Staying in Australian hotels during coronavirus: What's changed

It's been a long time between drinks since we've been able to stay overnight in a hotel – unless you've been officially quarantined in one under the public health act. And it's truly a relief to be offered a stiff gin on arrival at Pier One Sydney Harbour. But, hang on, we're still in the midst of a pandemic and, of course, there's a catch.

The alcoholic beverage in question is in fact contained inside a handsomely-labelled bottle of a locally-produced Manly Spirit "artisan distillery" brand hand sanitiser with gin aroma. It's offered atop a cocktail trolley outside the hotel where guests are greeted by the hotel's brand new white-gloved sanitiser sommelier-cum-driveway attendant.

But don't think with a mere squirt of sanitiser to your hands that you're COVID-19 legit. When I approach the reception desk inside, a staff member ever-so-politely, yet ever-so-firmly, asks me to stand to one side to properly physically distance as I check-in.

I'm staying overnight at Pier One Sydney Harbour, a 181-room hotel built in a historic timber finger wharf near The Rocks and spectacularly-located below the Sydney Harbour Bridge, as a guest of the hotel. I'm here not so much for fun but to experience the first night in months that such an establishment has been legally permitted to open to the general public by the NSW government.

It's an opportunity to gain a sense of what it will be like to stay in a hotel under the significantly altered conditions imposed by the pandemic. Of course, you can still order a proper gin from the bar in the lobby but nowadays you can't, by order of COVID-19 public health regulations, sit on a stool and drink it at the bar. Instead, you need to partake of it at a table.

For a relieved Kim Mahaffy, the general manager of Pier One, the reopening on Monday night was a milestone after a six-month ordeal for the hotel industry that started with the bushfire crisis which deterred both international and domestic visitors.

"I really hope it's another 100 years before we have another pandemic and I'm glad I won't be around for it," she says. "In my career in the hotel industry in Asia I've been through other crises like the swine flu, the bird flu and terrorist bombings but the effects of them were all short-term. This pandemic feels different because there doesn't seem a clear end to it."

Although the hotel has served as accommodation for Australian Defence Force personnel returning from overseas as well as those overseeing the federal government's hotel quarantine of returning travellers program, most Pier One staff, having been subject to the JobKeeper payment system, are now only returning to duty for the first time for months.

Among the most important members of hotel staff in the COVID-19 era will be its team of housekeepers charged with implementing the industry's radical and dramatically upgraded new health and hygiene measures. Each guest who has made a reservation at the hotel will receive an email before arrival outlining what they can expect from their stay and, importantly, what is expected of them.

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"We believe that solid communication, a sharp focus on hygiene and safety and every effort made to build trust will be extremely important for the new traveller coming out of this pandemic lockdown," Mahaffy says. "People are going to be hypersensitive as a result of the pandemic but we don't want to overthink it all either."

The detailed communications with guests will include reminders that social distancing will practised throughout the hotel, that "rigorous protocols" have been introduced including enhanced staff training, "elevated cleaning" including the 10 "touch points" in each guest room, such as the remote control for the TV, and intensified "cleaning protocols" of rooms between each guest stay.

In the spirit of minimising contact with other guests and staff, those with a reservation at Pier One will be asked to check in at their preferred time and to nominate whether they wish to be in or out for room servicing. Complimentary sanitisers and sanitiser wipes are included in each room. Gone is the buffet breakfast in the hotel's Gantry restaurant, replaced by an a la carte menu.

For those who desire minimal contact during their stay, right down to their meals, cardboard-encased hampers (with a choice of seafood or cheese and charcuterie options) can be delivered to the room or taken out. Guests, and for that matter staff, are also encouraged to deploy the federal government's COVID Safe app.

Finally, members of the hotel's guest privileges program can check in from anywhere via a special mobile service. This also allows room access using a "mobile key" via an Iphone or android device so you'll never have to worry about misplacing or forgetting your keycard (or even, heaven forbid, touching one).

So how was my stay? Despite the plethora of the new guidelines and regulations, including the two person per elevator limit, I enjoyed it. But it was a wholly different experience to my last visit to Pier One six months ago. And should you yourself be attracted to the idea of what's become a truly clean break, Pier One Sydney Harbour has a special $94 a night deal for the Queen's Birthday long weekend to mark the monarch's ripe old age this year. Let's give the hotel a sanitised hand or two for that one.

ALL RIGHT ON THE NIGHT: HOTEL BRANDS COME CLEAN

ALLSAFE PROMISE: ACCOR HOTELS AND RESORTS

Accor, which operates 5000 hotels around the world, has partnered with AXA, a global insurance firm, to provide medical support to guests across its hotel network. Guests will be entitled free access to medical tele-consultations with "tens of thousands of vetted medical professionals". See accor.com

CLEANSTAY: HILTON HOTELS

Hilton's new health and hygiene program seeks to deliver "an industry-defining standard of cleanliness and disinfection" in its properties. . It will collaborate with the makers of Lysol and Dettol and consult with the US-based Mayo Clinic to develop "elevated processes" and staff training to help guests "enjoy an even cleaner and safer stay from check-in to check-out". See hilton.com

COMMITMENT TO CLEAN: MARRIOTT HOTELS AND RESORTS

Consisting of internal and external experts in food and water safety, hygiene and infection prevention, and hotel operations, Marriott will work to develop "a new generation of global hospitality cleanliness standards, norms and behaviours" for its 7300 properties around the globe. See marriott.com

IHG CLEAN PROMISE: INTERCONTINENTAL HOTELS

IHG is working with a team of medical experts at the US-based Cleveland Clinic to develop guidance and resources to keep guests safe. That includes "enhanced standards of cleanliness" under the brand's existing IHG Clean Promise program. See ihg.com

See also: Good riddance: Seven things in travel that won't be coming back

See also: Thanks to COVID-19, the great Aussie motel is set for a comeback

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