A Hotel Stay Post COVID-19 Is a Different Scene
Why Travel Now?
Like many people, I had got used to lockdown and felt safer staying at home than venturing out. Travel of any kind, especially involving a hotel stay, seemed like a risk too far. But we had a hotel stay booked pre-COVID-19. With hotels due to reopen in the UK, early July 2020, we had to decide; either use it or lose it. Well, you can probably guess which option we chose.
As the old English saying goes: 'In for a penny, in for a pound' and, after a few clicks on the laptop, a two-night stay in Ilkley had grown into a 13-night tour of Yorkshire, staying in 7 hotels and catching up, socially distanced of course, with friends and family along the way.
Our tour started with three nights and ended with a night at the Hilton Garden Inn Doncaster. As we had stayed here previously, we came away with a clear 'before' and 'after' view of the changes this hotel has made as a result of COVID-19.
Post COVID-19 Travel
How do you feel about staying in a hotel post-pandemic?
Join us, as we explore the impact of COVID-19 on a stay at Hilton Garden Inn Doncaster.
- First Impressions.
- Getting Around the Hotel.
- Our Rooms.
- The Gym.
- On the Bright Side.
- Small Perks.
- Post-COVID Travel Tips.
- Final Thoughts.
1. First Impressions
As we approached Hilton Garden Inn Doncaster, there was little, from a distance, that differed from our previous visits. The roads were quieter than usual, but then again it was a Sunday afternoon. There were very few cars in the hotel car park. But if we needed any reminder that the world had changed, all we had to do was glance at the hotel entrance.
Big signs over the entrance doors, 'IN' and 'OUT' clearly indicated a one-way system. Chalk markings on the ground encouraged social distancing. There was a hand sanitizer by the door and there was an abundance of COVID-19-related signage inside the entrance.
On our first visit, in October 2018, we walked into a modern, high-ceilinged atrium, quickly spotting the reception area, which was set to one side. Across from it, there was a coffee bar area and a row of comfortable sofas. We could glimpse the racecourse through the windows at the back of the hotel, past the bar area and restaurant entrance. There was a business area to the side of the reception desk with computer access.
The atmosphere was relaxed. We were greeted warmly and check-in was quick and efficient. There was some small talk, vouchers were given for breakfast in the restaurant and a later checkout was discussed. This was what check-ins used to be like.
We dutifully used the hand sanitizer before entering. Once through the door, we were greeted at a distance by security with a clipboard. Our name was checked off and we were directed along a roped-off path towards reception. The sofas opposite reception were nowhere to be seen. The receptionists were shielded behind screens and access was barred to the business area and computers nearby.
There were markings on the floor in front of the reception desk, to encourage social distancing. Our details were confirmed as usual. The receptionist carefully wiped two branded pens, before pushing them towards us with two new COVID forms for us to complete and unusually asking us both to sign the check-in form.
We each had to answer questions about COVID-19. Had we had any symptoms, tested positive, or been with anyone who had developed symptoms or tested positive in the past 14 days? I wondered what the response would be if we answered 'Yes' to any of the questions, but I wasn't going to find out. It struck me that the system depended a lot on guests being honest with their answers.
Forms duly completed on a high table nearby and handed back, a little normality ensued. Keycards were handed over in a wallet and we were given two bottles of water, before being directed towards the lifts, where more changes awaited us.
3. Getting Around the Hotel
There were hand sanitizers outside the lifts on every floor, as well as clear signage about the new lift etiquette. No more squeezing into packed lifts at busy times of the day. Usage was restricted to one household only. No shortage of room for luggage now. I wondered if we might experience increased waiting times for lifts, as a result of the restrictions. But a combination of low guest numbers and use of rooms on lower floors meant that we never had a problem. There was the option of taking the stairs too.
We first visited this hotel within weeks of its opening in 2018. Corridors were painted in a light color and brightly lit with a modern feel to them. There was minimal signage and no notices stuck on the walls.
The bright, airy feel to the corridors had been altered somewhat by the proliferation of COVID signage that had appeared on the walls. There was even a reminder to wash your hands on the door into the corridor from the lift area. There was certainly no excuse here for forgetting COVID social distancing and handwashing/sanitizing protocols.
4. Our Rooms
Previous visits to Hilton Garden Inn Doncaster had seen us assigned king rooms with racecourse views on the 7th and 5th floors. The rooms were modern, spacious, and well-equipped. Large full-length windows made the most of the racecourse view. Each room had an armchair so that guests could take in the view while sitting in comfort. A long desk area, complete with swivel office chair, also housed a small fridge and a safe below it. The light wood fitted furniture, combined with the cream and mushroom painted walls to give the rooms a modern and contemporary feel.
Each room had a fully tiled, generous sized shower room, equipped with modern white fixtures and a large walk-in shower.
We were assigned a Queen family room with a racecourse view at the end of the 2nd floor. The window was smaller and higher, as there was a parapet and flat roof area outside. We were surprised to see a cameraman along from our window (more about that later). It turned out that, due to low occupancy and it being the second night the hotel had reopened, only this floor was in use.
Spot the Difference
The armchair was replaced by a sofa bed to accommodate a family and the bed was smaller than those on the 7th and 5th floors previously. A bedside table was missing. A manager later explained that this was Hilton policy post-COVID-19. One less surface to worry about I guess. Its absence was inconvenient over the 3 nights we were there.
Tea and coffee facilities were well stocked, as housekeeping would not be routinely entering rooms during guest occupancy. New cleaning protocols meant that after guests checked out, rooms were left for 3 days before housekeeping cleaned them and prepared them for the next guests. On more than one occasion we used our own bin liner to collect rubbish and then left it in an open cleaner's room.
Mugs had been replaced by disposable cups, which became unpleasant after a few drinks. Disposable beakers replaced glasses and instead of spoons, there were disposable stirrers. More cups and drinks, along with clean towels, toiletries were obtainable from reception. Out of the 7 hotels that we stayed in, only 2 (Hampton by Hilton and Ramada) had proper cups.
All collateral had been removed. There was no hardback book about Doncaster on the table, no menus, or printed hotel information. Even the customary notepad and pen had disappeared, although the receptionist seemed only too happy for us to keep the pens that we had contaminated while signing in downstairs.
9 days later
Our second post-COVID-19 stay, saw us go up a floor. Room 310 was a King racecourse view. We had the armchair, full-length window, bedside table, and larger bed, as with our earlier stays, all be it on a lower floor. But the disposable cups were still a feature.
Thoughts on Our Post-COVID rooms
Despite the minor changes in the rooms outlined above, it was possible to shut ourselves away in our room at Hilton Garden Inn and feel relatively safe and secure. Surprisingly so, given all the disruption caused by COVID-19 in the previous few months. The rooms were of the same good quality as before. We could almost kid ourselves that life was getting back to normal, apart from the helpful reminder on the back of the shower room door. Just in case we had forgotten how to wash our hands.
One of the high points of a hotel stay for us is the hotel breakfast. Forget the rushed bowl of cereal and a quick cup of tea at home. Nothing quite beats a hotel breakfast buffet, where you can linger and eat as much as you want, so much so that often we don't require any lunch. Of all the hotels we have stayed in, Hilton Garden Inn Doncaster came (note the use of the past tense) high up the list for its good breakfast offering.
We were greeted warmly, offered a choice of seats, and given a guided tour of the breakfast buffet. There was a choice of complimentary newspapers and one was brought to our table. We chose a seat by the full-length window for a view of the racecourse.
The list of breakfast options was impressive. Whether you wanted a light option or the full works, it was all there. There was a choice of 3 juices or water and a selection of hot drinks available. There were 7 different kinds of cereal to choose from. Savory cold options included cheese, beef, ham, salami, and chorizo. A range of fresh fruit, apples, pears, bananas, oranges, melon, pineapple, and watermelon was available in a cold section as well as yogurts and toppings.
A good selection of hot items, including sausages, bacon, mushrooms, baked beans, fried eggs were on offer. A chef was on hand to cook poached eggs to order and make bespoke omelets.
The bakery selection was well-covered with bread, croissants, bagels, and rolls. There was also the Hilton specialty, the waffle maker, with a range of toppings. It took a little trial and error, but we managed to produce half-decent waffles in the end.
The staff were very attentive throughout. The atmosphere was relaxed and the whole experience got the day off to a good start.
We knew that breakfast would be significantly different post-COVID. Self serve buffets were out of the question. Maybe table service would be an option. Far from it. Imagine our disappointment, when we arrived, to discover that a 'Breakfast To Go' bag could be collected from reception in the morning. But, encouraged somewhat by our previous positive breakfast experience, we hoped for the best.
Any hopes of a filling breakfast were dashed when my husband returned from reception the following morning with two paper bags. One contained a smoothie, croissant, butter, apple, yogurt, muesli bar, milk, sugar, disposable cutlery, napkin, and stirrers. The other was similar but for the addition of a piece of cheese and a carton of juice. He collected coffees, served by a staff member from a machine.
Some mornings the croissant was replaced by a muffin and the piece of fruit or muesli bar varied. There was no sight of a newspaper anywhere.
When we realized, on arrival, that breakfast was more limited than expected, we brought up a box of cereals, long-life milk, disposable bowls, and spoons from the car, originally intended for use in hotels where breakfast wasn't included. We later had to make a supermarket trip to replenish our supplies, but at least we felt set for the day. It gave us a chance to buy a newspaper too.
9 Days Later
At check-out (first time round) we were asked how our stay had been. We expressed disappointment at the breakfast offering. A staff member was sympathetic and thought that a breakfast service might be in place by the end of the following week. "That's good", we said. "We'll be back then to try it out". No such luck. Breakfast in a bag was still on offer 9 days later when we returned.
Food and Drink
We hadn't planned on eating any meals in the hotel, so the restricted options did not affect us. Tables had to be reserved at reception for the Garden Grill Bar, where table service was in place for a limited capacity from 3.00 pm until 10.30 pm. The plan was to adjust the food and beverage service as government guidelines changed.
Compared with other Hotels
To be fair, grab and go breakfast bags featured in other hotels we visited (Best Western, Hampton by Hilton). Holiday Inn offered a choice of hot options in the bag (bacon or sausage bap. mushroom and cheese toastie). Jurys Inn suggested a continental breakfast delivered to your door. Ramada appeared to be serving breakfast and we enjoyed two cooked breakfasts in a restaurant in a Best Western Plus hotel. We pre-booked a table and a staff member served everything to our table, whilst wearing a visor. The evening meal was a similar affair.
Each hotel was trying to find a path through the new post-COVID government guidance.
6. The Gym
The gym at Hilton Garden Inn Doncaster is by no means the biggest and, covering the area of around two bedrooms, is perhaps more accurately described as a 'mini-gym'. It consisted of 2 treadmills, a cross trainer, a bike, a low bike, a mat, a bench and a selection of weights. It has served me well in the past and, as I was always the only one in there, it felt more like my own private gym.
Following government guidelines, the gym was closed during our post-COVID stays in Doncaster. To add insult to injury, our first 3 nights were in a room at the end of the 2nd-floor corridor, so I had to walk past the closed gym several times each day. Since our visit, gyms have been allowed to reopen, so hopefully, hotels will be reopening theirs too. It's probably best to check before you travel.
7. On the Bright Side
Racing from Doncaster
In past stays, we have looked out onto Doncaster racecourse, without a horse in sight, and wondered what a race day would be like. As hotel prices tend to rise in line with demand and race day stays would cost a premium, we never expected to witness horse racing from our room.
COVID-19 has changed all that. Along with other events in the UK, horse race meetings were initially canceled at the height of the pandemic. They have since restarted behind closed doors. We soon realized the reason for the cameraman outside our window. He was filming racing from Doncaster for the punters sitting at home to see on TV.
Now I've never been a horse racing fan, but I have to admit that it was an interesting spectacle to observe and a first for us from a hotel window. Never having placed a bet on a race in my life, it got me checking the time of the next race on my smartphone, so we didn't miss the action.
8. Small Perks
In the early days of hotels reopening, prices and points redemption levels have been significantly lower than normal to encourage hesitant guests to book. You could also say that this reflects the reduced amenities currently available.
In the UK, the government has reduced Value Added Tax in the hospitality sector from 20% to 5% until January 2021. Not all providers will pass the benefit on to their guests, but it should mean lower prices.
Keen to retain previous regular guests, Hilton, along with other brands, has protected members of its loyalty scheme. To reflect hotel closures during COVID-19, tier status, which carries added benefits with it, has been extended for 12 months. This should keep regular travelers with Diamond or Gold status happy, as they otherwise could have seen a drop in status and benefits.
Have You Changed Your Mind?
Having read about our experiences, would you stay in a hotel post COVID-19?
9. Post-COVID Travel Tips
If you are planning a post-pandemic trip, here are a few tips that might help.
- Continue to be COVID-aware, stick to the advice about hand-sanitizing/washing and the use of masks. Don't let your guard down.
- Stock up on COVID essentials. Take a supply of disposable masks*, hand sanitizer, and anti-bacterial wipes.
- Plan your trip with care. Check what will be open in the hotel and also nearby. You will probably have to pre-book time-slot admissions to nearby attractions (if they are open) and tables at restaurants.
- Don't expect the same levels of service in your hotel as you were used to before COVID-19.
- Don't pay for breakfast. If it comes in a bag, it's probably not worth it.
- Take a supply of food and drink with you to avoid going hungry.
* Disposables are probably not the most environmentally friendly, but washing reusable masks at high temperatures might not be convenient while away.
10. Final Thoughts
Our Yorkshire tour took us from Doncaster to Ilkley, central Bradford, Brighouse, the outskirts of Bradford, Leeds, and Wakefield, before returning to Doncaster. We stayed in a variety of brands: Best Western Plus, Jurys Inn, Holiday Inn, Best Western, Hampton by Hilton and Ramada, as well as the Hilton Garden Inn.
It gave us a chance to compare COVID responses. As you would expect, there were many similarities. Screens at reception, social distancing floor markings, hand sanitizer dispensers, an abundance of COVID-related signage, and enhanced cleaning protocols were commonplace, as well as rooms no longer being routinely cleaned during stays.
It will be interesting to see how many COVID-induced changes become permanent. Will the screens and sanitizers be there to stay? Prior to COVID, some hotels were incentivizing guests not to have their rooms cleaned mid-stay with offers of brand loyalty points. Will the daily housekeeping service ever return? And what about the breakfast buffet? Will we ever see its like again?
On our part, we were inclined to be a little more tolerant. It felt like the hotels were doing us a favor, having us stay there. So we were much more inclined to let things go without questioning them, grateful for the opportunity to get away, see family, and have a change of scene.
I set out with more than a little reluctance and trepidation. I was concerned about the risks of venturing out into the post-COVID hotel world. I am pleased to report that we completed our trip safely. Having tried it successfully, I am now more confident to book other hotels in the future. Foreign travel will have to wait a little longer.
I hope this article has been of use to you, especially if you are wondering about booking a hotel in our new post-pandemic world. Stay safe.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Liz Westwood