Masks Complicate Connection Between Hotel Guests, Staff

Though essential for safety, face coverings can disrupt the personal connection between guests and staff. To break the ice, hoteliers introduced custom masks, photo badges and enhanced non-verbal communication training for staff members.

Though essential for safety, face coverings can disrupt the personal connection between guests and staff. To break the ice, hoteliers introduced custom masks, photo badges and enhanced non-verbal communication training for staff members.

Employees at the Deer Path Inn in Lake Forest, Illinois, wear photo badges and masks on property. (Charlestowne Hotels)

Hoteliers understand the need for both safety and service culture, but to maintain a balance of each requires thoughtful updates to staff uniforms and communication training.

Mark Vinciguerra, managing director at The Phoenician Scottsdale, said service culture at his hotel is about making connections, but it’s become cumbersome as masks were introduced at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s hard to hear, you can’t see the person’s face … it’s hard to make the connection with guests,” he said.

The hotel closed on April 6 for 75 days due to the pandemic, he said. Once it reopened, the demand from leisure travelers picked up. The team wanted to display to guests they are doing everything they can to follow safety guidelines while providing a level of service that doesn’t constantly remind guests of COVID-19. When people travel, they’re looking to escape those constant thoughts, he said.

The Phoenician Scottsdale in Scottsdale, Arizona, rolled out its “Smile Behind the Mask” initiative to enhance service culture. Shown here is the badge of Thomas Overton, the hotel’s director of housekeeping and “commitment to clean champion.” (The Phoenician Scottsdale)

As a result, the Phoenician Scottsdale’s human resources director came up with the idea for staff to wear photo badges that include a line about what makes them happy. This “Smile Behind the Mask” initiative was rolled out to a small group at first, he said. Because the response was positive, it’s now part of each staff member’s uniform.

“It really does break down the barriers,” he said, as guests want to know more about the hotel’s associates.

Vinciguerra added that any light-hearted or unique initiative like that can offer a sense of comfort, and guests feel less intimidated expressing concerns to staff, he said.

Another positive is the initiative was low-cost. He said the hardest part was obtaining 1,000 badges, plus some extras in case of damage, as well as getting photos of each staff member and assembling the badges. He said everyone pitched in and they were able to quickly complete it.

Matt Barba, VP of operations at Charlestowne Hotels, said in an email interview that the Deer Path Inn in Lake Forest, Illinois, cautiously reopened and welcomed back guests in May. Once face masks were required, the team implemented photo badges on uniforms and custom masks.

The goal was for guests and locals to be able to quickly identify who they’re engaging with, while still at a distance. The team developed four custom styles of masks. One with their branded “Cheers!” on it, two sets of mustaches—one in black and brown—and one with red lipstick. He said the team was free to choose which one they wanted to wear.

“We also like to have a little fun, so this was another way for us to do something different in a personal, playful way,” Barba said, adding that guests showed interest in the masks.

Deer Path Inn also has four styles of custom masks that staff can choose from. (Charlestowne Hotels)

“Guests loved the masks so much that we had to start mass producing them. Hotel guests received the masks as amenities, and they were also made for purchase in our online shop,” he said.

Barba said the property team plans to continue incorporating the custom masks until they’re no longer necessary, and it’s a relatively inexpensive investment.

The Colgate Inn in Hamilton, New York, also introduced custom masks but decided to keep the purchasing local.

“Hamilton is a small town in Central New York, and Colgate Inn is very proud to support local farmers and purveyors in the restaurants,” he said. “When we had another opportunity to support a local business and customize our masks, especially at a time when they were becoming scare, we were very excited to do so.”

Devin Burns, VP of rooms and food and beverage at Omni Hotels & Resorts, said in an email interview the company launched its “Omni Safe & Clean” program in May when it began reopening hotels, as part of its larger “Stay A Part Of” campaign.

The program emphasizes “that while we all have to be more ‘apart’ these days, with social distancing and masks between us, we believe it’s important to ‘Stay A Part Of’ things we care about most—community, hope, hospitality, progress and more—to maintain a feeling of togetherness,” he said.

To do so, Omni created a safety mask for associates to wear that have “hello” in more than a dozen languages printed on it. He said this demonstrates that service and approachability remain a top priority.

Omni Hotels & Resorts created branded masks that display “hello” in more than a dozen languages. (Omni Hotels & Resorts)

Communicating with a mask on
Because masks add a layer of difficulty for communicating, Barba said staff at Charlestowne properties have been trained on multiple aspects of communicating with a mask on.

Training started with a reminder to speak up and enunciate, he said.

“Sound is often muffled through the fabric if you aren’t paying attention to your volume and speed of speech, especially at a distance,” he added.

Staff were also trained to use their eyes in place of their mouth.

“We’re all trained to smile during guest interactions and, well, that doesn’t work the same anymore. So, there are two sides to this new approach. On one side, they now need to be more animated with their eyes and cheeks in an effort to express emotion,” he said. “On the other side, the times when you wouldn’t normally use words, but rather smile to acknowledge something, staff needed to be accustomed to speaking every time now.”