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Hotels nix mints and breakfast buffets. Hand sanitizer, anyone?

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Mints on pillows have been eliminated to reduce interaction between guests and staff while breakfast buffets have been cancelled as they are deemed potential germ spreaders.

[NEW YORK] Those hotel amenities you took for granted, like throw pillows, turndown service and free coffee in the lobby? They're gone. Housekeeping is by request or eliminated during your stay. And don't even think of finding a self-serve breakfast buffet.

The coronavirus pandemic "shellshocked" hotels, said Chekitan Dev, a professor of marketing at Cornell's School of Hotel Administration. "They initially pulled everything" out of rooms and off properties that seemed as if it could accelerate the spread of the virus. Now, the hospitality industry is trying to figure out how to create a "new normal," he said.

Hotel occupancy rates in the United States have been devastated by the pandemic, dipping to a low of 22 per cent in April. Travellers have slowly begun returning, but the rapidly rising number of coronavirus cases in many states clouds the industry's near-term future. In the meantime, hotels are doing what they can to attract travellers and address their concerns.

The first priority is delivering a feeling of safety. That is why guests arriving at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington Pennsylvania, over the last few months received a mask, a 10-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer and prepackaged snacks and drinks. The Vinoy Renaissance St Petersburg Resort and Golf Club in St Petersburg, Florida, asks for reservations at the main pool to limit the number of people there. Guests at CitizenM hotels can use the hotel's phone app to control lights, blinds and room temperature so they don't have to touch the room's controls.

Some hotels are removing bedspreads or washing them between each stay. Some are removing carpeting to make rooms easier to clean and to "appear more sanitary," Mr Dev said.

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Hotels are also rethinking what guests value most. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine every single amenity, and everything is up for grabs," Mr Dev said. "The hospitality business has to be taken apart like a puzzle and put together in a new way."

Free breakfast had long been a popular perk, especially buffets, available at hotels in all price ranges. But they have been eliminated as potential germ spreaders. At some hotels, staff members dish out food from behind a plexiglass barrier, but that makes it hard to serve a large number of guests efficiently, Mr Dev said, especially when they need to be 6 feet apart.

At Sesuit Harbor House on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, guests complete a questionnaire before they arrive about which breakfast items they prefer, and a personalized picnic basket is delivered each morning.

Before the pandemic, hotel beds had begun to resemble decorative pillow forts, with bed scarves and coverlets. The beds have now been reduced to a set of essentials that can be washed between each guest. A crisp white bed with sheets that look as if they can handle a scalding hot laundry cycle is in vogue, according to T-Y Group and Harbor Linen, which supplies hotel linens.

Nightly turndown service and mints on pillows have been eliminated to reduce interaction between guests and staff. Some hotels send housekeepers only when they are requested, and some won't send them at all during a stay. The Wilson Hotel, a Marriott property in Big Sky Montana, moves guests to a new room if they want clean accommodations. The housekeeping staff waits 24 hours after guests leave a room to clean it.

Some environmental initiatives, like replacing small shampoo bottles with larger pump dispensers, will probably be paused. Items like bathrobes and pens will come wrapped in plastic.

In the lobby, free coffee has disappeared and plexiglass barriers are being built. Instead of removing furniture to decrease capacity, some hotel restaurants are decorating unused tables. The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, has seated jauntily dressed mannequins at some of its restaurant tables to comply with new capacity limits. One mannequin is down on one knee and looks as if it is proposing to another.

Before the pandemic, hotels had been trying to one-up one another's offerings with small touches like "a slightly nicer free breakfast or better quality coffee in the room," said Jeanne Casey, a principal at the venture capital firm MetaProp who analyzes investments in the real estate and hospitality sectors. Now that hotels are paring back those extras, she said, they can use it as an opportunity to rein in costs and reinvest in priority areas.

Many hotels had already turned to mobile apps for everything from check in to ordering additional towels or toiletries. Voice-activated assistants were starting to show up in rooms, to control temperature and order room service, and some hotels had installed sensors to monitor how many people were in public spaces. These systems are now seen as critical rather than just convenient, Casey said.

Amenities are also being aimed at a more local clientele. Global travel restrictions and concerns about air travel mean that guests are more likely to arrive in their own car from within a few hundred miles, said John Niser, director of the International School of Hospitality and Tourism at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Hoteliers need to recognize that these guests will have different needs, he said. Rather than early check-in available for those arriving from the airport, for example, he said, a more important amenity may be free car detailing. "Hotels may say, ‘Hey we already have this great sanitizing team; we can use it on your car,'" he said.

Hotels have an opportunity to convert these "‘drive market' travellers, who had been hoping to go to Europe," into guests who choose to return even after restrictions are lifted, Mr Niser said. They will try to show guests they can have a great experience "without having to deal with airport queues, time zone differences and all the other hassles of long-distance travel," he said.

Over the past decade, hotels have focused on increasing guest interaction. Lobbies featured comfy couches and mini meeting pods; bars held guest happy hours. Now, guests are changing their preferences "from hyper-social to hyper-solo," Mr Dev said. The luxury Lotte New York Palace is offering frequent guests staying from August through the end of 2020 the option of a specific room assignment that no one else can book between their stays. The traveler can even store belongings there between trips.

Hotels are looking for ways to help guests have "a safe experience, by themselves," Mr Dev said. The Inns of Aurora in Aurora, New York, accelerated the creation of hiking trails, a fishing dock and archery facilities for guests who want to spend time outside in more private settings. The Confidante Miami Beach hotel advertises in-room virtual fitness classes, including yoga and kickboxing. "Hotel offerings of gym equipment to borrow haven't been popular in the past, but that may change," Mr Dev said.

"There is opportunity buried in this crisis," he added. This is a time for hotels to experiment.

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