With more than 4 million cases of infection worldwide, COVID-19 is by far the worst pandemic we have seen since the Spanish Flu a century ago. In the U.S., more than 20 million people have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19 quarantine. In the Philippines, the lockdown resulted in a contraction of the economy in Q1 by 0.2%, the first time in 22 years. Hotels and resorts have low-level occupancies, while restaurants only operate through delivery platforms.

To say that we will all go “back to normal” after the lockdown is overly optimistic. Instead, business leaders are now talking about the “new normal” – a re-imagined way of life that takes into consideration the risks of COVID-19 infection while trying to continue on with our daily lives.

While a lot of business leaders have gone to their shelves in search of their Asian Financial Crisis (1997), SARS (2003), and Great Recession (2007-2008) playbooks, a much older public crisis can shed light on how the travel, hospitality, and foodservice industries can respond during crisis.

In 1973, the Arab oil crisis caused oil prices to quadruple globally. Although the Arab countries’ embargo of oil exports targeted the U.S. and the Netherlands, the resulting economic effects in the Philippines were devastating. The Philippines then relied 80% of its oil from imports.

Like today’s pandemic, people realized how much oil had control over their lives. It was an eye opener for the world.

As a laundry professional in the 1970s, I saw first hand how the 1973 Oil Crisis crippled the economy and our daily lives. It affected industries and businesses, no exemptions. Different ideas, learnings, innovations, processes, and products systems were reconfigured and developed to adapt with the crisis’ effects.

 

What Leaders Did

During a crisis, special committees are usually formed and clear leadership should emerge. Thus the “energy czars” were born (and last to this day). In the U.S., this was William Simon, who led the Oil Policy Committee. In the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos created the Department of Energy in 1977.

An immediate solution to the crisis was energy conservation. In the U.S., daylight savings was heavily promoted.

“Our lifestyle, as with other countries, will necessarily have to change,” said President Marcos in his SONA 1979. How many times have you heard a version of this line this week?

As a long-term strategy, the Philippines sought to lessen the dependence on petroleum by developing alternative energy resources such as geothermal and coal.

These have had long-term effects on the hotel industry, including the laundry and sanitation sector. The drive for energy conservation has led to a global search for new innovations. The Inverter technology was developed after a few years; it is now widely used in air-conditioning to optimize energy consumption. Over time, the laundry industry developed technologies for shorter drying time. New fabrics, such as poly-cotton, reduced the time for washing, drying, and ironing — saving up loads of energy. New ingredients to detergents were also introduced, such as nonionic surfactants, which are good at removing oils and soils even at relatively low temperatures due to their cloud points.

What Can We Learn?

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It’s clear that the COVID-19 crisis is much bigger than the Oil Crisis. The hospitality and foodservice industry and its lateral allies (laundry, F&B suppliers, travel agencies) were caught flat-footed and unprepared by the pandemic, and there are no clear solutions yet in sight.

But we can start by picking up a number of lessons from the experience in the 1970s.

One is assignment of a leader and creation of a committee which shall oversee COVID-19 management in the hotel, restaurant, and operational establishments. If the Oil Crisis developed an energy czar, the current situation needs a mover or a czar to wield the baton of authority to make the assemblage perform like a symphony and the contributors act in consonance. This team leader should have the right expertise in managing the crisis and a good set of advisors (and preferably, personal knowledge) on proper, science-driven sanitation.

Second, like the Oil Crisis, this experience will result in a rethinking of the fundamental processes in the industry and customer service. Existing practices will be reviewed and overhauled; new ideas and innovations will come out; new strategies will need to be developed to capture new opportunities. The committee has to revisit their TQM, TPM, and HACCP processes and standards.

Already, the industry is talking about:

  • Pre-selected buffet to be provided by servers

  • Deep cleaning of hotel rooms every after guest stays

  • Heightened sanitation procedures across all areas of the facility, from public areas to F&B

  • Conversion of rooms and function rooms

From a sanitation perspective, the main areas of concern are:

  • Air conditioning and heaters

  • Water – ice machine, swimming pool, wastewater treatment, cooling tower, tap water for guest usage, kitchen use for washing, and beverages

  • Food – source, storage, and processing

  • Linen – storage, maintenance, and wash process

  • Rooms – From door knobs and remote controls to beds, closets, fixtures, mini-bar, telephones, and hangers

  • Equipment for kitchen, laundry, and cleaning

  • Public areas and back of the house

These concerns require a gargantuan assemblage of players, force-multipliers, and implementers to produce a fool-proof team who can control the spread of the “unseen enemy”, protect employees and customers, and continue the business.

This article is part of my series on the impact of COVID-19 on hospitality, tourism, foodservice, and allied industries like laundry. For questions, email rhapolega@yahoo.com