As a senior manager of member services at Exclusive Resorts, Lambie Swenson assists vacation club members with choosing a destination and accommodations based on their interests and travel style. Since the coronavirus outbreak, her field of expertise has expanded, earning her a new title: covid navigator.
"It's an extra hat I wear," Swenson said from her Oregon home, "but wouldn't it be fantastic if I didn't have to wear this hat later in the year?"
Since the onset of the global health crisis, Swenson has been spending about 20 hours a week handling members' queries and concerns about the pandemic and their travel plans. She addresses many issues in "Know Before You Go," a dossier shared on the members-only site. The overview for Peninsula Papagayo in Costa Rica, for instance, includes guidance on coronavirus test sites, mandatory health insurance and capacity limits at national parks. She pulls the information from official government sources and laces it with anecdotes from staff on the ground plus feedback from members who have firsthand knowledge of the destination.
"Members want to know what's open and what's closed, are people wearing masks, and how many days will they need to quarantine," she said. "People want to feel safe, but they also want everything to be open and feel like they're on vacation."
The idea of a covid specialist is still a novelty in the hospitality industry, but over the year, hotels have been introducing new amenities that speak to these anxiety-riddled times. In the early months of the pandemic, hotels were loading up guests with complimentary masks and hand sanitizer. A second wave of perks is now upon us, triggered by a January announcement that all air travelers entering the United States must provide proof of a negative "viral test." (Acceptable tests include antigen tests and nucleic acid amplification tests, or NAAT, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
"You have to make people feel absolutely comfortable when they stay with you," said Robert Cole, a senior research analyst at Phocuswright who specializes in lodging and leisure travel. "The hotels need to communicate that they have a way to protect you. That they have your back."
The most popular perk of 2021 is the coronavirus test. A news release from January declared, "On-site CORONAVIRUS TESTS Are Hotels' New Luxury Amenity." A public relations firm was pitching the feature at hotels in Miami Beach and Los Angeles, even though a negative test result is not required for domestic travel. However, some guests might find a test reassuring after sitting on a crowded plane or packed beach for several hours.
The particulars - cost, type of test, location - vary. Some properties have arranged free antigen tests administered on the hotel's premises; others offer polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests conducted for a fee at a local clinic or hospital, with logistical assistance from the front desk. A few provide both. Meliá Hotels International, for instance, set up complimentary antigen testing at 10 of its hotels in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. A current promotion featuring a barefaced couple frolicking on the beach includes a free fourth night and an antigen test. Meliá's staff can also help guests schedule a PCR test for an additional cost. Sandals and Beaches resorts in the Caribbean have two tests available to guests, both free: the antigen for American visitors and PCR for Canadians. Montage International, which runs Montage and Pendry hotels and resorts, has pushed the health care amenity even further by partnering with One Medical. Guests at its U.S. properties can sign up for a free 30-day membership. Now, you can get a coronavirus test and ask about that rash on your arm.
At Baha Mar in the Bahamas, Americans must undergo a trifecta of tests during their stay: one at arrival, a second on the fifth day (as mandated by the government) and a third before flying home (per U.S. law). Since December, when the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar reopened, the company has administered more than 42,000 free tests. The number will probably skyrocket: On March 4, SLS Baha Mar and Rosewood Baha Mar welcomed back visitors.
To safeguard tourists and residents, Jamaica established Resilient Corridors, zones that contain about 80% of the island's tourism businesses. More than 40 hotels residing in these areas - from Negril to Port Antonio in the north and the Milk River in Clarendon to Negril in the south - have on-site testing. The government also installed 15 testing operations in the corridors, for guests whose hotels do not offer the service.
"We had to step up our testing infrastructure," said Edmund Bartlett, the country's minister of tourism. "We have not had any situation yet where Americans were stranded because they couldn't get a test."
Scheduling a test can be as easy as booking a spa treatment or in-room massage. At the W South Beach Hotel in Miami, guests reserve an appointment through the concierge desk or by scanning a QR code in their room. The test site, which is run by Sollis Health, resides in a former beauty salon adjoining the hotel. At Dorado Beach, a Ritz Carlton Reserve, in Puerto Rico, a doctor will make a house call - or, rather, a guest-room call - for $400. Blue Desert Cabo in Mexico has a similar arrangement: A test-kit-carrying medical professional will drop by your villa for a nominal fee. "It's that simple," said Sean McClenahan, president of Blue Desert Cabo. In addition, the property's staff will schedule the appointment so that it falls within the 72-hour window required by the U.S. government.
Rest assured, the bellman is not sticking a cotton tip up your nose. The hotels are collaborating with medical facilities, such as hospitals and labs. But Robert Bollinger, a professor of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine, said guests should make sure the health care workers are following safety standards and practices. (Bollinger does not advocate nonessential travel.) The test, for one, should come from an approved kit, and the professionals should be wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). He warned that if the steps are not conducted correctly, the patient could receive an incorrect result and inadvertently expose other travelers to the virus.
"The biggest challenge is when the person performing the test does not collect the specimen properly and you get a false negative," he said. Bollinger suggests taking a second test if you are concerned. He added that a negative result does not mean you have a pass to roam. "If you have symptoms or have had a recent covid-19 exposure," he said, "don't get on the plane, even if you test negative."
Several hospitality players have introduced free insurance policies - or promises - that handle the worst-case scenario: a guest testing positive. Travel Safe with Melia and Sandals' Travel Protection Insurance, for example, cover the patient's medical costs and up to two weeks of lodging. Karisma Hotels & Resorts properties in Mexico's Riviera Maya, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica will also accommodate a quarantining guest free for up to two weeks. Baha Mar's Travel with Confidence initiative includes a $150 daily food and beverage credit with its courtesy convalescence suite. If the traveler would rather return to the States than recover in the Bahamas, the company will fly the guest and up to four family members sharing the same room to South Florida at no cost. A sign of the times: The aircraft is not a swanky charter plane but an air ambulance.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)