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"I hope that if nothing else, you walk away from this conference knowing that we are focused on you," began Marriott International chief lodging services officer Erika Alexander. "When you're ready, we're ready. And we're going to take exceptional care of you, your attendees and one another."
Alexander was kicking off a detailed panel discussion at Marriott's recent Connect With Confidence hybrid event, held at the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner, in Virginia for 30 meeting professionals in person and another 238 who tuned in remotely.
Marriott executives understand that it's one thing to promote online their extensive health and safety protocols, and another to demonstrate just how those rules and guidelines play out at the property level. For that reason, Alexander was joined onstage by operations managers in the trenches, including the host hotel's general manager Tod Morrow and executive assistant manager — and "cleanliness champion" — Jessie Malpica. Joining them in the discussion were Bethesda Marriott general manager Bonnie Caravaglia and Marriott International vice president of F&B experience Dana Pellicano. Together they tried to paint a picture of how new operations guidelines are applied at the property level in the current age.
Malpica began the discussion by explaining what people in her cleanliness role can do to make meetings run smoothly: "The cleanliness champion is the person on property who is responsible for reviewing the information and making sure it gets to the leaders, to the teams and is part of the training," she explained. "And then that person makes sure the processes are being followed by spot-checking, working with the leaders and our general manager to ensure those processes are done — and not only weekly or monthly, but that they're done daily. This is now something that we do. It's part of our lives moving forward."
When a meeting planner contacted the hotel last month, tentatively planning a small executive meeting, Malpica walked her through the hotel's sanitation process — the actions they take, the chemicals they use, the disinfection schedule — and then physically walked her through the space later that week.
Interacting with Guests and Attendees
Establishing protocols and guidelines along with the host property is important, of course, but enforcing them among attendees is the wild-card component that will ultimately make or break the success of a Covid-era meeting. Marriott staff are prepared to enforce policies.
"One of the training tools that we created is called the 'pack-your-mask playbook,'" said Alexander. "It was a set of role-playing guidelines, including language to help deescalate or defuse a situations if someone has particularly strong feelings around wearing a mask."
There haven't been any major problems at the Bethesda Marriott regarding adherence to that rule, according to general manager Caravaglia. But when it comes to addressing such issues, or any issues of enforcement, it's crucial that hotel associates are on the same page as their meeting clients.
"We really need to know what the expectations and guidelines are of the company that we are hosting," Caravaglia pointed out. "Because we want to make sure that we're aligned. We have our protocols, and our clients have their own protocols, as well. I think coming together and deciding what the end result looks like is crucial, so that we're both working toward the same goal."
Both hotel guests and meeting attendees will feel more comfortable knowing exactly what to expect in advance — what has changed and what is expected from them. And technology is a big part of that: More than half of guests are now using mobile check-in, the Ritz-Carlton's Morrow said, nearly twice as many as previously. And the options and functionality are more varied than ever before — from grabbing one's digital room key upon mobile check-in to selecting one's specific seat at a meeting in advance. Attendees can decide how much distance they want to keep from others, based on the seat they choose.
In-person attendees at Connect With Confidence were able to select their seats in advance — as well as the most appropriate wristband to wear. The bracelets — which were green, yellow or red — indicated their comfort level with interactions. Green encouraged elbow bumps while red warned "keep your distance."
And property managers are getting very different questions from guests these days, Morrow said. "We might make a recommendation for a nearby Italian restaurant," he said, "but now they want to know the ceiling height of that restaurant. They want to know if there is outdoor seating, they want to know where else it's safe to take their families after a meeting. Communication, whether it's happening through the Bonvoy app or directly with us, really forms their itinerary much more tightly than it used to."
A Plan for the Worst
Marriott also has a protocol in place for when a guest falls ill. "In a couple of cases, a guest who has left the hotel became ill afterward and notified us," said Morrow. "We've been fortunate enough that due to our lower occupancy, the rooms haven't been occupied, so the room immediately goes offline for 10 days. Nobody goes in the room. We send a housekeeper in to disinfect the room after 10 days, wearing the proper PPE. We use an electrostatic sprayer after that as a final disinfectant, and then we wait another few days before using the room again."
If an attendee falls ill during a meeting, hotel managers ask that guest to quarantine in their room. "We provide them with my phone number or Jesse's phone number," said Morrow. "If they need anything, we ask them not to leave the room. If they do have to leave the room — to go to a hospital or to check out and go home, if they're able to do that — then we have a designated path for them to take. Wherever they walk has to then be disinfected after they leave. And then we follow the same protocol for the room afterward."
Communication and comfort is even more crucial when dealing with a guest who is ill, added Caravaglia. "What a scary situation for someone to find themselves in, to be away from home and not feeling well, and probably to be frightened," she said. "So to feel safe and cared for and looked after by a senior leader in the hotel is a critical part of our process. Culturally, that's who we are. And from a meeting planner perspective, you'd expect nothing less of us — to take exceptional care of your people."