measures to be taken seriously by all to allow tourism to return to our communities without risk of rejection and shut down again.
IT’S NOT ABOUT POLITICS—IT’S ABOUT DOING SOMETHING
Despite the political chaos of experiencing a pandemic in an election year and the information overload that has resulted, we cannot afford to get distracted from our mission—that is, doing what we can to reduce the spread of the virus. The virus spreading is what is hurting us. That is what we must fix. If we fail, we can expect a return to the economically brutal stay-at-home orders as quickly as the multimillion-dollar US ski industry was halted (in about 30 minutes on March 15).
GETTING R0 BELOW 1—AND KEEPING IT THERE
For the travel and tourism industry to regain any momentum in the next 18 months, we must succeed at reducing the R<sub”>0 factor to less than 1. The infection rate of a virus is known as the basic reproduction number, or R0 (“R naught”), and represents the number of infections caused by a single contagious individual. If one person develops the infection and passes it on to two others, the R0 is 2. When this number remains above 1, virus cases in the population increase, as has been seen with COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the reproduction number to be as high as 6.49 before social distancing was widely implemented in the US in March.
The actual R0 number depends not only on the biology of the disease but also on the actions people take. All indications are that this number is falling, and if new cases are not growing it is possible that the number has fallen to a value of 1 or even less. So how do we keep it there or reduce it further? We cannot survive under stay-at-home orders until an effective vaccine arrives; therefore, our behavior must change so that we can take control of the R0. Mask-wearing, hand hygiene, extensive cleaning measures, and adapting our operational procedures are all worth looking at if we are serious about cutting potential exposure to the virus at every level.
WHAT DOES THIS LOOK LIKE?
FACE MASKS: Face masks covering our mouth and nose prevent the dispersal of water droplets that could be carrying the virus. You might think you are healthy, but the contagious asymptomatic carriers are now identified as the cause of the rapid spread of the virus in March. It has taken over six weeks of lockdowns and social distancing to slow the spread, and over 70,000 have died in that time.
Face masks have other benefits beyond reducing your droplet spray. Once you get used to wearing them (and we can all agree it feels weird and uncomfortable at first), mask-wearing shows others that they should be doing the same. So masks visibly encourage good behavior by others for reducing the spread of the virus. They remind us not to touch our faces. They remind us to wash our hands, and they remind us that there is a highly contagious virus waiting to infect us if we let our guard down.
It is going to take time to adapt to face masks. Eventually, we will get more used to them and adjust them less often. If infection numbers stay low, they may not be needed for more than a few months.
SANITIZERS AND CLEANING CHEMICALS: Having hand sanitizer and wipes at your fingertips is another new norm. No longer is it just the parents of toddlers who accessorize this way. We are all now germaphobes, or should be, and keeping our hands clean is simply the responsible thing to do.
Cleaning homes to a high standard has always been important to VRMs. Enhanced cleaning with CDC-approved chemicals is no longer above and beyond—it is going to be expected, or you will be rejected by travelers who care about their health.
VIRTUAL CHECK-INS: Video technology has become part of everyday business life, and now it could take an important role in social distancing by allowing check-in procedures and personal property tours to happen by Zoom, FaceTime, or Skype calls, rather than in-person. Verified guests can be guided through their home check-in without the need for face-to-face contact with staff. Minor problems can also be troubleshot this way before sending a staff member into the field.
This is a shortlist. It is by no means all that we can do. But we need to start somewhere and be sure that we are getting this right to reduce the possibility of transmitting the virus to others.
The list goes on. Additional measures worthy of consideration include the following:
Commercial laundry of all bedding
Removal of non-laundered items like decorative pillows and blankets
Fogging homes with approved chemicals between stays to cover all touchable surfaces
Insertion of 24- to 72-hour rest gaps between stays to allow any potential virus to become inactive
PPE for housekeeping staff
Additional signage at the front and back of house to reinforce policy
Daily staff symptom and temperature checking and reporting
Remote working and reduced staffing at central offices
Additional PTO for staff with COVID diagnoses.
Disclaimer: VRM Intel currently doesn’t support 24- to 72- hour buffer times between stays as a solution for the professionally managed vacation rental industry.
THINGS ARE CHANGING FAST—KEEP UP!
Everything about the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented: the tragic impact on the lives of those infected and their families, the devastating economic impact on businesses, the lightning speed of response required by our medical community, and the decisive actions required by our government.
We could quickly get sidetracked on the politics of how the response to the pandemic could and should have been better, but in this moment, we need to look forward rather than backward to find solutions.
The vacation rental industry now needs to respond in a unified way on a scale that is unprecedented. If we are to guide our guests through the experience of visiting our destinations without infecting our communities, we are going to have to be educators, facilitators, implementors, and ultimately enforcers of social distancing in every part of what we do.
A MASSIVE SHIFT JUST HAPPENED
The actions of our national airlines to require face masks for travel is also unprecedented. In less than a week, they have mandated a massive shift in travel consumer behavior that will be more visibly impactful than all the post-9/11 security regulations that morphed into everyday travel protocols. VRMs need to get on that bandwagon fast and be sure this is quickly part of our DNA. If we do not, we risk being marginalized as risky, unprofessional, and unworthy of the trust of our communities and the elected officials who govern them.
FIGHT TRAVEL SHAMING AT THE LOCAL LEVEL
In small communities like Steamboat where we are based, the vocal and visible travel shaming that has come from a legitimate fear of infection from the outside world highlights how tenuous our return to “normal” could be. Citizens empowered by local health orders have taken it upon themselves to post notices on vehicles with out-of-state license plates telling them to go home. The local Police Blotter, a daily diary of law enforcement actions published in the local paper, is peppered with complaints about failures to adhere to social distancing. The locals are watching the numbers and are being vigilant.
These same concerned local citizens have the ear of elected officials who want to be seen to be doing the right thing, while allowing businesses a chance to get back on their feet. When restrictions are relaxed, if there is an increase in local cases—or worse, a surge—it takes little imagination to know what will be shut down first: lodging and tourism. The multimillion-dollar ski industry was shuttered statewide in March as cases surged in Eagle County. We have no doubt this could happen again if we let the spread of infections get out of control as we try to start up again.
GET ORGANIZED, AND BE PART OF THE SOLUTION
To get out in front of this, VRMs will need to organize with other local lodging entities. Together they must present a united front to work with their Chamber, local DMO and local government to establish mitigation protocols that support social distancing but still allow their businesses to function and welcome people from outside. It will be more work and more expensive to operate and might involve uncomfortable compromises on occupancy, but if your focus is on partnership and being part of the solution, you will have a chance at being part of the future too.
EDUCATE AND ENFORCE PROACTIVELY
To change the behavior of employees, owners, and guests on a large scale is no small task. Clear and proactive communication is key. If you expect social distancing to be the new norm, you will have to explain and define what this means and then communicate this early, often, and at every level of your organization. If you have a team of staff, make sure they all understand the need for and the goals of these measures. Leverage your personal relationships with homeowners to get buy-in and support. Let your guests know in booking confirmations, terms and conditions, website content, social media, and blogs that it is safe to travel, and inform them what behavior is expected of them to keep it that way.
Remember, this may not be the norm where your guests and owners live. To avoid an uncomfortable start to their visit, setting expectations before arrival will be super important. Make sure you have masks on hand in case they arrive without their own.
THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL?
It is a cold hard fact that the end of the pandemic is not in our near future.
But that does not mean we should give up. Six weeks of significant social distancing cut the rate of infection in the US dramatically. The next move is on us. We have gained control in many areas of the country, but an erratic return to what was previously normal without strictly maintaining social distancing protocols until the vaccine gets here risks everything we’ve gained. We cannot wait that long, so we must do more and now.