Hotels in Italy are gradually reopening: Here’s what that looks like
INTERNATIONAL - In the post-pandemic world, the ultimate luxury is living as if the virus never existed. That’s exactly what Forte Village, a sprawling seaside resort complex in Italy’s Sardinia, is trying to offer its guests.
Upon arrival, travelers will be given both rapid response antibody tests and Covid-19 swabs to ensure that they’re healthy. Those with favorable test results can enjoy the resort’s expansive grounds and activities—which include basketball, tennis, water slides, and a thalassotherapy spa with expansive saltwater pools—without having to wear face masks or observe any social distancing rules whatsoever.
Should they test positive for Covid-19, they will be isolated with 24-hour medical assistance in their own private villa in a tucked-away section of the 50-hectare natural park that contains the resort. And if the two tests provide contradicting results, they’ll be isolated until they have two consecutive, negative Covid-19 tests at 24-hour intervals.
“We are trying to offer normality as a service,” says Lorenzo Giannuzzi, chief executive officer of Forte Village, who has also integrated a contact tracing app for guests to use while on site.
With Italy emerging from one of Europe’s worst Covid-19 outbreaks, the country is grappling with how to salvage at least part of the 13% of the gross domestic product that it customarily derives from tourism. On June 3, one month after the country’s lockdown began to ease, Italy reopened its border to travelers from the European Union and the Schengen free-travel area, setting the stage for hotels to reopen.
But many are waiting for the restrictions to lift on high-spending tourists from such non-member nations as the United States and China. That policy was initially expected to expire on June 15, but with deliberations continuing across the European Union on how best to begin welcoming internationals again, a new target date has been set for July 1. In the meantime, hoteliers can start testing the waters as to how to adjust Italy’s famously convivial hospitality style for post-pandemic travelers.
Forte Village’s approach falls on one extreme end of the spectrum, offering what it believes to be a blend of total security and total freedom—aided not just by testing but by a menu of activities that take place in a vast, open, and lush setting. Most other hotels have opted for more conservative methodologies that favor social distancing, touchless technology, and mask-wearing for staff and guests. The question is just how many of these measures can be implemented to reduce guests’ worries and potential exposure without turning staff into police agents or compromising their warm welcome.
Smiling Through a Face Mask
Some hotels are showing an exceptional commitment to public health by investing in cutting-edge cleaning technology; others are staying true to simpler government guidelines. Among the required sanitization measures are the use of face masks by staff members, regular disinfection of rooms and other common areas, installation of hand sanitizer dispensers throughout common spaces, and constant monitoring via air filtration systems.
Among those going above and beyond is the glamorous, five-star resort of Villa d'Este on Lake Como. It has enhanced precautions that include temperature scanners, reduced occupancy in its restaurants and bars to ensure social distancing, and digital menus for everything from room service to spa treatments. Similarly, at Dorchester Collection’s glamorous Hotel Principe de Savoia in Milan, housekeepers will be equipped with ozone machines to decontaminate rooms. At Sole al Pantheon, Rome’s oldest hotel—in operation since 1467—an ionized sanitation system has been installed to eliminate bacteria around the clock; it involves the use of a special spray that turns regular surfaces into self-disinfecting ones. Also in Rome, the legendary Hotel Hassler, set at the top of the Spanish Steps, is moving toward app-based check-in, digital room keys, and services that upload daily newspapers—7,000 of them from around the world—onto guests’ personal devices.
But for hotels that are going the old-fashioned, low-tech route, keeping up with all the new requirements isn’t an easy job. Some even wonder whether all the precautions are worth the effort or will just make the job of providing a stress-free escape from daily life impossible. With social distancing rules that vary depending on the location—7 meters distance is required around the swimming pool, but only 4.5 meters are required between beach umbrellas, for instance—enforcement can be both confusing and awkward for staff. Says Bernabo Bocca, the head of hoteliers association Federalberghi, “We cannot run hotels with geometry in mind.''
“Hotels cannot look like hospitals,” adds Andrea Ronchetti, hotel manager of Rome’s Hassler, adding that he’s still figuring out when to reopen his doors. "We need to guarantee the maximum of hygiene and safety, more than ever, but without losing the human factor. We will increase room service, and we will abolish the breakfast buffet. But we will still have the barman or the restaurant manager talking to our guests—some of them regulars for years—describing a dish or a wine, making them feel at home. We will need to learn how to smile with our eyes, behind the masks."
Italy for Italians
With most foreign clients out of the picture for now, hoteliers must focus on marketing staycations—vacations in or near your home town. While the idea is popular abroad, it’s uncommon among Italians; for Lungarno Collection, which operates a clutch of high-end hotels, villas, restaurants, and yachts throughout the country, domestic travel accounts for only 8% to 10% of bookings.
“We asked ourselves: Shall we wait for demand to pick up or can we create it?” says Valeriano Antonioli, the company’s CEO. “We went for the second option.” Now Tuscan visitors to his 37-room Portrait hotel in Florence can pay €380 ($431) a night—not the usual €1,000—for a spacious suite with a kitchenette and access to a tourist-free city, complete with WhatsApp concierge service and parking.
While his guests can shelter in solitude, with terrace views of the Arno River, in-room chef services, and restaurant delivery options, the luxury of seeing a typically tourist-choked city without the crowds is reason enough to leave the sterile confines of a hotel room. “Normally, the Ponte Vecchio is packed by thousands of people, and this morning there was no one, the sun illuminated the river, the breeze came from the water. It was fantastic,” Antonioli says, describing one of his recent commutes to work.
Similarly, Venice without cruise ships feels like a time warp to the 1980s, says Lorenza Lain, manager of Ca’ Sagredo, a 15th century, five-star hotel overlooking the Grand Canal. There, gondoliers are slashing prices by a third, to €100 euros and are coming up with hidden, picturesque routes because of the diminished boat traffic.
Even museums with blockbuster exhibitions such as the Raphael show at Rome’s Galleria Borghese, are blissfully crowd-free as they impose rigorous caps on the number of visitors, as well as time limits for those allowed inside. At the iconic Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, special necklaces beep when visitors come within six feet of another person. Compare it to the typical elbow-to-elbow experience, and it adds up to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
A Difficult Road Ahead
Lain says her 42-room hotel is already fully booked for the 2021 carnival, after cancellation of this year's celebrations. “I believe that there will be a rebound in the late 2020 and in 2021,” when Venice will celebrate its 1,600th birthday, she explains.
But harsh times are expected for the Italian hospitality sector from now till then. In Venice, occupancy rates are projected to be just 15% for the peak season month of August. And Federalberghi’s Bocca says that 30% of Italian hotels may not open until September—particularly urban hotels, which are not as organically set up for social distancing, and those with five stars, which depend more on American tourists.
This doesn’t mean Italy’s cities will remain ghost towns through the summer. Hotels that do open are being allowed to fill the streets and piazzas with tables for their restaurants and bars, and the tradition of aperitivo—having a drink, often an Aperol Spritz, with some finger food at sunset—is likely to thrive outdoors.
“Our desire to live does not change. We are Italians,’’ says Claudio Scarpa, manager of the Venice hoteliers association Associazione Veneziana Albergatori. “It’s one of the positive sides of our character.”