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Sarah Robbins Of 21c Museum Hotels On The Bright Side Of Pandemic Innovation

Breaking old rules of hospitality, and deciding what's worth keeping even after the pandemic recedes.

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Sarah Robbins is COO of 21c Museum Hotels, which has properties combining art, boutique hotels, and chef-driven restaurants in the South and Midwest. See her previous talk at TechTable.

Due to government orders in the early, early stages of the pandemic lockdown, we closed all of the restaurants. Very soon after that, the hotels came tumbling down behind. We did end up closing all of our properties, and that was a big process. The primary reasons were for our guest and team safety, and then our lack of ability to operate in a financially viable way when you saw what was happening—properties were anticipated to be in the single digits in terms of occupancy.

From the moment we closed the doors, every waking moment was spent on trying to get the doors reopened. It was about the safety component first. We doubled down, like lots of people did, on cleaning procedures and making sure that we had our team and our guests all feeling good. If you really focus on the team, get their buy-in, and make them feel safe, then it translates to the guests.

What we found is that when people are returning to either stay or to dine, they’re picking the places that they have a level of confidence and trust in, and are probably already a loyal fan of. It’s like how the people that you probably got together with the first time after lockdown were the people that you knew the best.

We’ve been fortunate that we do have a lot of very loyal fans of the hotels. We also have the benefit that we are drivable. So as soon as we got comfortable with the idea of reopening, that’s what we did. We reopened almost all of the properties by by mid-July. We had two more that trailed into September. Now everybody is open. It’s been wild.

Looking at our properties across different markets, there was a matrix that one core team member was regularly updating, just so that we knew what was going on with all the rules and regulations. That part was tricky, but there was a lot of similarity among them. The fact that we had a wider viewpoint was incredibly helpful. We weren’t just looking at the situation through one lens, as in a single-operator situation. We were able to glean and share a lot of good information from one another. We have small teams and small properties, which ultimately is a benefit because it’s easier to manage and to keep things clean and monitored.

I’m a big believer that if two heads are better than one, then six heads are great. Almost to a fault, I like to have people super-involved. When we were walking through the steps of service, I remember being on the phone with one GM. I thought, let’s start with just the two of us and we’ll get a plan laid out. Are we doing valet? Are they wiping the handle before they open the door? It was little details like that. That was the part where having other people able to chime in to say, “Well, what if we did it this way?” and “What if the valets radioed ahead, and then they wouldn’t have to touch the bag?” All of those sequencing and steps of services that are important on a day-to-day basis, we took what we do regularly and then layered in new COVID-related steps on top of them.

In ordinary times, never, ever would we have our team come in through the front door of a property. Now everybody goes through the front door so that we get everybody screened. This crisis gave us an opportunity to break a lot of rules and innovate. Of course I’d never want to do this again. I want it to end, like everybody else. However, we are a glass-half-full organization, and we’ve been recapping some of the things that we were able to accomplish. It’s unbelievable how these constraints have spurred innovation in ways that we never would have done.

For example, we’ve struggled with how to do orientation and onboarding. We left it to the properties before, because we really like the idea of them doing it. We’re not a corporate overlord kind of environment. But the reality is that we have small teams, and that’s a real burden on the local operational leaders. Hello, Zoom! We’re really good at that now. We’ve been talking for a full year on how we can integrate that. Now orientation is every Tuesday at 2 p.m., and one person does it every time, and that makes it easier for the property teams. Anytime you have a disruption like this, you get to rip things apart and put them back together in ways that you might not have otherwise done.

I’m a mother of teenage boys, and you have to say things about 100 times before they really hear it. We take that same mantra with sharing information about what we’re doing related to the pandemic. We created a microsite that people see when they’re booking. We’re lucky that with a hotel, you have more touchpoints to communicate with the guests than you do with a restaurant—although we’re certainly doing that with our restaurants as well. There’s a confirmation letter, and the safety precautions are mentioned there. Then you physically see those precautions when you come in. We’ve decided that if somebody is not interested in being screened or wearing a mask, then we’re okay letting that revenue go. That, to me, is taking care of the team, who will ultimately take care of the guests.

We’ve tried to still have a level of gracious hospitality where it wasn’t so clinical, because at the end of the day you’re not checking in to a doctor’s office, you’re checking in to a hospitality setting. We tried to hit a balance between the two. But that said, in our guestrooms the new amenity is sanitizing wipes. We’ve sanitized before you get there, but just in case you really need to do it yourself, there it is.

Any soft goods in the guest rooms are being allowed to rest for 48 hours before they’re used again. We try to let the rooms sit for 48 hours, and if you can’t have it sit, then all of the soft goods come out and are replaced with fresh soft goods. I went and stayed at our property in Cincinnati, and I slept like a baby. I felt totally comfortable and fine because I knew all of the work that went into making it safe.

When it comes to new technology, we’re not adopting electrostatic spray or things like that, where the research is really all over the map. We’re heavily using a platform called MISEbox. Its primary purpose was to be used as a training agent for line-level staff in restaurants. And we’ve blown it up. I think we’re driving MISEbox crazy, but they’ve been phenomenal to work with. It’s not only a platform for training and educating our teams—it’s keeping them updated, because things have been changing at light speed. You know how hard it is to communicate to teammates if they don’t have email, which, historically, a lot of businesses don’t. That’s been phenomenal.

We’ve also found that because we’re using QR codes in our dining spaces, there’s a tremendous amount of information that you’re going to have for and about our guests, like their allergies. And there are other benefits. We have a restaurant in Louisville that’s separate from the hotel, called Garage Bar. We have these great chalkboards to list the beers on tap. I never wear my glasses, so invariably I always have to go up and stand in front of the chalkboard. Now I’m like, “Oh, here’s the QR code for the menu at my table! Why didn’t we do this seven years ago? This is so great.” It’s the silliest thing. But these are the kinds of things that we’re pointing at to say, “Okay, this came about because of COVID, but we’re not letting it go.” Again, glass half full. But there are silver linings in this mess, and we just try to focus on those.

Hospitality, at the end of the day, is truly about feeling safe. Once people feel safe, we can get back to the good stuff, which is anticipating guests’ needs and making them feel better than they did when they got here.