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The travel and tourism sector has been one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. As bookings and revenue drop, hotels around the world are shuttering or laying off workers. Not Le Bijou. The Swiss hospitality company, which operates serviced apartments that function like a cross between a high-end hotel and an Airbnb, has leaned into the pandemic panic. Guests who’d like to self-isolate in opulence can spring for a COVID-19 package that comes with a “quarantine apartment” in Switzerland and the option to purchase in-room medical care, $500 coronavirus tests, and private cleaning and catering services. “Convert your Le Bijou apartment into a private health center,” entreats the company’s website. Its Instagram page calls its dwellings “currently the safest place to host guests.” A midsize apartment rents for around $500 a night during this time of lower demand, and larger penthouses run guests between $800 and $2,000 a night. Guests can also opt in to twice-daily nurse visits for $800 a day or 24/7 nursing care for $4,800 a day.
I spoke to Alexander Hübner, Le Bijou’s co-founder and CEO, about the risks of running a hotel during a pandemic and the mechanics of providing a luxurious experience for guests in decidedly unluxurious times.
Slate: Tell me about your hotel’s coronavirus package.
Alexander Hübner: We do everything in an add-on, à la carte style. It starts with a 14-day self-isolation stay in one of our apartments, and then you can add on services like grocery shopping, health care service, like twice-a-day medical checks from nurses and doctors. You can have an in-room corona test if you show symptoms, and you can have 24/7 medical monitoring, personal chef—whatever the client needs.
What kinds of guests do you have right now?
The clients we now have are mainly people who want to self-isolate, because let’s say they’re high-risk patients and they just want to stay away from their families. Or they have to, because maybe their family members are exposed to a lot of people, or they’re such high-risk patients that they need to take maximum measures they can to stay away from other people. The serviced apartment style we offer is perfect for them.
Are international guests welcome?
Yes, of course. Right now, you can’t really fly into Switzerland anymore, I think, and globally it’s really difficult to travel. But we have a lot of people who are still stranded in Switzerland, and they stay with us because they can’t travel home.
How did you decide to offer this package?
We all know what happened in China. We saw the lockdown was coming and knew [people] wouldn’t travel here anymore. We also have an operation in Lucerne which is highly visited by Asian tourists, and we really felt that it was declining pretty quick. We already had existing inquiries for 14-day quarantine stays from people. For example, one guest stayed with us—he was coming back from New York and just wanted to make sure he didn’t bring the virus to his family, so he self-isolated for 14 days. That’s how we came up with the idea. When the first guest asked if we had any recommendations for private clinics or house calls from doctors, we said, “Let’s make an offer out of this.”
How did you think about marketing this pandemic service to that high-end clientele?
In normal times, our business is to provide high-end accommodation with very bespoke services for high-end clientele. And that means that we also have very well-equipped apartments with in-room spas and in-room saunas, and all the luxury amenities. They’re really spacious, especially for cities. It was for us something that felt very natural to combine with quarantine services. If you’re in a five-star hotel, then how do you access the spa and all those areas that are closed down? When you stay with us, it’s a big luxury penthouse with in-room spa and in-room fitness and all those amenities.
So are you able to make as much money as you normally would during this time because you are able to offer those kinds of amenities?
In normal times, we’re a very well-booked event location. And they’re all canceled right now. In terms of regular hotel guests, we are usually around 70 percent booked, and now we’re around 55 to 60. So it’s not so much less. Compared to all the other hotels, we’re in really good shape, because they’re mostly closed completely or at 5 percent [booked].
Have any guests requested anything strange during this time?
A lot of people inquired to stay there for free—that came as a bit of a surprise. They thought it would be, like, a public service. Because we also offered some free stays for health care workers who are fighting coronavirus. Because you have to see, in the end, we’re just a medium-sized business, and we also need to keep our cleaners busy.
How do you make the medical experience feel luxurious at a time like this?
The biggest luxury, of course, is the environment that our apartment offers. It’s very high-end. And then simply the fact that you have the doctor and the nurses coming to your place, it’s already quite luxurious.
Have any guests who’ve been staying with you had to be transferred to a hospital?
No, so far no.
And are you prepared for that, should that be necessary?
I mean, we are located very close to the big hospitals in the city. It will be very easy to bring a patient there. We’d just use the regular ambulance if that’s needed. I think the offer makes more sense if you want to self-isolate to be sure that you don’t get the virus, versus that you have it and you want to have a sort of private hospital. Because there’s also strict guidelines by the government that if you’ve already tested positive, you’re not allowed to relocate.
Have people gotten the $500 coronavirus tests you’re offering?
Yes. And some people were criticizing the price of it. But it’s quite justifiable by the fact that you have a nurse and a doctor traveling to the apartment, and they do the test there. You don’t need to leave the house. So, basically, you’re also protecting others when you potentially show symptoms. We also follow the same rules as everyone else, so you need to be in a high-risk group and show symptoms before we can do the testing. We don’t just do blind tests or something like that.
What sorts of precautions are you taking to protect your guests and your staff members?
We’d usually have a daily maid service. We stopped that, so it’s just on request. And we tell the guests to make sure they keep the distance [from the cleaning staff] and whatever is required by the government. And it’s a special cleaning team—they have all the security measures that you could have, from gloves to masks and special outfits. Before a guest checks in, every place gets sanitized twice.
So if someone’s showing symptoms, they can still request a cleaning service to come in as long as the staff is wearing those outfits?
Yeah, then there’s a special cleaning team. Some people even don’t want any cleaning. There were a few inquiries where people said, “Please, if you can provide me with cleaning tools, I’d rather do it myself.”
Has anybody tested positive yet, that you know of?
No, no, we had a few people that did tests, and they were all negative.
Are you offering the cleaning staff any increase in pay for working during this time?
That is actually a bit of a tricky question because it’s an external cleaning company and we just know we pay them more. But I would expect [that the company pays their staff more] because those cleaners are specially trained for that.
What about the staff who are employed by Le Bijou? Are any of those staff members having interactions with guests?
Our own staff, the fixed employees in our company, they don’t usually have interaction with guests because it’s all done remotely.
So, for example, how do guests get into their apartments?
We have a contactless check-in, which means that they get a code. Usually you could have a driver helping you to check in, but right now it’s not recommended. So people are currently just using the code that we sent them. The whole check-in procedure—passport and payment and everything—is all online.
Have people been requesting private chefs?
Yeah, we had it. It was just for a self-isolation—there was a guest who stayed for 30 days. They wanted to have a personal chef for every day.
So the chef would come in and provide that service in the apartment?
Yeah, exactly. They would cook in the apartment, do the grocery shopping. I know that [the chefs] keep quite a bit of distance. Basically, they don’t allow the guests to come into the kitchen area.
What would you say to people who think the coronavirus package you’re offering is unsafe, that it’s unfair to have cleaners and personal chefs have to risk their own health to serve these luxury customers?
For the people that currently provide the service, they decide if they want to do it or not. We just make sure that we [take the best precautions] for their health. And if they want to do the service—and they’re all freelancers, so they decide—then I think that’s perfectly fine.
You told me some people were criticizing what you were doing. What were they saying?
In the beginning, people said, “Oh, you are trying to take advantage of the crisis and people in need.” That actually changed quite quickly, because I always said, “We just need to do the best that we can to stay in business.” And now a lot of people actually were inspired by this lead and tried to offer something in this crisis and make the best out of it. In the beginning, people were, like, screaming and shouting and thinking, “No, you need to wait until it’s over.” And they quickly realized, when the unemployment rate was going up so quickly—now the tone is a bit different.
Do you have any examples of other entrepreneurs who have done something similar, inspired by what you guys are doing?
The best example is the friend that has this private clinic that we teamed up with. To my surprise, when I called him—I felt that the government might be taking all his resources and wanting him to provide beds for COVID patients. But that was not the case—[the patients] were all sent home, so he was completely shut down. So then he saw it as an opportunity and followed my lead. When I called him, I said, “You must be super busy treating corona patients.” And he said, “No, not at all.” All his doctors and nurses were all at home.
How did he get the tests you’re offering? I know in the U.S. there’s a big test shortage.
They received a bunch from the government. I think compared to the U.S., the shortage of tests was not that severe in Switzerland. I don’t know of any case where people couldn’t get a test if they were in that situation.
Have you learned anything from this experience that you would try to take with you after the coronavirus crisis passes?
I wouldn’t say this is a super favorable situation for us, but I think it has showed that our operational model that we have for real estate use is quite crisis-resistant. We’ve already received a lot more inquiries from investors. A lot of people think, including myself, that this will be a future offering that is quite important for hospitality: a self check-in, and you can have services, but you can also decide whether you want them or not. You have a lot more of a private sort of setting for your stay—you’re not all gathered in one big hotel. So I think we’ll make it quite well through the crisis, and our business will definitely grow after it. Or even during it.