Hold the door: The rise and fall of the elevator

BHN reporter Eloise Hanson explores how hoteliers are preparing to manage the flow of people riding hotel elevators, as well as the extra steps taken to ensure a safe environment.

The onset of the coronavirus has prompted a tidal wave of change, especially for businesses where service is intrinsic to trade. For hospitality, this entails a significant rework of communal as well as private spaces in order to minimise contact. One specific area that has received little attention however is the hotel elevator – a confined, high-touch mechanism used by most if not all guests. So what exactly are hotels doing to mitigate risk? To control and monitor the flow of people? To clean surfaces whilst maintaining a safe distance?

The logistics of the task have perhaps been overlooked as lobbies and restaurant revamps take priority. The reduction of the two-metre distancing rule announced recently in the UK is a welcome lifeline, allowing some businesses to potentially resume operations at over 50 per cent occupancy. The prospect has divided owners, with some claiming that a minimum of 75 per cent occupancy is necessary for viability

Physical distancing rules will be a commonplace expectation when out and about; for lifts, it’s ranked the top recommendation by the British government for establishing best practice. A document detailing COVID-secure guidelines for office staff states:

• Reducing the maximum occupancy of lifts

• Providing hand sanitiser for lift operation

• Encouraging the use of stairs where possible

• Ensuring people with disabilities are able to access lifts

Whilst not explicitly mentioned though implied, staff will need to monitor guest use of the elevator in order to comply with government advice. Robin Sheppard, chairman of Bespoke Hotels, explained: “In the early days, where it’s appropriate, we’ll have someone manage the lift until we’re comfortable that people understand and respect the protocol. Whilst we’re still in this state of high anxiety I think we have to give our guests supreme confidence that we’re doing everything we can. Equally our staff need to feel that they themselves are safe within the lift. It counts both for guests and our team.”

Though overall hotel occupancy is anticipated to remain relatively low and steady during the reopening phase, mixed-use buildings are likely to experience a greater capacity and traffic as a result of its multi-functional purpose. For those hotels where reception is located above several storeys of retail space, it raises questions around who is responsible for managing the density of queues. Similarly, it can be contended that waiting in line for an indefinite period of time goes against traditional notions of delivering a seamless guest experience – a key facet for establishing a loyal customer base.

Technical solutions could be deployed to help reduce traffic jams. For instance push notifications can alert guests pre-arrival to quieter periods of elevator use. A reservation notification system may even be installed in buildings that see heavy footfall. Though a feasible answer for crowd control pre-arrival, it does little to support the regular use of elevators whilst on-property. Weight and capacity monitors could eliminate the need for a physical gatekeeper, but as Sheppard mentioned, guests will want reassurance and feel confident that staff are doing all they can.

The visibility of health and safety precautions is a dealbreaker. Hubert Viriot, CEO of YOTEL, said: “As part of our re-opening strategy, YOTEL has introduced #SMARTSTAY: a programme of measures to help our guests navigate local government requirements at the hotel. These include obvious things like hand sanitising stations and seriously strong disinfectant, but also significant signage and direction on food collection/serving, social distancing and the amount of people allowed inside our elevators at any given time, and when exceptions apply.  

“For example in some hotels, the lift might only have a maximum of two people at a time, but if there are four people in the same travel party/family, they can ride together. Most importantly, the programme includes significant training for our crew to help us implement and manage this programme on the ground and of course, to keep themselves safe too,” Viriot added.

Bob van den Oord, managing director and regional vice president at Langham Hospitality Group, said of its London property: “We have four guest lifts, and all four are incredibly small and so with physical distancing it’s very challenging. We’re putting signs on every floor reminding users to only enter the elevator one party at a time (that is, up to four people). Inside the actual lift, we’re adding decals on the floor so that people can safely stand one metre apart. We’re also encouraging guests, in line with local government advice, to wear facial masks, and this will also be signposted outside the lift.”

Cleaning will inevitably focus on high-touch surfaces such as door buttons and hand rails, though timings and frequency will need to be agreed and scheduled. Bob van den Oord said: “We have a schedule where every 15-30 minutes, someone will clean our elevators. We are also looking into a plastic cover that will go over the buttons so that it’s easier to clean and disinfect. We’ve also invested in electrostatic spray guns and will use them to sanitise our rooms upon check out, as well as in the public areas which includes the lift.”

At The Langham London, the elevators have been reprogrammed to travel only in one direction per call. Each elevator will travel all the way from top to bottom before it can reverse its journey. Other businesses may adopt a strict one-way system (one to travel up and one to travel down) in a bid to encourage a faster journey time – a likely scenario for high-rise buildings.

To further limit the risk of transmission, touchless solutions are proving invaluable. Cloud-based technology has been utilised by Kone Elevator India to allow customers use WhatsApp to call an elevator. Riders can dial or message a specific number allotted to the lift, then state what floor number they are travelling to. 

The very materials used within the lift infrastructure is even being reconsidered. Sheppard said: “In the medium-term (this is not going to be straight away) I’m told that copper as a metal will less likely harbour or attract COVID-19, so we may find ourselves putting copper inside the handles and switch plates and the door buttons and so on, even inside hotels generally. The science isn’t proven yet but that’s what I’m told. We’ve been taking some time experimenting to see if that’s true. There’s a shelf-life of COVID existing on surfaces, including hard metals, and apparently copper is a worse conductor for them.”

Other cleaning technologies include air purifiers that can kill viruses and bacteria within an enclosed lift, as well as Biotouch antimicrobial coatings that can protect surfaces from contamination. And with perception of fear yet to collide with the reality of the situation, intensified hygiene protocols along with the availability of space will remain high on the agenda for the foreseeable future. It’s the logistics of arriving at, calling and riding an elevator that is yet to be fine-tuned.

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