We are writing this blog while overlooking a quiet, lush green Tuscan valley in Italy. Tourism is starting up again as European countries start to open their internal borders. We are traveling through Europe, staying at luxury as well as low key hotels and short-term rentals, to see what tourism looks like after COVID-19. This is the first blog in what will be a series on how the coronavirus has changed the travel industry. We start with the beginning of a perfect vacation day: a good and healthy breakfast.
This morning we woke up in a beautiful hotel room in the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa. The resort has put extensive measures in place to avoid the spread of the virus. Measures include body temperature checks, mandatory face masks and strict hand hygiene as well as social distancing. Information and instructions can be found everywhere on the resort’s premises. The most striking example is the hotel door that only opens to healthy tourists. In an extensive welcome letter, the hotel informs their guests that they can only enter the hotel when a devise at the front door successfully measures and approves their body temperature. The automated body heat machine is actually linked to the entrance door. If your temperature is over 37.5 degrees Celsius, the door does not open, hotel staff will be informed, and you will be taken care of in a separate area within the hotel while the staff arranges medical support and testing.
Since most countries started to ease their restrictions, we’ve stayed in six hotels in four countries over the last weeks. Although this is the first hotel where an automated body heat check was done, all hotels took COVID-19 very serious. We have felt safe in every single hotel in all four different countries, but we noticed one thing that hotels all seem to struggle with: breakfast. With classic buffet style breakfast ruled out for the foreseeable future, hotels now face the challenge of coming up with alternatives. Let us tell you about our experiences:
No more buffets with COVID-19
COVID-19 has brought an end to buffet style dining and breakfast is no exception. A Japanese experiment showed how quickly the coronavirus can spread through a buffet. In the experiment, a buffet was set-up and ten participants were asked to serve themselves from it. An invisible fluorescent paint, representing the virus, was sprayed on the hands of one participant. After the participants enjoyed the buffet for 30 minutes, the light was switched off so participants and researchers could see how the virus spread through the buffet and who was ‘infected’. The results were shocking: the ‘virus’ was transferred through the buffet onto other people’s hands and it was even found on the faces of three participants.
With the virus spreading so easily through buffets, hotels are forced to find alternatives. Alternatives that allow them to continue to serve quality food, or even proper experiences, without spreading the virus. Because most hotels have designed their kitchens and restaurants to operate a buffet, that challenge proves not to be easy. So far, we experienced three different solutions:
- Switching to ‘a la Carte’
- Plastic or serving buffet
- Take away breakfast
Switching to a la carte
On May 29, hotels in Austria were able to open their doors again to tourists. We got right back to traveling and spent three nights at the Ritz-Carlton in Vienna. Breakfast was served in one of the hotel’s restaurants: DSTRIKT Steakhouse. The hotel offered an extensive ‘a la carte’ breakfast menu that had something for everyone: from pancakes to sausages and from fruit to cheese. If there was anything you really craved that wasn’t on the menu, the experienced kitchen staff would make it happen anyhow. The menu was so good and the service so smooth that we even wondered whether there was a buffet before COVID-19. The Ritz-Carlton absolutely nailed it. If the buffet never returns to this hotel, it would be just fine.
We also received ‘a la carte’ breakfast at Hotel Lido Blu at Lago di Garda in Italy where we had to fill out a form similar to the room service breakfast menu. At the independent, non-chain hotel, the staff seemed to be a bit overwhelmed by the relatively large number of guests. The four-star hotel, situated directly at the lake, had two restaurant staff members that had to provide services to a full terrace. Although they worked hard, they could not keep up and you had to wait for your morning coffee and desired breakfast items for a long time. Waiting whilst enjoying the magnificent view it isn’t a problem when on vacation but waiting is not a luxury most business travelers can afford. The menu itself was extensive and the quality was OK. In short, a good solution, but you need more kitchen and serving staff to facilitate this.
Overall ‘a la carte’ breakfast is a fantastic alternative to buffet breakfast but not every hotel can pull it off. It can be a major improvement if the hotel is capable of offering services like the Vienna Ritz-Carlton but for many other hotels it will be very difficult. It is relatively easy for a kitchen to provide quality food to a few guests but ‘a la carte’ is not always scalable. Coming July, when tourism will start to pick up quickly within Europe, these hotels will struggle as 100 guests could come in for breakfast at the same time.
Plastic or serving buffet
On two occasions, hotels continued to offer a buffet style breakfast. These buffets were adjusted to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus but a buffet, nonetheless. We have dubbed them ‘COVID-19 buffet breakfast’. The first time we encountered a COVID-19 buffet breakfast was at the Sheraton Carlton Nürnberg. It has so far been the worst breakfast experience since the coronavirus changed the hotel business. The choices were very limited, and every single piece of ham or bread was wrapped in Saran Wrap. With Germany banning single use plastic not a long-term solution anyway. Not only were our options limited, it seemed that the hotel tried to offset the higher costs for plastic wrapping each item by choosing cheaper/lower quality food. (Or the breakfast was never any good and they just wrapped their regular, low quality food in plastic. We can’t verify.)
However, having a buffet experience breakfast is completely different at the hotel where we are currently staying. At the Renaissance hotel in Tuscany there is still a breakfast buffet. Although it is smaller than a normal buffet, there is plenty of choice and the hotel did not opt for cheap, low quality food. Even when a buffet implies you serve yourself, you cannot take your own items at this buffet. Restaurant staff, wearing N95 face masks, operate the buffet on your behalf. Food is on display and will be served to you in the portion size you desire. Apart from some portion sized milk bottles and yoghurt you cannot serve yourself. This hybrid solution between eating à la carte and cruising the good old buffet seems to work fairly well. A few extra dishes, made to order, would make this setup a perfect compromise.
Update August: We have now also seen the return of the ‘regular’ buffet breakfast. At the Marriott Copenhagen, a standard buffet breakfast is available to guests. To touch the buffet you need to sanitize your hands and wear plastic gloves. None of the guests directly touch the food while the choice is up to pre-covid-19 standards. It is one of the best solutions we have come across.
Another form of COVID-19 proof breakfast that we encountered was a takeaway breakfast. At Element Frankfurt, hotel guests can no longer go to the restaurant for the traditional buffet. Instead, the restaurant offers a paper bag with a sandwich to your liking, a juice box and an apple. Although this is not the breakfast experience many would like to enjoy on vacation, it is most definitely safe and beats the Sheraton plastic buffet (in our opinion). The takeaway bag at this hotel wasn’t particularly great, it had a rotten apple, but the concept of a takeaway breakfast (maybe by preordering?) definitely suits the new normal.
Hotels struggle with breakfast as COVID-19 forces them to abandon old concepts. We have experienced perfection and have also encountered disappointing solutions as hotels are trying to adapt to the new situation. Although a coronavirus proof breakfast is a challenge for hotels it most definitely offers them an opportunity to exceed their guest’s expectations and allows them to explore new concepts. After all, regardless if you are on holiday or on a business trip, we want to kick off any day as positive and strong as possible. We want to make it clear that the staff serving us in any of these occasions has not influenced our review. We felt that everyone is trying to find the best way of servicing their guests as good as possible during these challenging times. We were always welcomed by friendly and accommodating staff that was trying to do their best for us.
Please note that we chose all hotels independently and paid for all the stay ourselves. All feedback and experiences are therefore 100% genuine and independent.