The Chalet RoyAlp Hôtel & Spa, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, is located in the Swiss alpine village of Villars-sur-Ollon. It is built in traditional chalet style, with a chic and authentic atmosphere.
The General Manager, Markus Marti, agreed to an interview to share his experience and best practices for surviving the COVID-19 pandemic. With extensive global hospitality experience, Markus Marti was able to turn challenges into opportunities by inspiring his team for success. While working for international hotel chains in the Middle East and Asia, he has been exposed to different crisis situations including terrorist attacks; however, the COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented situation and now he sees the hospitality profession as being split into two eras: the pre-pandemic, and the pandemic and beyond.
Employees are crucial for hospitality because it is the employees who differentiate between excellent guest experiences and bad ones. People of 11 different nationalities work at the Chalet RoyAlp Hôtel & Spa, but none of them had any prior experience in a crisis environment. When the COVID-19 pandemic started no one knew what to do and all of the employees were very nervous. Markus Marti recalls that, on Friday 13 March 2020, he found the entire housekeeping staff gathered in front of his office to announce that they did not want to clean rooms anymore because they were scared of the risk of contamination from guests. At that time almost no one was wearing a mask, and they were not even readily available for purchase.
It was obvious that the hotel would have to close and Markus Marti announced to his employees that the hotel would be closed on Sunday 15 March and that, for the remaining few days, they just should be cautious and keep the windows open in the guest rooms for good ventilation. At this point, even the receptionists were resistant to taking their posts in order to avoid any contact with guests. It was a huge challenge for Markus Marti to calm the employees, and countless meetings were held to convince them to continue with their duties.
Once the hotel was closed due to the pandemic restrictions, a decision was taken to use the following three months to prepare for a potential reopening for the summer season. A special COVID-19 safety course from Abu Dhabi University, provided in several languages, was identified as a resource for employee training. The course was offered free of charge; however, a certificate of completion for this course required passing an exam with a 100% grade. The certification process for the hotel employees took several of weeks, and this certification was stipulated as a prerequisite for them to return to work at the hotel. During this time the employees also became exposed to pandemic realities in the course of their daily lives while going to stores for food shopping and other public places, and became accustomed to wearing masks, using hand disinfectants and social distancing. By the time of the hotel reopening for the summer season in June 2020, the employees were not scared anymore and were looking forward to start working again.
Financial Issues and Swiss Government Support
The Chalet RoyAlp Hôtel & Spa normally has international guests from around the world. Many of these international visitors are relatives of students at the numerous international schools located in the village of Villars-sur-Ollon, which is lively and active year round thanks to these schools. Additionally, in March the hotel is usually fully occupied with MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Congress and Events) guests; however, during the pandemic, all events were cancelled, and international travel completely stopped. By the time the official lockdown went into effect, the entire Swiss hospitality sector was facing severe liquidity shortages. The Swiss government was quick to react to the financial crisis with a COVID-19 bridge loan program in support of small and medium sized businesses. The government provided guarantees to the major banks who then issued these emergency loans with no interest immediately upon application, usually within 24 hours, and the Chalet RoyAlp Hôtel & Spa was able to benefit from this program.
The bridge loan would eventually have to be paid back, and expenses had to be managed with a great care. Markus Marti has emphasized the importance of being transparent with his employees, as they represent the most significant asset for the business and their support and understanding is vital to success. He believes that the best teams are built during the difficult times, so he presented the financial situation of the hotel to his employees using the graphics for visual effect and their better understanding. He also explained that their usual indefinite duration employment contracts would have to be replaced with the termed contracts for three months in summer season and then again in winter season. By cutting the cost of salaries during the off seasons, the hotel had a chance to survive during the pandemic.
The reality of the Swiss labor market is that employees represent not only an important asset to a hotel business, but also the largest cost. Starting in March 2020, the Swiss government provided support not only to business with the COVID-19 bridge loans, but also launched a simplified unemployment benefits program for employees who had lost work due to the pandemic.
An Aggressive Marketing Effort Paid Back
Working from their homes during the spring of 2020 in preparation for the summer season, the hotel management team had to learn new skills for using various software applications, web conferencing, and other tools of teleworking. A decision was made to approach the Swiss market with an aggressive marketing campaign and, because the older generation might be reluctant to staying in a hotel due to a higher risk of COVID-19 infection, the millennials were selected as the target audience. The hypothesis was that this generation, aged between 25 and 40 years old, should be in a better health situation and also generally more active in life and eager to escape the lockdown.
To effectively promote the hotel services on social media, the best adapted approach to this younger generation, two contracts were signed with Swiss marketing agencies. One of agencies would use a pull marketing strategy and the another one would use a push marketing strategy. Numerous videos were prepared at the hotel focusing on the different hotel facilities and services such as barbeque, yoga, Spa, candlelight dinner, etc. Each video was constructed to lead the potential guest to the purchase of a predetermined and attractive package. Each package included a hotel stay at only 250 CHF per night (as compared to the regular price of about 500 CHF), plus food and beverages, and other diverse services.
These videos were prepared in two languages (French and English) and lasted between 10 and 90 seconds specifically to match the typical social media viewers’ attention span. The choice of languages made was because the Chalet RoyAlp Hôtel & Spa is more popular in French speaking part of Switzerland than in the German speaking one. During the pre-COVID-19 era, there was a guest mix of about 45% from French speaking Swiss regions, 20% French, 10% British, and the rest from Middle East, Asia, America, Russia.
Hotel Operation Issues During the Pandemic
The Chalet RoyAlp Hôtel & Spa was the first 5-star hotel in the French speaking part of Switzerland to open for the summer season in May 2020. Once the hotel was open, the Swiss health authorities came to check for compliance with the health and safety regulations established during the pandemic. With only 35 employees working during the summer season instead of usual 70, the hotel management had to provide staff back up with a few on-call employees paid on an hourly basis. All of the employees projected strong self-confidence and full readiness to work under COVID-19 circumstances and strictly followed the rules established by the Swiss government.
The “new era” approach to hospitality, adopted by the Chalet RoyAlp during the summer months of 2020, significantly differed from the traditional 5-star hotel service formula. For example, the hotel staff could no longer touch guest luggage, did not enter a room while it was occupied by a guest, and was obliged to leave room service orders in the corridor for the guests to take in for themselves. The valet parking also required a complete disinfection before and after any use of a guest vehicle by a hotel staff member.
At the beginning of the 2020 summer season, the hotel welcomed guests only during the weekends and the first weekend went smoothly thanks to a low occupancy rate of only about 40%. In accordance with to the Swiss government COVID-19 safety regulations, it was required to have at least 2 meters between tables and no more than 1 person per 4 square meters in the restaurants. These requirements dramatically restricted the number of people that hotel could serve meals to. Also, to enter the pool or the restaurant, a guest had to make reservations.
During the second and every following weekend, the hotel was fully booked. This larger number of guests could not be accommodated simultaneously in the hotel restaurants, and the solution decided upon was to organize two sittings. The guests now had to make reservations for a table and were restricted to occupying their table in the restaurant for only 1.5 hours. If they were not present within 10 minutes of the time of their reservation, then their table was given to another guest. This was not well received by many of the guests, who were accustomed to relaxing with a bottle of good wine during an extended dinner.
Guests were also requesting regular twice a day housekeeping services during their stay, which was not possible under the new regulations to reduce the risk of infections. Another issue was with the breakfast. Since the usual buffet breakfast was not allowed under COVID-19 safety measures, orders had to be taken directly from each seated guest. The mandatory masks meant that speech was not always clear, and this sometimes created confusion during the ordering. A special check list menu was created to resolve this issue during breakfast, while hotel management and staff had to adapt to many other similar issues simultaneously and continuously during this period. The learning and adjustment process was progressive, making each successive weekend go better for the guests and the staff with continuous improvement.
Starting in July 2020, the hotel was able to fully open and receive guests daily. The hotel personnel were also now fully prepared for any sort of situation and welcome the increased number of guests.
Every Challenge is an Opportunity.
Despite discouragement from the Leading Hotels of World administration, for the 2020/21 winter season starting on 9 October, the Chalet RoyAlp was the first 5-star hotel in Switzerland to launch a Flash Sale of its rooms on the innovative Swiss discounted sales website QoQa. The hotel proposed a package for 499 CHF which included 2 nights during the week or one night during the weekend, including breakfast and a cheese fondue meal. Within 24 hours over 2000 room/nights were sold, and this approach brought a significant influx of cash to prepare for the winter season. The 2020/21 winter season easily compensated all of the complications that the hotel went through during the previous year.
Even though the borders were mostly closed, and the hotel could not count on international guests, the domestic Swiss market provided enough clients for a successful winter season. Markus Marti mentioned that he had learned from his international positions that during a crisis period you should focus on the local market and that this lesson has been successfully applied in Switzerland during the pandemic period.
The winter season success was in spite of a short closure because of the spread of COVID-19 infection among hotel employees. On 14 January, the first COVID-19 case was detected at the hotel. The Swiss health authorities immediately traced all of the contacts of the infected individual and, when 15 employees tested positive, required the hotel to close for quarantine. All of the guests staying at the hotel were tested with no positive results, showing that the safety measures implemented protected the guests.
Because of the typical low demand towards the end of January, the 7-day quarantine closure did not play a significant role in the hotel’s financial performance. Clients were offered the opportunity to shift their reservations to alternative days or receive reimbursement. The Chalet RoyAlp quarantine story was published in several Swiss newspapers and eventually attracted attention in a positive way. After the short quarantine closure, more reservations came along because of the publicity. In February, the hotel was completely full and extended its operations until 11 April rather than closing for the season a week earlier.
Many lessons have been learned on the way to the success of the Chalet RoyAlp Hôtel & Spa which could provide insight for other hotel operators. We all hope that this pandemic will be under control soon, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to implement and maintain these best practices for the future.