The State of COVID-19 Vaccinations in the Luxury Hotel Market

Over the past two years, we’ve all used the word “unprecedented” so much that it has perhaps started to lose its potency. But how else are we supposed to describe the seismic shifts we experienced nearly overnight? How else to name the shutdowns, the sicknesses, the loss, and uncertainty? Not a corner of the world went unaffected, and the hospitality industry was no exception. 

With travel at a standstill, hotel occupancy (and subsequently revenue) dropped sharply. Hotels that averaged a summer occupancy rate of about 90% in 2018 and 2019 were still only at about 60% in June of 2021. Some worst-case scenario projections anticipated that demand in 2021 would end up 41% short compared to 2019 numbers and wouldn’t return to those levels for another five to seven years. The industry is still working its way back to its feet, but there’s no guarantee – especially with the rise of variants like Delta and Omicron – that these unprecedented (there it is again) times are going to pass anytime soon.

That being said, the hotel industry is facing something of a watershed moment with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines. As of August 2021, a small number of hotels started announcing they would be requiring proof of vaccination for guests and staff on-site. This could be a huge gain in bringing guests back into hotel rooms, making them feel safer and more willing to travel. In fact, nearly half of people recently polled said they would be more likely to travel again with a vaccine widely available (as of December 2021, about 60% of people in the U.S. are vaccinated). At the same time, vaccination mandates can 

bring a slew of complexities: lack of clarity and the risk of backlash in already tenuous financial times, among other concerns.

As luxury hotels and resorts start to rebuild their businesses, what is to be done about vaccine mandates? Are they the way of the future? Would they bring more harm than good? Brands would be wise to consider all of the options available to them when it comes to vaccines before implementing a path forward and ensure the best and most secure means of progress for their business – and their guests and staff.

What are some possible positive results of hotels implementing vaccination policies? 

Lower the risk of COVID transmission: While vaccination doesn’t eliminate the risk of catching or transmitting COVID-19, studies have shown that fully vaccinated people are not only much less likely to acquire the virus or its variants but, if they do, the cases are much more likely to be mild. For a virus as contagious as COVID has proven to be, close quarters such as hotels undoubtedly raise risks for both guests and staff. Vaccination may help mitigate those risks as variants continue to circulate.

Increase guests’ trust in your property: Public support for vaccine mandates among hotel guests reached majority status in August of 2021, with 53% of people endorsing the practice. Hotels may benefit from responding to that majority with clear and widespread vaccine policies. The PUBLIC Hotel in New York City, for instance, was one of the first properties in the country to implement a wide-scale vaccine mandate, requiring both guests and staff to be fully vaccinated. For owner Ian Schrager, the decision was in keeping with his business objectives. As he said in a recent interview, “Looking after people is our business.” He reports facing very little pushback on this decision from either guest reservations or staff employment.

Protect and support your staff: For hotel workers that must report to work in-person day in and day out at all hours, working closely with the public and exposing themselves to COVID risk factors, vaccine policies may provide a measure of relief. Hotels are facing the most severe shortage of staff we’ve seen in decades; however, as travel climbs back up to pre-pandemic levels, remaining hotel staff are handling more work with far fewer hands. If workers are concerned for their safety on the job – or, if they get sick on the job and can’t report in – they may not want to return. Vaccination policies can increase their trust in your property and make for a more secure workforce in troubling times. 

Despite the upsides, there are still concerns to keep in mind when it comes to implementing vaccine policies. What are some potential downsides?

Vaccine mandates often invite a lack of clarity: Vaccination requirements have created a wealth of confusion in cities and locations that implement them, especially where hotels are concerned. Let’s say a particular city has required vaccinations to be present in gyms, spas, and restaurants, but hotels don’t fall under the same guidelines. If the hotel has a gym, spa, or a restaurant inside of it, unvaccinated guests might be able to enter the hotel but wouldn’t be able to utilize the service. These sorts of discrepancies may create no small amount of trouble for hotels to monitor and control.

Risks backlash in form of canceled reservations, lost workers, or dishonest guests: If guests disagree with vaccine mandates, they may cancel their reservations and your property may find itself facing unfamiliar struggles in attracting or retaining guests. This could be concerning at a time when hotel demand remains well below pre-pandemic levels. U.S. hotels’ second-quarter revenue per available room was 21% lower than second-quarter 2019 numbers, so lost revenue from dropped guests could make a noticeable impact. The same goes for hotel workers who leave rather than get vaccinated. In a short-staffed era, losing staffers won’t come easily. Finally, serious consequences could be at stake for unvaccinated guests who fake vaccine cards to get service. Hotel owners wouldn’t want to be held liable if guests present false certificates, and the consequences could be dramatic if that were to occur.

If you have done your research, weighed your options, and are considering some sort of path forward when it comes to whether your hotel will require or request vaccinations, the time has likely come to decide on the matter. Whatever you choose, what are some best practices to ensure that guests retain their trust in you and your business, and continue to support your property for years to come? 

A few personal suggestions

Be upfront and clear about policies: If you choose to implement a vaccination policy, make sure guests are aware of that before they book or before they arrive for a reservation. If proof of vaccination is to be required, make sure customers have appropriate notice so they can gather paperwork. If you choose not to implement policies, it couldn’t hurt to be clear about that as well so guests know what to expect. Additionally, set clear boundaries when it comes to shared hotel spaces such as restaurants, spas, and gyms, and establish how vaccinations will be handled in those locations as compared to basic check-in. Clarity from the get-go reduces conflict down the line.

Train employees thoroughly: Staff should receive clear, top-down instruction on how to handle guests who might take issue with vaccination policies or lack thereof. Give your staff the emotional tools and on-site resources to support guests’ opinions and statuses, including how to recognize valid vaccination cards if that becomes part of your hotel policy. Your staffers are the first line of defense when it comes to dissatisfied guests, so it’s crucial that they have the information they need to be kind, communicative, and open to guests without burning themselves out.

Prepare for negative responses: You simply can’t please everyone, and there’s bound to be conflict no matter what you choose! Do you have a response strategy in place for one-star reviews online, nasty social media comments, or difficult guests in-person? Advance planning and a unified front can do wonders for maintaining your integrity as a brand, and your other guests will notice that more than a few rough remarks. 

If the past two years have shown us anything as a society, it’s that the world is full of unknowns – and what defines us is how we respond to those unknowns. The hospitality world in particular has stared down complexities and challenges in the face of COVID-19 that never could have been anticipated. But as guests start to come back through our doors, it’s our responsibility (as it has always been) to create warm and seamless travel experiences that leave them feeling safe and cared for. That imperative is more important than ever these days, as everyone reckons with the fear we’ve felt for so long now and tries to restore some level of olden-day normalcy. Whatever means you choose of creating those guest experiences, whether it involves vaccination or not, the luxury hotel space should be one that offers the highest level of care and comfort. 

Here’s to a new year filled with travel, love, and laughter. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for properties around the world, and look forward to welcoming visitors back to hotels safely and joyously.

About the author 

As Founder and CEO of HospitalityRenu, Robert Reitknecht leverages decades of operational, technical, and customer service experience to help luxury hotels and individual property owners improve customer acquisition, key-messaging retention, and long-term brand loyalty. He has guided small, one-location teams as well as large, multi-site teams with the goals of driving cross-functional collaboration to improve customer satisfaction, maximizing business performance, and optimizing financial performance. By bringing his entrepreneurial enthusiasm and future focus to each challenge and opportunity, Robert has established a strong record of turning around marginal operations and creating consistent success.

Prior to founding HospitalityRenu, Robert held various management-level, guest-facing positions including Director of Recreation and Hotel Manager on Duty at the Tarrytown House Estate and Conference Center; Front Office Lead, Housekeeping Supervisor, and Manager on Duty for Marriott’s Modern Essentials brands; Front Office Supervisor and Assistant Rooms Operations Manager at Full Service Marriott; and most recently Guest Reception Manager at Montage Hotels and Resorts, which achieved Forbes Travel recognition. For Robert, it’s a luxury to be able to wake up every day and do what he loves for a living: create caring and authentic experiences for each person he meets, including guests and the associates who work to make the magic happen.