Beyond brunch: Travelers are now booking restaurants and hotels based on their pandemic policies

Apr 11, 2021

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The hospitality and restaurant industries were among those most affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly 2.5 million restaurant jobs were lost, and nearly four in 10 of all U.S. jobs lost since last February were in the hotel industry. 

Because of this, many restaurant owners and hoteliers are doing everything they can to lure back customers. From temperature checks upon arrival to personal dining yurts, the hospitality industry has spent millions of dollars trying to convince patrons their businesses are safe.

But during the pandemic, travelers are turning to the internet more than ever for information. And for many people, a hotel’s or restaurant’s COVID-19 safety policy seems to directly influence whether they make a reservation or book a room.

And there’s some data to back this up: An early January Yelp study found consumer interest rose 41% for companies that had COVID-19-specific updates in their listings. 

It’s one thing for your mimosa refill to be delayed or for the towels in your hotel room to be missing — we are in a pandemic, after all. But one bad review of a business’ safety practices could be a deal-breaker for a patron who takes pandemic precautions seriously. 

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Using reviews to find safe restaurants

(Photo by Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

When Ontario-based Matt Tompkins researched hotels for his weekend honeymoon, he looked for more than just reviews about the bathtub. 

Tompkins said he only considered businesses that had clear COVID-19 protocols on their websites. The couple preferred to book a boutique hotel over a large hotel because it had fewer rooms, but they were also encouraged by reading the hotel’s reviews on Expedia. For dinner, the pair chose a restaurant operating at a limited capacity and on a 90-minute time limit.

“COVID-19 was at the top of our minds … ” he said. “[We chose] small venues with luxury quality, where the customer absolutely comes first.”

And Tompkins isn’t alone.

A whopping 92% of people said that cleanliness was the most important factor in selecting accommodations, according to a June 2020 TripAdvisor survey, and eight out of 10 said that cleanliness or sanitization certificates were important when booking. 

Last year, Yelp gave businesses the ability to add information about their COVID-19-specific safety practices. 

Users can see COVID-19 updates from the business and see whether staff members observe and enforce social distancing practices or wear masks.

Yelp users can provide feedback on health and safety practices they saw and experienced at a business — and users have taken advantage of this new feature.

Google also offers businesses the ability to post their latest COVID-19 updates directly to their profiles, but there’s no easy way to search for pandemic-specific reviews from other travelers.

And TripAdvisor last June launched its Travel Safe initiative, which includes safety checklists, COVID-19 travel reviews and a search filter.

Clearly, restaurants and other businesses are paying close attention to reviews, likely even more than they already did. Over 174,000 businesses worldwide have opted into sharing their safety practices on TripAdvisor, according to a spokesperson for the site.

“Safety is really important, and having this information at your fingertips will ultimately just help you make better decisions and be more confident when you’re ready to get back out there,” the TripAdvisor spokesperson said.

Review platforms have prioritized COVID-19 reviews, and many make them easy to search. It’s fairly simple to check out a business’s COVID-19 policies and reviews before you make your next reservation or booking, and these types of reviews may take priority over observations about a property’s food, beverages or even service.

Leveraging social media

Outdoor dining
Customers sit next to heaters at Thai 72’s outdoor dining on Dec. 30, 2020, in New York City. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Before the pandemic, some travelers consulted social media geotags to find the best room with a view or to get an early look at the menu before brunch. Now, they’re looking to see if rules are being followed. 

Florida-based Emily Rice, a member of TPG’s Facebook group, makes decisions about restaurant reservations based on what she hears — and sees — from others.

“I’ve found that while Yelp or Google may reflect [that] a restaurant is CDC-compliant, word of mouth gives the real picture,” she said. “Local social media foodie pages and even photos from a restaurant’s own social media are extra confirmation of CDC compliance.”

“I look at location tags on Instagram to see real-time photos of people sharing,” said New Yorker Taima Ta, the founder of the travel site Poor In A Private Plane. “Usually, you can see in the background whether people are masking up and how the tables are set up and spaced out, [and] how crowded the venue is.”

Bottom line

Travelers aren’t just using online reviews and social media to choose a restaurant with great food or a hotel with photo-worthy interior design.

Now, they’re using these tools to determine whether a hotel or restaurant is enforcing social distancing and other pandemic measures. That means businesses will have to convince many travelers that they’re going above and beyond to keep them safe in order to keep their business.

“We are always listening to feedback from our travelers,” the TripAdvisor spokesperson said. “The one biggest thing that we’ve learned throughout the pandemic is that health and safety are always important when you’re making travel decisions. And having that reassurance from businesses that show them that — ‘Yes, we care. We’re doing everything we can to keep people safe.’ — [is] really important.”

It’s unclear how long this will last, but according to the TripAdvisor spokesperson, nearly 90% of users rely on reviews to inform their travel decisions.

If these types of features are popular with travelers even after the pandemic, more review platforms may move to offer COVID-19-specific reviews — or new companies dedicated solely to these types of reviews will step in to fill meet the demand.

Featured photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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