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How Luxury Hotels Are Staying Clean, According to a Housekeeping Director

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 9/16/2020 Ashlea Halpern
a bedroom with a bed and a large window © Courtesy Mandarin Oriental

Carmen Hughes is the director of housekeeping at the five-star Mandarin Oriental Washington, D.C. She has worked with the luxury hotel chain in various capacities, including guest relations manager, and receptionist, for nearly a decade. Hughes was furloughed after the 373-room hotel closed its doors in March but was recalled in August to prepare the property for reopening. Chief among her responsibilities is implementing WeCare, Mandarin’s new health and safety program. We spoke with Hughes to find out how her job has changed and what the future holds for high-end hotels.

When we found out the hotel was closing, it took us two or three days to shut everything down. We started by removing high-touch items such as decorative pillows and blankets, stationery, notepads, pens, magazines, and the in-room dining and spa menus. You don’t realize how much you don’t need those things until you take them out of the room and nobody says anything.

I was furloughed for five months after the shutdown. The work-life balance is challenging in the hospitality industry, so I spent my quarantine period being a mother and a wife. I taught my 3-year-old son numbers and letters. We read, we ran, we played outside. Even this morning, my son was like, “Can we bake a cake later?” I thoroughly enjoyed my family time.

I returned to work on August 17 and the hotel reopened on August 24. It was just myself and the housekeeping team to start, which is about 75 people. It was extremely hectic—learning about WeCare and all the new procedures; bringing back our laundry colleagues to get the staff uniforms ready; getting in the chemicals and PPE; and cleaning all of the guest rooms after they’d been sitting closed for five months. Engineering ran water tests and changed air filters; we dusted and vacuumed. If anything was amiss in a room—like a guest put something in the fridge and we just now found it—we had to deal with it. It was intense.

a living room filled with furniture and a large window: The Presidential Suite at the Mandarin Oriental Washington, D.C. © Courtesy Mandarin Oriental The Presidential Suite at the Mandarin Oriental Washington, D.C.

We say we have three levels of guests: COVID-sensitive, COVID-cautious, and COVID-fatigued. But we’re cleaning as if every guest is COVID-sensitive. The cleaning process is more tedious now, and much more thorough; it takes an extra 15 to 20 minutes per room. I'm appreciative that my colleagues have welcomed it openly and said, “Whatever we need to do, we’ll do. This is for our safety.”

With the new protocol, for example, room attendants can’t place dirty linen or trash on their cart. Anything coming out of a room must be put in a vinyl WeCare bag, which the housemen then remove. To avoid cross-contamination, attendants must change their PPE after cleaning each room. They’re also wiping down all touch points: every single knob; every handle on the cabinets, minibar fridge, and credenza; and all of the drawers. We wipe the bell outside and the master control panel on the nightstand. Anywhere you could potentially see a fingerprint has to be wiped.

We’ve also beefed up the cleaning of our public spaces. We have Plexiglass shields at the front desk now and make a point of wiping everything down after each guest checks in. Before the pandemic, you wouldn’t want your guests to see anyone cleaning; it was just supposed to get done. Like magic. Now, we want our guests to see us cleaning and making that extra effort. I think it’s very much noticed and appreciated.

If a guest is coming from a high-risk state that’s required to quarantine, housekeeping is told not to service their room. Otherwise, we ask each guest if they would like service, and at what time. We thought guests wouldn’t want anyone in their room, but so far, most expect daily or even twice-daily cleaning. I’ve also seen bellmen bringing luggage up to guests’ rooms. We assumed no one would want anyone touching their stuff, but the guests look pretty comfortable.

The Empress Lounge isn’t open yet, but we’re still cleaning it in case someone comes down for a coffee or work meeting. The spa, pool, and fitness center are opening in phases. For the pool, we have time slots you sign up for in advance. It’s four people max, or one family, and you get the pool to yourself for 45 minutes. You’re catered to by the spa director or manager, who brings out fresh towels. It’s a very personalized and luxurious experience.

The fitness room isn't open yet, but it's going to operate on a similar schedule. We're also offering four private rooms that we’ve turned into mini gyms with huge TVs, treadmills, and other exercise equipment. Guests who purchase a suite will have the option to reserve their own fitness room, versus booking a time slot in the shared fitness center.

From a housekeeper’s perspective, this is a lot of pressure. Most cleaning ladies—especially in unionized cities—have been doing this a long time. Safety-wise, they're thankful we're putting these procedures in place because some of them have preexisting conditions. But the lengthier processes have been challenging. A lot of them are getting up there in age, so they're feeling it physically. We're doing our best to make sure they don't overexert themselves or burn out.

Mostly, everyone's just wondering what's next, like when we're going to bring turndown service back. In a luxury hotel, turndown is when we literally touch all of your items. We move them around and make them look pretty and get really involved with your personal space. Those little treats are what make staying in a luxury hotel feel like staying in a luxury hotel. It’s a really intentional way to show the guests we care. But I don’t have the answer. We thought our hotel was only going to close for a couple of weeks. Six months later, here we are. We just have to make it through the next couple of months, and the next couple of months after that, until everything gets back to normal.

We're reporting on how COVID-19 impacts travel on a daily basis. Find all of our coronavirus coverage and travel resources here.

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