Show must go on for hospitality sector

As New Zealand waits for hospitality outlets to begin reopening permanently, the cleaning sector is gearing up for more enquiries in areas such as indoor air quality and robotic floor scrubbers.

In the meantime, though, the emphasis is on the welfare of people in the hospitality and cleaning communities.

Never has it been more important to look after your customers and employees.

Just ask Jason McMenamin, National Manager – Hospitality & Soft Services for Spotless New Zealand.

Before the pandemic hit early last year, his job entailed overseeing venue management, facilities services and food and beverage delivery for the company, which is part of Downer, the largest integrated service provider in the country.

That work continues, of course, but as a result of unprecedented lockdowns in New Zealand and the impact that COVID-19 has inevitably had on hospitality, his team’s day-to-day duties have been somewhat recalibrated. Client and employee wellbeing is on the table like never before.

“There’s quite a bit of uncertainty because some of our clients are under a lot of pressure themselves with their P&L,” McMenamin says.

“So, as a business we talk a lot about staying in touch with people and making sure they’re okay. We work really hard on being as responsive as possible and working with clients to make sure they get what they’re after as quickly as possible. We’ve had a lot of success on that front.”

With regard to ensuring stability for employees during the pandemic, the scale of Spotless has been a clear advantage. The business has been able to keep workers on its books and fully paid during the downturn.

“We’ve been able to say to our people who are working from home, or who are unable to work, that we’re meeting their rostered wages,” McMenamin says.

Worst hit, bar none

There is little doubt that New Zealand’s hospitality industry has borne the brunt of COVID-19 disruptions, as well as having significant flow-on effects in associated areas such as entertainment, cleaning and catering.

As Hospitality New Zealand CEO Julie White recently remarked, the industry has been “the first into and the last out of all COVID” lockdowns.

“We’ve also been the hardest hit. Credit defaults surged by 11 per cent just before the latest lockdown (starting in August 2021) to the highest value since the start of the pandemic, while business failures doubled in the quarter preceding the lockdown.”

Nick Garrety, New Zealand Regional Manager for Tennant NZ, a leading manufacturer of sweepers, scrubbers and commercial and industrial cleaning equipment, says there is no doubt that “military style” lockdowns in New Zealand this year have had a dramatic impact on the revenue of hospitality venues.

“I really feel sorry for all those cafes and bars and hospitality venues across the board,” he says.

Although COVID-19-related shutdowns have led to reduced demand for Tennant’s smaller floor scrubbers as site owners put off cleaning work or do it themselves, Garrety says the business’s strength in the industrial sector has held it in good stead.

This is where scale has helped Tennant redeploy staff and equipment as required. “But it’s really been hurting those smaller cleaning businesses that rely on cleaning, say, eight cafes a night or six bars a night. They just haven’t been needed.”

Spotless’s operations cover the gamut from aged care, healthcare, commercial business, education and government through to aviation, property, corrections and defence.

Within hospitality, the frequent closures due to COVID-19 of catering, entertainment and sports venues, among others, has had an impact across the business, but a broader focus on deep cleans and more frequent cleaning has assisted other areas of work.

“There’s no doubt that catering is feeling it the most,” McMenamin says. “Whereas cleaning is trading reasonably normally for the most part. If anything, there’s a bit of an upswing because of the reactive cleans additional touch points and the extra number of deep cleans that some clients require.”

Air quality on the agenda

One big issue for facility managers and cleaning companies as venues reopen will be ensuring that indoor air quality (IAQ) is up to par given the airborne transmission of COVID-19.

Steve Bagshaw, Regional Ambassador for i-team in Australia and New Zealand, says IAQ was simply not a talking point for most clients before the pandemic. “It’s one of those things that you don’t know you need it until you learn about it,” he says.

Now, the story is different. The company’s i-air PRO unit is a high-capacity ‘air healer’ that improves IAQ in spaces of up to abut 500m2. It filters out solid contaminants, breaks down volatile organic compounds and neutralises harmful microbes to deliver better air quality.

“We’re seeing an increasing number of enquiries for air-purification units,” Bagshaw says.

“As people get back to those commercial hospitality spaces and there’s general public awareness of IAQ and the risk of airborne pathogens and contaminants, interest is on the rise. Any venue that invests in equipment to improve air quality is going to set itself apart.”

Bagshaw is confident there is “light at the end of the tunnel” for hospitality venues such as restaurants, cafes and stadiums if and when life gets back to normal in New Zealand.

“We expect things to bounce back strongly in 2022 and to keep building. There’s a lot of pent-up demand.”

Robotics a potential game-changer

In the post-pandemic period, Garrety expects an evolution from traditional mop-and-bucket cleaning to autonomous cleaning options.

“When people get back on their feet, they’ll look for mechanical solutions for their premises,” he says.

Tennant has deployed thousands of robotic floor scrubbers globally across three platforms: the T380AMR (a compact robotic floor-cleaning machine for narrow aisles and spaces), the T7AMR (for mid-size spaces) and the new T16AMR (a world first for larger industrial sites).

The company has also acquired the IPC floorcare range, which includes small to medium-sized commercial cleaning machines and equipment such as floor sweepers and scrubbers. Garrety expects the IPC range to come into its own for smaller venues, in particular.

“Cleaning a school corridor is very different to cleaning a café or a bar, with all different oils and greases on the floor,” he says.

“That makes it harder for a manual cleaning process, so COVID-19 will probably have a positive impact on sales of robotic scrubbers across larger sites as people try to keep their facilities as clean as possible.”

Even though robotic cleaning machinery is still in its infancy in New Zealand, Garrety thinks a labour shortage as a result of borders being closed to international workers during the past two years will only accentuate the need for a switch to autonomous cleaning solutions.

“There’s such a shortage of workers, so sites will look outside the spectrum to see what they can do, so I can only see robotics growing.”

Ever-improving lithium-ion battery technology also means that Tennant’s T16 AMR scrubber can run for more than 13 hours over a 24-hour period, adding to their efficiency and reliability.

Conversely, a lack of workers in New Zealand has led to a bidding war for labour that has pushed up hourly rates. “But robotic scrubbers will turn up to work every day and they won’t give you any grief.”

Looking into the future, Spotless notes that the industry is working together to deliver greater productivity and efficiency.

Many clients are embracing innovation and technology in hospitality and there is ample evidence that this is delivering improved efficiencies and results in some sectors. “From our point of view, it’s very dependent on the clients’ appetite,” McMenamin says.

“We are looking forward to seeing more of it and working with our clients to understand what they want.”

Scale and agility the key

With many stadiums sitting empty, restaurants shutting their doors and tourism and business functions drying up, there is no doubt that some cleaning operations have taken a hit in New Zealand.

However, operating in so many areas of the cleaning market has helped Tennant ride out the worst of the pandemic.

“As hospitality quietens down, the need for reliable cleaning equipment has risen in venues such as airports, hospitals and supermarkets,” Garrety says.

“We are also strong in industrial sites with our scrubbers and sweepers, so we’ve been able to play in different spaces.”

On the back of its trusted products and having lots of scrubber units in the market, he is confident Tennant will fare well in the immediate future.

“We’re in a good space.”

Likewise, McMenamin believes Spotless is well placed. As lockdowns ease, he expects catering work within boarding schools and the retail sector to recover reasonably quickly, which will also drive cleaning work.

“I hope a lot of Christmas activity will come back online quickly, A lot of the Christmas activity will come back online fairly quickly, but recent announcements have put a dampener on some of that.”

Whether the demand for deep cleans and high touchpoint cleaning will continue is not so clear. “A lot of that has begun to fall away and we’re getting back to business as usual in many cases, but there are a few clients who have continues to keep it up.”

One thing that McMenamin hopes does not change is the increased admiration and respect for cleaners that has emerged as a result of COVID-19.

He notes that even Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has offered her praise for the job that cleaners have done during COVID-19. “It’s certainly reset how cleaners are viewed and they’re a part of the essential workforce now,” McMenamin says.

Within Spotless, management has made a point of acknowledging the work of cleaners and cleaning teams in monthly company updates.

“They’re frequently mentioned in our CEO’s updates and they have a profile now that they never used to have. Our cleaners are excited about that and enjoy being recognised for their hard work.”

This article first appeared in the November issue of INCLEAN NZ magazine. 

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