When the 1,544 room Hilton Chicago opens today after more than a year of closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there will be much to celebrate. It is not easy to close a hotel or put it to “sleep”, as general manager John Wells says. The same goes for bringing it back to life. It’s a huge business, especially for Chicago’s second largest hotel, which involves more than just unlocking the front door. The process is a well-organized, logistical puzzle.
As local and regional restrictions eased the opening of the city’s convention center, Wells and his team made the decision to implement the reopening plans they had been working on for a year. They decided in early May to reopen on June 10, and the wheels went in motion to put the hotel back into operation in just one month. To start, the hotel will reopen 150 rooms with plans to add more fixtures throughout the summer and fall. How to reopen a closed hotel in just one month.
To take a hotel out of hibernation
During the year-long closure, the rooms were removed from bedding and left with their doors ajar to improve circulation through the hotel. On a daily basis, staff checked into each room to flush toilets, run the showers and check to make sure there were no problems with plumbing or frozen pipes. This measure was an important factor now helping the hotel reopen so quickly.
In the days leading up to the opening, each of the 2,500 mattresses had to be turned over, and thousands of batteries and light bulbs in the room had to be checked and replaced.
There are four miles of blankets to be vacuumed before guests arrive, and 1,650 in-room refrigerators to be cleaned. Guests may be surprised to learn that each guest room has 24 batteries that need to be checked and replaced. These include door lock, TV remote control, smoke detector, safe and thermostat. In total, there are more than 37,000 batteries to be replaced, which the property is then recycled.
Ice machines on each floor had to be drained and cleaned, and inspection teams had to look at the elevator systems to get them ready for public use again. Thousands of surfaces in public areas and rooms needed dusting, and 1,780 air conditioners in the rooms had to be cleaned in time for the opening day.
The hotel has almost 65,000 pieces of linen and towels, which had to be washed and placed on beds and in bathrooms. There were 2,100 shower heads for whitewashing and cleaning after being unused for so long. The bathrooms must be equipped with toiletries, many of which were donated last year before they went bad, toilet paper and towels, all of which were in stock.
It is not only shampoo or conditioner that can go bad. Food and beverages, usually in stock, had to be discarded (or donated) when the hotel closed. This included everything from beer bottles to coffee beans and whipped cream. To reopen, all of these things need to be ordered again, and with clogs in the supply chains for so many suppliers, this can be a difficult task to obtain enough of each product to function normally.
At the start of the pandemic, Hilton properties around the world rolled out the Clean Stay program, which involved everything from Lysol napkins and disinfecting dispensers in public areas to special stickers used to seal the doors and indicate to guests that no one had come in since the room was cleaned.
To reopen, Wells needed to order all of these supplies to follow Hilton’s protocols as well as hundreds of directional and social distance signs to be installed around the building. Plexiglas barriers were added to the front desk and other customer-facing positions. While the hotel sat empty, none of these things were necessary, but with guests arriving soon, there was not much time to waste.
The hotel’s indoor swimming pool, which was drained for painting and renovation during the closure, needed 96,500 liters of water. City inspectors also had to come and approve it for public use. And with the largest hotel fitness center in town, the hotel asked for support from Life Fitness and the Peloton to inspect its equipment and ensure it was in top shape.
Teamwork is a must
To set these plans in motion, Wells needs his team to succeed. In normal times, the hotel operates with almost 1,000 employees. During the closure, only 50 people remained on the property, mostly engineers and support staff. The hotel typically employs 225 people in the household department, and they were eager to return and help with such a large task of restoring 2.3 million square meters of space to a working condition.
Even during the closure, Wells made a concerted effort to stay in touch with his staff by recording weekly phone messages to keep them informed of what was happening and what to expect. This open line of communication also included the provision of resources to furloughed staff, which Wells recognizes as a major reason why his staff were so eager and willing to return at such short notice.
Their job under normal conditions is not easy, but after a year of working in the hotel, it can be physically challenging to return to the company (it is not easy to make dozens of beds a day). To help, the manager of the hotel’s fitness center ran stretching courses for the housekeeping team so they could be more slender in dealing with the big business.
It was not just Wells’ own staff that he had to consult to coordinate a successful reopening. He hired several contractors and vendors to handle other functions needed to reopen, including people cleaning the exterior windows and coordinating to get the facade and the area around the building’s power washed. Finding people available to carry out the work at such short notice was certainly a challenge, he notes.
Of course there are the guests too. Consumer habits and desires have changed since the pandemic started. Like many hotels, QR codes have replaced physical menus in many places, and the ability to order food and have it delivered to you, no matter where you are in the hotel, will be a new feature. Unlike other hotels in the neighborhood, the hotel reopens its food and beverages, including grab-and-go Herb N’Kitchen and Kitty O’Sheas for three meals a day. This involved purchasing enough ingredients and supplies for the menu as well as replanting the property’s roof garden, which will eventually produce herbs and vegetables again for the kitchen.
Now that the opening day is here, the work continues. The once empty hallways see life again, but many of the hotel’s guests may never realize the level of coordination and logistics it took to get the property running smoothly. It is an impressive business.