When the W Hotel South Beach underwent its massive renovation in the summer of 2020, it aimed to put itself at the forefront of luxury travel. It changed out the decade-old purple and gray décor for sleek, South Florida all white. It built a sparkling new spa with eucalyptus steam showers. It even put fluffier towels in the bathrooms and changed the brand of its body products.
And, in a sign of the times, the hotel also added its own on-site COVID-19 testing center.
Not so long ago, having an outpost of an upscale restaurant would have sufficed to make the W a major player in the luxury game. But in 2020, guests were far more interested in the COVID testing facility run by Sollis Health.
“People were asking upfront or in email, ‘Is there testing available?’” says W South Beach owner David Edelstein. “So now we’re able to tell people we have in-house testing and follow up capabilities.”
With New Yorkers flocking to South Beach and other warm-weather destinations to escape the winter cold and restrictive lockdowns – and a negative COVID test the only way to avoid a 14-day quarantine when they return home – on-site testing has quickly become a sought-after amenity at luxury hotels. And as the pandemic stretches toward a full year of gripping the country, it may become the competitive advantage that sets luxury leaders apart.
On-site hotel testing provides the luxury of convenience and more
“Five years ago, a meaningful luxury amenity might have been a gift shop or a spa,” says Sabine Heller, chief commercial officer for Sollis Health, the concierge medical service provider running the clinic at the W. “In today’s world of luxury amenities, it’s a testing facility. It’s a sign of the times.”
The Sollis space isn’t just luxe in terms of convenience. To an outside observer, it could easily pass as the W’s spa. Colorful artwork covers the walls and calming music plays in the reception area. Socially distanced patients wait in plush chairs for their turn in one of two swabbing rooms. Edison bulbs light the hallway leading to the discreet testing centers.
“We want any medical experience we create to be stress free and static free,” says Heller. “And we believe the design in this space succeeds in achieving that.”
The testing process is, by all appearances, stress free. Guests can book a test directly through the hotel and have results within 24 hours. The price of the test isn’t included in the room rate, but it is covered by most insurances.
“The demand is natural,” she says. “It’s a logical extension of our environment and climate today.”
On-site testing is also a creative way of using unused space
Though the boutique clinic at the W feels like a medical extension of a luxury vacation, on-site testing can also help hotels make use of meeting space that’s been sitting vacant since the pandemic began. At the Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort and Spa near West Palm Beach, general manager Roger Amidon has been filling an unused ballroom with a team from Helix Medical, which provides COVID-19 tests for the resort’s guests.
“Our ballroom is empty,” he says, “so it’s convenient for us to have these people onsite. Guests can walk down to a meeting space, just off the lobby, and do it in a private area.”
Amidon said he floated the idea of onsite testing during a planning meeting at the beginning of November, and was initially met with crickets and tumbleweeds. But as his team looked ahead — and realized that the bulk of their guests were coming from places like the northeast and Chicago, where negative tests would be required to return home — the concept started to gain traction.
The resort began testing just before the Thanksgiving holiday, offering tests two days a week. It recently expanded to three days, with Helix performing about 20 PCR tests per day. Results come back from a nearby lab in under 48 hours.
“Hygiene is going to be the next luxury,” Amidon says. “This is not a revenue center for me, but a convenience for my guests. And if I can sway our market share by doing this, it’s a win-win.”
Luxury travelers will pay for convenience and peace of mind
On-site testing isn’t just a competitive advantage. In places where medical infrastructure is limited, it can make the difference between people making the trip or staying home. In St. Lucia, for example, the Coconut Bay Beach Resort secured 1,000 COVID rapid antigen tests, in anticipation of guests from the US who would prefer not to spend their vacations looking for a testing facility before they return home.
“When these requirements came out, there were phone calls and cancellations coming in,” says Coconut Bay CEO Mark Adams. “This was a way to say, hey, we got you covered if you need a test to get back home.”
In what is certainly a hotel special promotion for the times, Coconut Bay offers a free COVID test with any five-night stay. Free breakfast, apparently, is so 2019.
In St. Barts, the Le Barthelemy Hotel and Spa has contracted with a local doctor who makes room calls for guests who need a test, with results available in 24 to 48 hours. In Nassau in the Bahamas, the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar offers on-site rapid antigen testing on arrival, so guests know their results within hours of landing.
“I think it gives the traveling public and discerning guest an extra layer of safety, knowing other guests and (staff) are tested,” says general manager Ulrich Samietz. “That’s a very important part of luxury travel, and I think we’re doing something very innovative that will be valued by the traveling public.”
That value may extend well past the pandemic too. Even once vaccines are commonplace and the need for COVID testing has diminished, the legacy of on-site, concierge medical service may well live on.
“Generally people are looking to spend their money in a way that’s more experiential and more focused on wellbeing,” says Sollis’ Heller as we sit poolside at the W on a 75 degree December afternoon. “There’s been a shift away from consumer goods for a long time and towards wellness experience, self care. We’ve already been on that trajectory for a long time. So this is part of that continuum.”
Heller says Sollis plans to continue using the South Beach location as a clinic as for its members, who mostly live in New York and Los Angeles. It will also serve as an on-site clinic for W South Beach, something owner Edelstein sees not only as a selling point, but as a necessity in the future.
“I see (on-site testing) moving forward as concierge medical care in luxury hotels,” he says. “They may not all be in house, they may be on Zoom. But it’s exploding in terms of popularity, and all luxury hotels will, at some point, have to have concierge medical care available. And I think it’s great to have that available for employees and guests.”