When an inspector calls - welcome to the era of 'cleanwashing'

Welcome to the era of 'Cleanwashing': PR puffery abounds as brands seek to reassure guests of 'cleanliness'. An opinion by Deborah Heather, Director, Quality in Tourism.

We've all heard of the term 'greenwashing' as brands make 'eco-friendly' and 'environmentally-sound' promises that in fact are anything but; you know the ones; things like less packaging when in fact the new packaging is simply cheaper for them to produce and in no way recyclable, but the claims win consumer hearts anyway. As we progress through the threat of coronavirus and look beyond the pandemic, prepare for an era of ‘Cleanwashing’ as hospitality brands and agents are desperately plan how to reclaim their guests, underlining their supposed cleanliness with promises which are quite frankly no more than PR puffery - they have such little substance.

Booking.com has reportedly been working with rental management and housekeeping software platform Properly since November 2019, to provide greater transparency on the cleanliness and sanitation of the properties that it lists. The partnership will target those properties that have had a string of cleanliness-related complaints, and work with them to increase their score, at the same time advising potential guests that the property will potentially be delisted if standards don't improve. Airbnb more recently has announced its 'enhanced cleaning initiative' developing a cleaning protocol which operators must promise to follow in order to be 'certified', or instead opt in to a 'Booking Buffer' that creates a period of vacancy in between lettings to reduce the risk of cross-infection.

Sounds great, right? On the surface, it sounds like these brands are doing exactly what is needed to reassure and protect guests in the post-pandemic stays, but let's delve a little deeper shall we? Is there anything wrong with their promises?

They’re using ‘unqualified’ consumers to validate their ‘facts’…

First off, the most fundamental flaw of many of these systems is their use of consumer-aggregated data to determine the cleanliness of the property. They intend to put pressure on those with the lowest cleanliness feedback as part of the improvement programme. This system is based almost solely on the 'dirtiness' rather than 'cleanliness' of a property, which I appreciate feels like a nuance, but there is an important distinction. In all my career, I can probably count on one hand the number of guests I have met that had some kind of qualification or career in sanitation, and I have certainly never met a guest who swabbed every doorknob, lift button, reception desk or item of bedroom furniture, and tested it for bacteria before they decided to stay, so what makes the platforms so sure their guests are fit to assume this role?

No, what the reviews and therefore the measures are actually based on, have nothing to do with sanitation and everything to do with dirtiness. Negative feedback from guests around 'cleanliness' is intrinsically linked to visible dirt; have they seen hairs in the sheets, unidentified slime in the bathroom or cobwebs in the corners? Even worse, the feedback assumes of course that the clients have been actively looking and taken the time to leave a review, when many things go unnoticed or unreported. I’ve lost count of the times my assessors have visited a property with ‘five-star’ cleanliness feedback on a booking platform, only for them to move furniture or look under beds and find everything from pen lids to tissues and even condoms and condom wrappers lurking in dark corners. This is what we are paid to do, so we do move things and inspect behind and under them, but there are very few guests that do that!

I must hasten to add, I do agree that dirt is part of cleanliness and all of these are disgusting and worthy of a negative review, plus you could even extrapolate that debris is equal to a poor cleaning routine, but what about the ones that get a ‘quick swipe’ and remove the obvious dirt, before reporting back that it is clean?  No review is linked to the invisible threat of germs and no guest is bringing a swab along to check! What about the operators that are very good at removing visible dirt, but aren't using the correct grade of cleaning product, miss important parts of the furniture and furnishings because they don't 'look' dirty, or haven't trained their team in infection control? Well they will never appear in negative reviews because of this one fundamental flaw: guests are not qualified to evaluate the sanitation in a room.

The guidelines will not be enforced, and the standards will be based on trust…

I have no doubt that given the potential impact on the reputation of the platforms, and ensuing loss of revenue that it would cause, these brands are committed to having the right standards in place and doing the right thing on paper. They’re consulting with medical experts, recommending products that will combat any viral load and meeting the WHO guidelines which is commendable, but that’s all they are - guidelines. True, operators will have to sign up to agree to these new practices (or agree a vacant period between guests as the alternative in some cases), but how are they enforced? The answer is that they aren’t, and coming back to the point raised above about guest expertise, they’ll have no one that’ll be vetting that these new measures are in place.

I ran hotels for many, many years and we had robust cleaning practices in place, good training programmes and regular inspections, but even then we still had to undertake regular retraining and inspect every room, every day. Quality can vary depending on the person doing the cleaning, the number of room changes required in the day, and even which Manager is above the team. We can build a protocol based on good intentions, but how long do they last? How long before the ‘lockdown’ and ‘pandemic’ become an abstract historic event with no impact on the day-to-day lives of the people cleaning these rooms? I’d love to say otherwise, but it is human nature to start forgetting the past, almost as soon as it is over.

Without accountability, this becomes a ‘tick-box’ exercise. I can tick a box to say I am committed to a standard, but who and how is this actually going to be checked? Am I more fearful for my business and my livelihood or for my guests who won’t manifest symptoms for two weeks? Will the illusion of safety be enough? Call me a cynic but the good operators will try to be good anyway and the bad ones will jump through the hoop without actually making the change. At least those brands developing a protocol at corporate level have some chance of rolling out changes via training, whereas the OTAs are one step removed from the situation and therefore have even less chance! I’ll be intrigued to see how long this lasts though!

A ‘period of vacancy’ only works if you’re the sole supplier…

Airbnb in particular has recognised that some of its smaller operators and part-time hosts will be unable to meet the new standards they propose, so instead have offered that they can opt into a ‘period of vacancy’ between lettings to enable proper sanitation and reduce infection risk. In principal this works fine because Airbnb controls the bookings through its platform and will therefore be able to 100% claim that they are committed to doing the right thing. What this argument overlooks however is that they are very often not the sole reseller for the operator who will list across multiple platforms, including their own website.

Drawing a parallel, in Westminster, they already have a challenge with ‘operators’ subletting their council accommodations as Airbnb lettings, and in response created local legislation that prevents people in certain areas from letting for more than 90 days per year. It sounds good in principal, but inhabitants have already started to circumvent the rules, listing for 90 days on one platform and then 90 days on the next etc., and even running multiple listings with slightly amended addresses. Even worse, some unscrupulous letting agents have popped up providing specific guidelines and help to circumvent the rulings, and let the flat for 365 days a year. Local councils have spent significant time and money bringing these operators to justice – a process that includes manual monitoring I might add - but it proves just how easy it is to circumvent the ‘rules’ even if the platform itself is compliant. How long before we see back to back bookings, made through different platforms and engines?

The innovation of the platform could also be their downfall…

Many of these platforms have built their reputation and bed stocks on the basis of a ‘home away from home’ where the operator is not strictly a business, but often a hobby host. They might offer the service when there is something big happening in the town e.g. Edinburgh Festival, or perhaps to coincide with their own holiday, or to make more money from an existing rental property.

Working on this basis therefore, it stands to reason that it is not the professional businesses we will have the most issue with, but the amateurs who are likely to be less aware or less bothered about their responsibility to the guest. I don’t want to tar all hobbyists with the same brush – there are many, many fantastic ones out there – but drawing a parallel of the problem, in a recent study of one of the major platforms, we found less than 50% were compliant with existing regulations for hospitality, despite the fact that the website asks them to self-certify and commit to minimum standards before listing. There is a big difference between ticking a box to say you have done something and actually doing it, and this requirement for self-certification gives platforms a get-out in their own responsibilities.

So, what would work and what should brands be doing?

I want to stress that I don’t think all of the solutions are bad and I certainly think that they are a step in the right direction. Brands should be thinking about their commitment to their guests; only good can come from upgrading and implementing new cleaning strategies and businesses do need to be able to demonstrate their professionalism. In all of these things, I am proud of the national and global response to the pandemic. However, what I want to avoid is the rise of ‘Cleanwashing’ as a way to appease and reassure guests when it comes with no integrity and no accountability and making changes that only stick while COVID-19 and the fear it has perpetuated is a threat to business.

Instead, I want to see a system that is backed by expert insight, includes independent verification and inspection – there’s no room for self-certification – and in fact goes beyond COVID-19 to make this and all regulations part of the agreed standard. What’s more, it needs to be mandatory and it needs to hold every type of business accountable; this industry is already one where there are different rules for different operators which makes it hard to hold anyone to account.

At Quality in Tourism, we started this journey over three years ago when we established our Safe, Clean & LegalTM scheme to independently assess businesses to ensure that they meet minimum standards for guest safety. These include but are not limited to cleanliness and hygiene practices, building and commercial regulations and fairness and transparency of practice, among others. This is not a new thing, but something which we have been working on for years and which has a Primary Authority Partnership with Cornwall Council and is ratified by the Secretary of State. The scheme is already being sought by operators and agencies including partnerships with Visit Cornwall, Silverdoor and the STAA, and is in consideration in English and Scottish Parliament for mandatory roll-out across the sector at the moment. In light of the COVID-19 incident specifically, we have added additional COVID-19 specific guidance notes, and templates for risk assessment around protecting the customer and protecting the staff, to help ensure they consistently meet quality standards in these times.  

It is my wish to see the industry move away from self-certification practices in the sector, to one of mandatory, fit-for-purpose accountability, that levels the playing field between operators and supersedes all the varied and outdated legislative burdens which don’t impact on businesses equally. Then, we will be left with an industry that is free to innovate and adapt, and is already equipped to handle future incidents like these, but in doing so is not seeing the erosion of quality in the same way that we see it today.

Quality in Tourism assess thousands of accommodation providers globally each year. To find out more about their assessments, gradings and the future of registration please visit www.qualityintourism.com.