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Safe, Clean and Legal : Q&A with QT director Deborah Heather

Can you tell me about the history behind the scheme?

I run a business called M Assessment Services. We offer accreditation and assessment for various industries – the biggest one being the hospitality and tourism industry, under the brand name Quality in Tourism. Until just over three years ago we ran the quality assurance scheme for VisitEngland under the Quality in Tourism brand. We had a contract to deliver star ratings but the intellectual property and the style of the scheme was theirs.

The contract came up for re-tender in 2017 and it was awarded to the AA. We felt we had a real opportunity as we had learnt an awful lot about what the industry needed – and also in the nicest possible way – an awful lot about what wasn’t being delivered to them. The industry has changed enormously since the common standard schemes were written. There were all sorts of markets coming out of nowhere, innovation everywhere, boutique businesses and the whole thing around the sharing economy.

This really felt like a catalyst to evolve something that was much more about consumer safety and consumer protection. This was where Safe, Clean and Legal came in.

How was it set up?

We created the Safe, Clean and Legal accreditation and became a Primary Authority partner with Cornwall Council. It’s a BEIS process – it is owned by the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy. It basically sees a local authority such as Cornwall Council offer expertise in a certain area. The local authority looks at what we do and make sure we are doing it properly and give it the rubber stamp which then ensures other local authorities can rely on it.

The areas we took on, because we had this consumer safety thing in our heads, are Fire Risk, Trading Standards and Environmental Health. In other words big issues to support travelling customers. We did quite a lot of research and there was a real surprise from consumers that lots of parts of the industry while arguably regulated there is nobody enforcing those regulations.

So we went on a mission to do that and that was really our view that consumers needed to know that where they were going was safe, it was clean and it was legal.

How has the scheme been adapted to face the challenges posed by Covid-19?

When Covid-19 hit we adapted Safe, Clean and Legal to have a bunch of cleaning protocols that were as thorough as they could be to deal with the Covid-19 issue. We adapted it in-line with our Cornwall Primary Authority partnership – the EHO has worked with us with all the adaptations and all of the processes.

Whilst it still has the safe and the legal criteria, the cleaning part is obviously the most prevalent at the moment and we have developed a whole load of guidelines and risk assessment and cleaning protocols for people when properties have the chance to reopen.

What are the updates specifically?

First of all it recognises that every property and every segment is different. We have evolved them for hotels, venues and B&B’s, guest houses, self-catering and serviced apartments so every segment has its own criteria. There will also be a set of cleaning protocols that are best practice such as changing your cloths, not using microfibre cloths and using PPE and the right level of alcohol based products.

The scheme is very much based on customer journey. The guidelines and the checklist go through every single step of the way for guests and begins from when they arrive. Have you communicated with them beforehand? Have you told them you have limited services?

It is literally a step by step of the customer journey. The cleaning also fits into things such as screens on reception, only operating through card payments, how many people go in a lift, and importantly includes the in-depth cleaning of touch points and daily health checks with staff.

The key point is that it is not just prescriptive as it asks owners to understand if you identify a touch point for a guest how are you going to mitigate it in your property as every property is different there needs to be different mitigations.

I was talking to the Best Western Group last week, and of course one of the best things you can do in a property is to ventilate yet in some city centres you can’t open a window – there has to be adaptations for each property.

How are the properties going to be assessed?

We are doing pilots at the moment and Best Western has signed up and they have all now received their criteria and we are doing some pilots with individual properties with Wyboston Lakes, Park Regis in Birmingham and The25 in Torquay.

We are also doing pilots in other segments in selfcatering and serviced apartments. As soon as we get the risk assessment back from the properties we will start visiting people. We will get to a point where they have to be approved as amber or green first in order to receive a visit as clearly if they are still red they are not ready to open due to too much perceived risk.

Then we will go out and visit and check their processes and take our swabbing machines and make sure they are implementing their practises properly.

How much of a change is that process going to be?

I think it will be a very different experience. The cleaning has got to be much more intense and if we are going out before people have opened we are not going out there as a customer. It is going to be an announced visit. By necessity, as much as anything else, we have set up a complaints process and pick up with people where we do not think it is being applied properly and we’ll do spot checks at later dates as well.

By the time somebody gets signed up to us and makes the commitment to do this properly they will be concerned themselves. It is the definition of the responsible owner and that is what we are looking for. For people to do the best as they can to look after their consumers.

It still is going to be a friendly face, it is a critical friend but it is not supposed to be a judgement of “you have failed” it is a cooperative assessment of what we have to do to get you to pass. I do expect that there will be products that just by their nature and by their layout and how they are operating may mean they will need to get in touch with their local environmental health officers to get additional support.

It is about getting operators to behave properly and do as much as they can to protect people.

Do you think the importance of the accreditation has increased due to the pandemic?

I do, I worry about the phrase that has been coined ‘clean washing’ and the marketing people who are saying they are doing all of these great things but there is no third-party to verify and this concerns me. A hotel is complex by its very nature and I think it does need a third-party check.

I was speaking to Visit Lancashire the other day and they said they have done a consumer survey which found reassurance about cleaning and sanitation was the “most important thing” by 72% of people surveyed with another 20% saying it is somewhat important.

It is something that consumers will be looking for to see that companies are doing the most that they can on the products. It is quite stressful travelling at times and to add that into you may be taking an added risk means a lot of people will be looking for reassurance.

Do you think the growing importance of checking health standards will be a habit that continues past the pandemic?

I think we have all heard how this could have been anytime or any pandemic that could have happened, so it should become a part of hotels best practice and a new level of cleanliness will be important going forward. Fingers crossed that it becomes such a focus for us that people are as thorough as possible. Hopefully it will mean gone are the days of the 17-minute schedule to clean each bedroom etc.

There will have to be a much more responsible approach and I hope it will lead to other things such as behaving responsibly in general, such as sustainability, ethically, wellbeing.

These changes have got to be starting to run through our hotels and business and that there will be a mindset change away from ‘short-termism’ and a focus on profits, as opposed to being a responsible operator.

You mentioned Best Western joining the scheme –  has there been an uptake in the interest?

We have noticed a definite uptake in interest, Best Western is a new customer to us and we are delighted to welcome them on board. We also have other associations recommending us such as the HBAA and Edge Venues. We have seen a massive increase in popularity in what we are doing. It is this thing where you come out of a crisis and you do better and are more resilient as a result of it.

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