As people begin to emerge from their quarantines, many of our readers are asking about what it’s like to travel now, as we feel like we’re past the first wave of re-openings and looking ahead to hopefully brighter future days for the travel industry.
While traveling in these uncertain times is certainly a personal choice, it’s important that all travelers be prepared with what to expect before departing their homes. Whether you’re seeking a simple staycation, venturing out on that first business trip, or really looking to get away in style, there are definite changes ahead.
We turned to the team at Washington’s longest-running five-star hotel, the Four Seasons Hotel Washington, DC, for an insider’s view. We asked key members of their leadership team what it’s been like to run a hotel, as well as some key advice for guests traveling. And wow, did they have some stories to tell.
They are one of just a handful of Four Seasons properties nationwide that didn’t close their doors at all during even the earliest days of COVID-19.
“Staying open for our guests and our employees was very important to us, said Regional Vice President and General Manager David Bernand. “It was not an easy decision, but I am grateful to our hotel ownership for their support in remaining open even when occupancy levels dropped to unprecedented levels.”
Guests that Feel Like Family
Occupancy levels dipped dramatically at hotels around the country, and, for many months, didn’t break past ten percent. Hotel manager Jason De Vries said that “we got to know our guests very well,” and spoke to the wide mix of guests who joined the hotel during the early days of quarantine, including government officials and people who had to quarantine at the property due to health and family reasons.
The common thread, De Vries said, is that “our guests really felt like family.”
Taking Care of Their Own
The hotel was a leader in the DC market, not just because it stayed open, but because of how they cared for their staff, from guaranteeing ongoing healthcare benefits to a partnership with Michael Mina, the celebrity chef behind its BOURBON Steak restaurant [see our recent interview with Chef], to offer three weekly complete meals for restaurant and hotel employees and their families for six weeks – more than one thousand meals each week.
“Putting the majority of our Four Seasons Family on furlough was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my career. Our staff is like family, many of whom have been with us for years…multiple decades even!” said Bernand. “We have lived many highs and lows together, but nothing has compared to what we went through this past spring. From the very first day we kept an open line of communication with our team … Our local community really pulled together to help us accomplish this.”
Getting Creative in the Kitchen
In the early days of the pandemic, Executive Chef Sebastien Giannini spent most of his days alone in the kitchen—he was trying to take every precaution as his wife, who also works at the hotel, was at home pregnant with their second baby. Chef Giannini, who is French, used this time to get a bit creative with the menus for both room service guests and staff. As a way to help people stay engaged with the hotel, they pivoted to showcasing his creation with “daily Chef’s menus” on delivery service Tock.
Chef saved the day –literally—more than once during the pandemic.
Putting out (Literal) Fires Everywhere
Once stay-at-home orders were lifted, the hotel gradually increased occupancy and began hosting small events. In mid-August, the hotel was making up for the lost time, hosting a doubleheader—two micro weddings—on the same weekend night. As a fire alarm began blaring near the kitchens, Chef realized that not only were these two weddings not fated to happen as planned, but that if he didn’t act quickly, the meals would be ruined as well. So he sprang into action once again, calling his former colleagues across town at the Watergate hotel after the hotel staff had exhausted all other options in Georgetown, where the Four Seasons is located. Despite the Watergate being closed since March, the hotel agreed to open just for their friend in order to host the two events.
“Our Four Seasons team all worked together to clean the ballroom, transfer flowers, décor, menus, (in the rain!), redecorate the rooms for each wedding exactly as it was and serve the food, with only a short delay!” Giannini said. “It was a moment that I was very proud to be a hotelier.”
Giannini made a second (or is it a third?) miracle happen a few weeks later – and just days before his wife’s due date. The hotel has long been known for creative programming, including garden parties and igloo style pop-up tents in winter. This year is no exception. With BOURBON Steak closed and the weather still perfect for outdoor dining, Giannini took inspiration from his native Côte d’Azur and the hotel’s sister dining concept, ENO, a wine bar, to create ENO AZUR, an exclusive new pop up featuring French Riviera specialties with the accent on vegetarian and seafood delicacies like beignets de courgettes (zucchini blossom fritters), petits farcis, (sausage-stuffed roasted vegetables), Niçoise salad, braised Mediterranean branzino with fennel, and Chef Giannini’s personal favorite, lobster spaghetti flambéed with pastis.
“ENO AZUR is the creative expression that our resilient team started building immediately after we were forced to close BOURBON STEAK. Combining the craftsmanship of our Chef with the savoir-faire of our bartenders and sommeliers, the team’s heart came out in each detail to create an incomparable dining experience in DC,” said de Vries.
Leading with Care
Of course, serving guests during this unique time in hospitality requires the dedication – and attention – of more than just hospitality pros. Four Seasons has helped lead the way with a new Lead with Care Program, developed in consultation with John Hopkins Hospitals. It has been, in the words of De Vries, “was really helpful to us in creating standards that went above and beyond our guest’s expectation[s]” and has helped guests to feel safe coming to the hotel.
This includes enhanced sanitation and fewer touchpoints not just in the public spaces, but in areas where touch is central – the spa. The hotel has recently re-opened the spa and fitness club, both of which are popular with locals and guests alike, with key measures influenced by the brand’s Lead with Care initiatives.
“Self-care has never been so important,” said Spa Director Nabil Gomes. The spa is open for massage treatments as well as other select services, but Gomes recognizes that not everyone will currently feel comfortable in a spa setting. Instead, she provided a handy 12-step home facial guide for guests to recreate their Four Seasons experience in the comfort of their own homes.
Not only are masks mandatory for all staff, but each undergoes temperature checks daily. Spa and restaurant guests are also asked to follow these procedures for everyone’s safety.
Planning Future Travel
Making the decision to visit the Four Season—or any hotel—at this time is a deeply personal choice. But if you are making the call to travel, we’d suggest that you consider not just how to do so safely, but where you choose to give your business, considering properties known not just for service, but those that treated—and continue to treat—the people behind the desk just as well as those who are sleeping in their rooms and suites.