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Next to each check-in desk at the Phoenician resort in Arizona is a small sign with a maskless photo of the staff member grinning broadly and a quick mention of “what makes them smile.”

Waiters at the resort’s restaurants wear similar cards on lanyards around their necks with statements such as “Puppies make me smile” next to their smiling photos. It’s a small gesture to add warmth now that the hospitality workers’ faces are now mostly hidden behind masks, reports the Arizona Republic, which is a part of the USA TODAY Network.

“The nature of our business is we’re friendly people and, you know, we like to make people feel comfortable,” said Mark Vinciguerra, general manager of the Phoenician. “That’s the one thing that the mask is, it’s a little bit of an obstacle to overcome.”

He added that the hotel held training with the staff on how to “smile with their eyes.”

This is where the hospitality industry finds itself now. COVID-19 has undermined the traditional courtesies that make going to a resort a pleasure, from getting a massage at the spa to enjoying a leisurely dinner at a restaurant.

That has hotels innovating ways both big and small to overcome the distance between guests and staff.

As travel restrictions persist and questions linger over when a vaccine might be widely available, Arizona’s hotel and resort industry is looking for ways to regain customer confidence as Arizona’s prime tourism season is rapidly approaching. 

Special badges show guests who has behind the mask at the Phoenician Aug 18, 2020. The resort has made changes in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo: Michael Chow/The Republic)

The crash after a record-breaking year

In 2019, Arizona posted its best year ever for tourism and the number of jobs supported by the industry, according to figures from the Arizona Office of Tourism. The state had 46.8 million overnight visits that generated $25.6 billion in visitor spending. 

More: 2019 was a record year for Arizona tourism. Here’s the ‘recovery mode’ plan for 2020

The start of 2020 was on track to surpass that record-breaking year, with resorts that the Arizona Republic spoke with reporting by early March that they were outpacing last year’s numbers.

In mid-March, the pandemic hit. Government officials issued international travel restrictions and shut down businesses. Public health experts warned against travel both international and domestic.

Manager Andrew Castillo works the front desk behind social distancing barriers at the Phoenician Aug 18, 2020. The resort has made changes in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo: Michael Chow/The Republic)

Cancellations roared in to resorts, their bustling lobbies silenced seemingly overnight. By mid-April, Phoenix hotels had an occupancy rate of just 23.5%, a 70% drop from the year prior. 

Hit hard and fast, many resorts closed temporarily and furloughed staff. The Phoenician was among those, shutting its doors to the public on April 6. It didn’t reopen until June 17.

‘It is going to take time to rebuild our business’

Other Valley resorts stayed open. One that did was the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. Pam Gilbert, director of sales and marketing, said the Princess made a commitment to keep operating. 

“We had some long-term guests that were staying with us at the time that were here for critical treatments at the Mayo Clinic,” Gilbert said.

She said the hotel also had international guests who were stranded when the travel restrictions hit. 

But the hotel is operating with far fewer staff members.

“We are right now about an over 70% reduction in staffing,” Gilbert said. “That’s where I say it is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. It is going to take time to rebuild our business.”

More: Arizona Biltmore closed for coronavirus. What the staff’s last day looked like

Stimulus money helped some economy hotels get bookings

Dinesh Rama, managing partner of NewGen Worldwide, holds partnerships in economy hotels including Rodeway Inn and Motel 6 in Arizona. He said some locations, such as airport properties and those near major highways, which get spur-of-the-moment bookings from people driving by, saw severe drop-offs as people stopped traveling.

But, he said, extended-stay hotels with kitchenettes saw what he called “artificially inflated” bookings from first responders and others who suddenly needed a place to ride out the lockdowns and had stimulus money and extra unemployment benefits that enabled them to afford to book rooms. 

“If the government didn’t do that, I think the economy segment would have struggled also because there would be nobody staying there,” Rama said.

‘We want people to be comfortable here’

Though no guests were on the property, the Phoenician didn’t sit idle. Staff went to work reimagining what cleanliness and hospitality might look like in a pandemic. 

“One of the things we talked about before we reopened, we said, ‘You know we need to make our customers feel very comfortable and safe here,’” Vinciguerra said.

Room attendant Linda Briseno cleans a phone in a guest room at the Phoenician Aug 18, 2020. The resort has made changes in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo: Michael Chow/The Republic)

With cleanliness being a large part of that, Thomas Overton, director of housekeeping, walked every location of the 254-acre resort with the Phoenician’s engineering director, looking for touch points to eliminate and hot spots that would need extra sanitizing.

They worked to get personal protective equipment and better sanitizing tools. They placed social distancing markers and barriers. They trained 250 staff members on how to implement the new protocols.

“We put a training plan together that all associates were required to take prior to coming back, so that they knew again what they had, how to create that passion, pride and handcrafted experience that we are known for here at the Phoenician,” Overton said.

He said he now has 15,000 packs of wipes and 10,000 masks in inventory at any given time. He orders sanitizer by the gallon. He purchased electrostatic sprayers, which use charged particles of disinfectant to rapidly sanitize guest rooms, lobbies and other public areas.

At the same time, they looked for ways to keep those precautions from overwhelming their guests.

“We want to be clean. We want people to be comfortable here,” Vinciguerra said. “But you don’t want them to be constantly reminded of COVID-19.”

A guest is helped at the front desk as plexiglass and social distance barriers can be seen at the Phoenician Aug 18, 2020. The resort has made changes in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo: Michael Chow/The Republic)

At the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, Gilbert said the resort has invested more than half a million dollars on equipment and supplies to manage COVID-19 prevention protocols. Those include everything from buying hospital-grade sanitizing equipment to adding  plexiglass shields at check-in desks and touchless coffee dispensers. 

Rama said his properties have also spent significantly on cleanliness measures, adding plexiglass barriers between desk workers, installing hand-sanitizing stations and changing to touchless guest-room locks. 

More: Is it safe to get a haircut? Here are the risks of 5 everyday activities during COVID-19

Finding a new way forward

Resort managers said their staffs receive constant phone calls from guests inquiring about safety and sanitation protocols.

Gilbert said the Princess also has rethought its popular events, such as Christmas at the Princess, to incorporate social distancing. This year will likely include a reduced capacity and a plexiglass barrier between guests and Santa.

The Princess also has forged ahead with a new fall event, Pumpkin Nights at the Princess, to target local visitors who are going stir crazy at home. It includes outdoor activities such as a pumpkin patch and launching lighted water lanterns.

“I think we are all longing a little bit for that sense of community,” Gilbert said. 

The Phoenician has tried to help guests navigate the changes by sending emails in advance letting them know what to expect. Overall, Vinciguerra said, guests have accommodated the changes well.

“They understand the deck that we’ve all been dealt,” he said.

You can connect with Arizona Republic Consumer Travel Reporter Melissa Yeager through email at [email protected]. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram. 

Hmm: Travelers are flocking to Airbnb, Vrbo more than hotels during COVID-19 pandemic. But why?

Noted: Traveling with a furry friend? No problem. These hotels allow pets


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