(1:20 p.m. EDT) -- As hotels open up with new procedures and policies geared toward preventing the spread of COVID-19, there are features that could serve as a roadmap for the cruise lines as the industry attempts to return to service .
Granted, hotels have the advantage of remaining under the guidance of one set of local health regulations, while cruise lines must grapple with a multitude of different rules and regulations from countries around the world.
But a recent stay at a premium resort in the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains showcased just how safe -- and most importantly, fun -- travel can still be, even as the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic still surrounds us. Not all changes implemented to fight COVID-19 made the hotel stay upsetting or awkward, we found -- and some actually made the experience better than it was before
Here's what we found during a mini-break at Banff's Rimrock Resort Hotel.
The Rimrock Resort Hotel, nestled in the heart of Canada's Banff National Park, is one of the largest luxury hotels in the area. The property, like several others in Banff, reopened during the first week of June after remaining shuttered since March, when the coronavirus pandemic spread across Canada. Much like the cruise industry, the mountain town of Banff, Alberta is almost entirely dependent on tourism, both domestic and international.
Prior to restarting operations on June 5, the Rimrock Resort
of health and safety measures that have also been adopted by other major hotels in the area, including the famous Fairmont Banff Springs. While we found small differences between hotel policies, the big details were all consistent across the board.
The Rimrock is making masks and hand sanitizer available for guests to use. Rooms are kept vacant for 24 hours and thoroughly disinfected between guests until July, when an electrostatic sprayer will be introduced.
Social distancing is being enforced in all common areas, and contactless check-in/check-out services is utilized.
The Resort has also dedicated staff members responsible for disinfecting high-touch areas, like door handles and countertops. Screening for symptoms are done at the start of each shift for all staff members, and a health questionnaire is given prior to check-in for all guests.
Staff are required to wear face masks where social distancing isn't possible, and the Resort is encouraging guests to use their own non-medial masks when in the hotel's common areas.
There are other changes being implemented as well: the mini-bar contents, complimentary pen and paper, and tea and kettle are removed from all guest rooms. These items are available upon request so as to avoid cross-contamination.
Because of the local restrictions currently in-place in Alberta, the resort's pool, spa, and fitness center were all closed to visitors during our mid-June stay. Valet parking service was also unavailable at this time.
So with this laundry list of procedures, what did the reality feel like?
The check-in experience was positive and held the distinction of being faster and easier than a "normal" check-in during pre-COVID times.
When I pulled my car around to the hotel's entrance, a staff member wearing a mask was there to greet me. He asked if I had masks with me or if I needed any provided (I had brought my own), and crossed my name off a list of those checking-in that evening. He then directed me to pull forward to the main hotel doors, where another staff member was waiting with my room keys already prepared. She asked if I needed any assistance with my luggage, which I declined. Since I had booked online with the resort, my credit card was already on-file.
She handed me a printed pamphlet on the hotel's new health and safety protocols then directed me towards the entrance to the parking garage, and my check-in was complete. Total time from start to finish: maybe two minutes.
For cruise lines, the advantages of a similar setup are apparent. While cruise lines typically already have your keycard on-hand and have moved to a more digital embarkation process, additional streamlining of the process at the Rimrock eliminated the need for the traditional line at the front desk; a place where it's hard to achieve social distancing.
Having guests arrive at designated times -- and adhering to that -- will probably become commonplace. Offering masks at embarkation and laying out "the rules" -- in a friendly and cordial manner -- will likely also follow through.
The Rimrock excelled in having staff members at every step of the way to explain the hotel's new policies and making the check-in experience fun, fast and non-intimidating. Ensuring people know where they're going, and what is expected of them, was key to putting myself and my wife at ease.
Bear Prints and Hand Sanitizers
Since masks were encouraged in public areas, we donned them to take the luggage from our car and bring it to our room. Hand sanitizers were plentiful and situated at every turn, including inside every elevator car and outside high-contact surfaces like the on-site ATM machine. There were so many hand sanitizers, in fact, that there was no need to bring your own at all.
To help assist guests in social distancing in places like the front desk and concierge, fun signage was affixed to the resort's floor in the form of bear footprints that directed visitors where to stand. Plexiglass barriers were installed at the front desk and in front of the concierge, eliminating the need for these staff members to wear masks.
When we asked the concierge for advice on nearby hikes, he donned his mask and we did the same before moving over to a non-shielded part of the desk, where a paper map was provided to us along with directions.
Cruise lines already have hand sanitizer located at various points throughout the ship. Expect this to be increased dramatically, however. We found the hand sanitizers in the elevator cars to be particularly handy.
Cruise lines also have the opportunity to have fun with social distancing markings on floors, like the Resort did with its bear prints that were both whimsical and reflected the region's most famous wildlife.
At first blush, the room itself was as a hotel room always should be: clean, tidy and welcoming. We knew it would be missing the books and tourism literature that normally litter the desks, so we weren't surprised to not see these things.
The television remote control was wrapped in sealed plastic and had been sanitized prior to our arrival.
The room initially did feel a little emptier, however, without the usual room directory, pen and paper pads, and other small touches. Glasses were still provided, and we were able to request a kettle, tea, and pen and paper free of charge. These items were delivered less than 10 minutes from calling the front desk and came wrapped in a plastic bag.
The only major difference during our hotel stay: cleaning staff would not enter your room for the duration of your stay, though the hotel advises that technical and mechanical repair workers could still enter if required. For our two-night stay, that meant making our own bed in the morning. Which, to be honest, wasn't the biggest hardship -- though it is something that could require getting used to if the same procedures were implemented on a. cruise.
Bars and Lounges
The Rimrock offers two restaurants and two lounges, half of which were open for business during our stay. While Divas' Cocktail Lounge and the Primrose restaurant were closed, the impressive Larkspur Lounge in the hotel's two-story lobby was open, along with Eden, the Resort's five-star dining experience. A small café was also open on-site and offered sanitizer for sale at a reasonable price.
The first thing I made a beeline for after checking in was the Larkspur Lounge. The hotel still offers live piano music on Friday and Saturday evenings from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., accompanied by a roaring fire and pristine alpine views.
At the entrance to Larkspur, we were met by a staff member who asked us to sanitize our hands before seating us at a table. Gone are the days when you can just walk into a bar and sit down wherever you want, though we found the organization comforting during this odd time. We had no issues getting a table, all of which were generously spaced out. If anything, it lent the lounge a more refined, exclusive experience.
Instead of menus, digital QR codes were affixed in two separate places to tables to allow patrons to quickly pull up digital menus on the hotel's website. My wife and I thought this was a great touch: we could both look at the menu at the same time, and it eliminated another thing for us to handle.
In the bar, we took our masks off while our waitress wore hers. This wasn't as weird as it sounds: we're getting used to seeing service staff wearing masks at restaurants and in other places where social distancing isn't possible. Staff all wore uniform gray masks, and this didn't limit the enjoyment of interacting with staff at all.
When tables were vacated, a staff member would come along and spray and wipe down tables and chairs with disinfectant before new customers could be seated. While the check still had to be signed by hand, the folder was sanitized, and pens were new. For purchases not charged to the room, wireless, contactless debit and credit terminals were used. Cash - transactions -- at least in Canada -- are being discouraged.
This process is completely achievable on a cruise ship, where menus could be digitally added to cruise line apps or as QR codes. This not only eliminates the need to have printed menus but allows cruise lines to change and customize menus without having to have new physical copies printed. Not having a physical menu did not impact my enjoyment of my Cherry Maple Old Fashioned in any way.
Because we'd heard good things from friends, we made a reservation for Eden, the Resort's upscale degustation dining experience.
Here, the menus were printed, but were intended for single-use; staff told us QR codes are likely coming to Eden as well. Staff wore masks and maintained social distancing, but still provided exceptional service. Restroom facilities were pointed out as we were seated to eliminate the need for patrons to go wandering around the facility or re-enter the main lobby, which was appreciated.
The rest of the meal proceeded as usual, with the exception that bread was served individually instead of for the table. The dining experience would compare favorably with upscale onboard eateries like La Dame aboard Silversea's fleet.
Though the restaurant had obviously removed some tables, the intimate nature of this venue allowed it to remain largely as it was -- and the restaurant was sold out on our Saturday evening visit. That's particularly impressive considering we'd dined there on the restaurant's second evening in operation since initially closing back in March.
In cruising, luxury lines are likely to have less of an issue with social distancing than big megaships were being part of the crowd is half the fun. Changes to a Silversea or Seabourn ship may not need to be as sweeping as, say, changes made to a Norwegian ship.
However, as with the Larkspur Lounge, having fewer people around didn't detract from the experience at all. It's a bit like flying business class versus coach: more personal space can be a lot of fun.
Check-out was as easy as checking in. Though there were numerous ways this could be accomplished, I chose to go to the front desk to check out the "old fashioned" way.
The front desk agent invited us to drop our keycards into a secure box to be sanitized for future use and asked if an emailed copy of the statement for my stay would be fine. I asked to see a printed statement first, and this was easily provided.
As my credit card was already on file, there was no more for me to do. Total time from start to finish: two minutes.
Cruise lines already have an advantage in this area. Many of them allow you to view your onboard statement from your TV or digital app or print a statement out from an automated kiosk.
Unlike hotels -- where not every guest checks out at the same time -- cruise lines will need to substantially modify their disembarkation process to avoid having half the ship line up for the 7 a.m. stampede off once the cruise has come to a close. Likely, this will come in the form of more detailed, organized disembarkation times.
The Verdict? Travel Can Still Be Fun, Even With New Procedures
I booked my stay at the Rimrock as a mini-vacation. I came away excited by the realization that staying at a hotel and traveling can still be fun, even with changes – and there are definite ways that cruise lines can keep the experience familiar and enjoyable.
The changes put in place by the Rimrock didn't detract at all from my vacation; in many cases, I found that it made my experience better.
Having fewer people in bars and lounges resulted in more personal space -- a real luxury in some travel segments.
Wearing masks in public areas wasn't bothersome, as we were usually on our way to eat or drink something, where masks could be taken off. Hotel staff suggested that masks be worn but didn't militarily enforce it.
The bear paw directional signage on the floor and abundance of hand sanitizer everywhere contributed positively to the safety measures in place and did so in a fun way.
For the cruise industry, the possibilities to adopt similar measures are endless. Yes, cruising might change in some ways to deal with the reality of COVID-19 and a new focus on health and safety. But not all changes will be bad. From what we saw on our hotel stay, some will improve cruising for the better.