PART I: Voyaging into uncharted territory - travel and hospitality post-COVID19

Eloise Hanson Eloise Hanson Uploaded




In part one of a two part feature, BHN reporter Eloise Hanson explores four key trends that are expected to shape the immediate-to-distant future of travel and hospitality post-COVID19.

We are no longer in unprecedented times. The landscape as we see it is no longer strange. Our new normal is already beginning to unfurl and we’re quickly learning to adapt and adopt these modern ways of being. We’ve transitioned from the reactive phase to one that’s gearing for recovery, and the steps taken now will be critical to establishing one’s position in a highly competitive market

Depictions of our future industry are complex given the volatility of the sector. Travel, tourism and hospitality have largely suffered from the seismic shock and pressures brought about by the novel coronavirus. For an industry that is entirely dependent on serving customers, agendas were quick to come under review as methods of future-proofing businesses emerged as a priority. 

While it’s accepted that a timeline for recovery will be ultimately guided by the distribution of a vaccine, detailed below are some key trends that are expected to shape the immediate-to-distant future of travel and hospitality post-COVID19.

All hail the road trip!

For years, the industry has been wrestling with issues of overtourism. Internationally the travel economy is in its ninth consecutive year of sustained growth, with travelling by air and for leisure forming the majority. Then suddenly, this trillion-dollar industry began to crumble. Hotspot destinations that usually thrive off holidaymakers were left deserted and bare, and accommodation providers forced to close doors. With travel remaining largely off limit in some sections of the world, a look at the aviation sector could hint at the nature of travel when it does return. 

Airports have been hard hit as the spread of coronavirus leaves many casualties in its wake. The sector is buckling under the pressure of cash flow from travel restrictions and a drop in passenger capacity, with devastating repercussions. Virgin Atlantic is currently in talks with the UK government for a £500 million bailout, and nearly 30 per cent of British Airways employees are in the firing line. Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of the International Air Transport Association, has declared “aviation's darkest hour”.

In an effort to quantify the upturn, parallels with the pandemic have been drawn against 9/11. The impact of the terrorist attacks rippled for almost three years, when in 2004 the volume of US passengers returning to air travel finally surpassed pre-9/11 levels. Comparatively, long distance domestic flights were the first to recover, with regional flying dropping in favour of car substitution. 

Private car hire could therefore see increased demand once travel restrictions begin to lift. As social distancing remains at the forefront of minds yet spurred by the release from isolation, travellers may turn to private rentals as the preferred method of transport.

Some would however argue that past narratives will provide little-to-no insight when planning the next chapter. The current crisis has materialised with brute force, taking a sledgehammer to the global economy with a much faster and more severe swing than the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Depression. The era of peak travel is said to be over, which radically changes the endgame for the air industry, governments and passengers. 

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus will unequivocally dictate the future geopolitical landscape and have far-reaching implications on travel hereafter. For example, economist Roger Bootle has pointed to a “move away from globalisation, a cutting of links with and less reliance on China,” whereas in Europe, nationalistic reactions to the pandemic “will increase the strain on the EU and the Eurozone and we could well see Italy leave the EU.” With international travel set to experience tighter regulations, the staycation is likely to see substantial growth. In fact, staycations are growing year-on-year in the UK. The latest travel trends from ABTA reveal that 56 per cent of the nation had planned a domestic getaway in 2020.

With around 68 per cent of the world’s total workforce currently affected by full or partial workplace closures, financial setbacks could lead to travel rebounding in dribs and drabs. The gradual relaxing of travel restrictions further supports this idea. Relatively low-cost accommodations that offer short-stay visits could therefore capture these small waves of demand.

Journeys along scenic routes and to destinations like National Parks could also increase. It is these ‘drive to’ markets that will benefit as they are less vulnerable to performance and value declines - even Snowdonia recently experienced its “busiest ever visitor day in living memory” despite social distancing precautions.

Michele Fitzpatrick, CEO at eviivo, a booking system and channel manager for small and independent properties, said: “B&Bs, usually having fewer rooms than hotels, are deemed safer as they present less ‘density’. Many argue they could be open long before larger properties. In addition, B&Bs are generally more ‘hands-on’ – the personal attention they offer is part of their DNA and they often live on premises. As a result they are likely to adapt rapidly and are very likely to take extra precautions to ensure the safety of their guests, as well as their own. Many are already taking steps to force a 24 hour lag before booking a room again, looking at self-checking tools and so on.”

“As for where might be able to welcome visitors the soonest, the obvious suggestion would be countryside locations. However, we saw in the period before lockdown a strong resistance in some communities to tourists visiting popular holiday destinations. Because rural areas often have older populations who are more at risk from the virus, providers may not be comfortable (or able) to open up as quickly as those in towns and cities,” she added.

A broader, long-term trend of travelling with purpose hereby emerges. Deep consideration will be given to planning a trip with travellers expecting to make the most of their time spent in and outside their accommodation. What has been coined as “radical localism”, that is a renewed interest in cultural attractions that highlight environmental, social and community care, will prevail in the short- to mid-term. 

Jeremy Smith, author and consultant for sustainable tourism, said: “One of the biggest challenges we face is coordinating countries: Britain will be at one point in its recovery, while others will be in different stages. For this purely logistical reason, it’s inevitable that domestic tourism will come through first.”

“In the past, we built an industry that made us believe that in order to get the most out of our trip, the best way to fulfil this was to get on a plane and go a long way away. What we’re going to probably discover is that travellers find they are completely capable of having a beautiful and safe experience from journeying a short distance. Travelling closer to home, to places it is easy to return to again and again, can foster a sense of connection, belonging and care.” 

“Moreover, if we radically change the shape of work, then the potential shape of tourism changes. In the last 10 years or so we’ve seen the emerging concept of the digital nomad and millennials heading off to live, work and travel at the same time. But it’s been a fairly niche concept up until now, where all of sudden it’s much more widespread, and so viable and realistic. Add to this the growth in acceptance of working from home, and it’s possible we will see an increase in the number of people moving out of cities and back into the countryside. This could then further change our relationship with rural areas,” he added.

There will be no business as usual

The aviation industry is facing a long and uphill march to recovery. What’s more, the rapidly changing nature of how business is conducted is bound to continue long after the crisis has ended. In some cases, business travel represents 75 per cent of an airline’s profit. With flights currently halted, these airlines face possible bankruptcy. Coupled with the fact that businesses are adapting to leverage digital capabilities, business travel ‘as we used to know it’ will not recover to its former levels.

Any proposed timeline for recovery is merely speculative; performance reassessment in the face of long term disruption is nevertheless a given. Many businesses will be financially dented from the impact of the coronavirus in which a cost-effective alternative to air travel will be considered. Where air travel is deemed essential, a tightening of corporate travel policies (especially those around risk assessment) could lead to less frequent trips. CBRE expects international MICE to be the most impacted segment and to take the longest to recover. 

Taking a back seat in the discussion but also relevant is the environmental pressures of flying too. The enforced travel bans have seen significant improvement in air pollution levels across the globe, which could mean that travellers may be less reluctant to fly due to increased awareness of personal carbon footprints.

In the meantime, virtual meetings will and already have become incredibly popular. Zoom, a video conference service, has taken the world by storm. It went from hosting 10 million daily meeting participants at the end of last year to over 300 million by April 2020. Similarly Skype, a long-standing go-to for video chatting, has experienced a 70 per cent increase month over month in the number of daily active users. As these digital tools become ever familiar for those now working from home, the very framework that shapes business will take on a whole new form entirely. 

If the by-product is less face-to-face interaction, then data protection and privacy measures will need to be enhanced concurrently. Zoom has already released a major new software update to improve the security and privacy capabilities of its platform. Bring eCommerce into the equation and the risk of data exposure is grave. To prevent hackers, Rosemary O’Neill, director of customer delivery for NuData Security, a Mastercard company, suggests layering in advanced solutions such as passive biometrics and behaviour analytics. "These technologies identify customers by their online behaviour, thus mitigating post-breach damage as hackers are not able to impersonate individual behaviour.”

The imposition of travel bans has also upped the ante for property owners to introduce virtual personalised tours. This allows travel buyers or prospective tenants to view the offering from their own home. A survey by Appfolio, a property management software company, reveals that 77 per cent of property managers are changing the way they handle showings in response to COVID-19. In addition, 27 per cent have moved solely to virtual or self-showings. Cambria Hotels, a boutique brand of Choice Hotels, has brought in 150 clients over 19 virtual tours in an effort to drive post-isolation sales. The rising potential of technology in the real estate sector will provide companies with a competitive edge in the market. This could soon be imperative given the general move towards a more personally empowered, tech-enabled experience pre, during and post-stay.

Hospitality and travel brands such as Airbnb, Accor and Viator have also approached its online platforms differently. What has been called "armchair travel", at-home itineraries, activities, masterclasses and tutorials are proliferating. The trend for immersive experiences is one that BHN predicted to take hold in 2020, and here we can see this extending to a digital dimension. Even hotels are getting involved: The Langham in London, Bobby Hotel in Nashville, and MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa in California, to name a few.

Commenting on the move towards digital sensory experiences, Stephanie Hall, group director of sales and marketing at Exclusive Collection, explained: “The trends were there before this all happened, which suggests this might be the way forward - the crisis we currently find ourselves in has simply fast-tracked this. The old days of a bedroom shot or a restaurant shot are gone - customers will want to know how it’s going to make them feel, what will they see, what will they smell, what they will taste… it’s our responsibility digitally, especially at this time, to engage with this.”

“User-generated experiences will form part of the story too. Content has to be authentic as people warm to this, and for this reason channels will be hybridised. Even supply chains will be showcased. Properties will be repositioned at the heart of community, and we’ll start to see more collaborations. For example, we’re partnering with Ascott Racecourse later in the year where the event will be shared across the racecourse and Pennyhill Park. Enabling us to be accessible to our local communities will be critical. When we come out of this, people will focus on those experiences with loved ones, and the way we approach digital in this sense will change forever,” she added.

From solitary to solidarity 

COVID-19 has become the most disruptive macro factor during peacetime. We’re witnessing a time when professionals from all backgrounds are tirelessly working together to help navigate the crisis and mitigate its effects. Politicians, scientists, health carers and plenty others, are sharing knowledge and expertise in a worldwide effort to curb the pandemic - the call for solidarity is loud and clear. As the value of partnerships is largely recognised and sought after, success becomes collectively redefined. 

The Growth Works, a consultancy firm specialising in the development and delivery of partnership strategies, believes this approach to be the future of hospitality. “I think for too long the industry has been obsessed with just room demand and room revenue, and that is not always a great guest experience,” said the company’s founder, James Lemon.

“Now is not the time to close your mindset and think only internally. If you only rely on the experience of the leaders around you, you’re probably going to have the same ideas as you’ve always had. There’s such a ground swell now, across the industry, of partners who are offering to give their time and expertise for free - to share ideas and opportunities, and to back that up with no-risk trials on some products. Now’s the time to have those calls, hear those ideas, and make a plan for your business,” he added.

The UK food and beverage scene has taken a battering since the government ordered all pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants to close from March 20. Exacerbated by the closures, the Italian restaurant chain Carluccio’s has since gone into administration, as has the majority of the Chiquito restaurants and all London-based Food & Fuel pubs. Owners of Gourmet Burger Kitchen, as well as the Azzurri group (which owns the Ask and Zizzi chains) have recently drafted in advisors to help negotiate the crisis.

Many businesses within the sector are now scrambling to generate some cash flow; hotels in particular are facing the dire reality of unoccupied rooms alongside vacant dining and social spaces. During this downtime, companies such as Flipdish that specialise in online ordering for restaurants have seen increased activity - there’s been an uptick in the number of hotels looking to set up a digital ordering service. CEO and co-founder, Conor McCarthy, said: “If your hotel seizes the opportunity and successfully implements a delivery service in the coming weeks, it has the potential to act as a lucrative future revenue source. In fact, we've seen some of our restaurant partners make such a success of pivoting to delivery that their weekly turnover is actually increasing compared to dine-in only.”

The online food delivery sector is exploding. In 2019, global restaurant consultants Aaron Allen & Associates forecasted the global food delivery market to reach over $200 billion in the next five years. The concept of dark kitchens, which rely solely on sales through online platforms, is therefore widely predicted to see a long-term pickup in popularity. Operationally, this requires a certain amount of tech-savviness - a strong online presence is essential for establishing a loyal customer base and thwarting competition. This in itself points to an increase in the number of collaborations within the broader hospitality sphere.

Travlet, a platform for hotels to partner with local attractions, foresees the nature of future alliances to be heavily oriented around technology. CEO and founder James Harrabin said: “What we’ve started to see in China, since they’ve begun to open up again, is measures to stop tourists from walking up to an attraction and buying a physical ticket. 60 per cent of people will buy an attraction ticket for the day of visit - now, tourists will have to book digitally before they arrive, therefore minimising queues and allowing for a clear predictability of the amount of people that enter the attraction." 

“We’ll soon be releasing a product that allows for package bookings, for example the purchase of theatre tickets with a hotel stay. We’ve started to see increased demand for this - anything that provides tangible value over and above a small discount. We’ll have the technology ready for hotels to fulfil this as of June, and will be able to streamline digital tickets straight to the customer.”

The hotel sector has been relatively slow in its adoption of technology. Other asset classes, perhaps less so. The current trend for businesses to become digitally enabled could nevertheless prompt hoteliers to rethink. Partnerships may be technical in nature yet still deliver “tangible value”.

This will be paramount in the coming weeks and months, especially when lockdown has ended but travel is limited domestically. People will seek the same experiences and feelings as before though much closer to home. An off-site manufactured SPAshell for example could provide a profitable solution to those businesses looking to capitalise elsewhere on demand. The enhancement of experiences will foster the potential for various forms of partnerships in the near future. As the saying goes, two heads are better than one.

Bleisure blends with greater reason

Humans are social creatures. Our instinct to travel will not altogether vanish. Fear of venturing far may linger for a while, but it won’t discourage us from future trips. Our heightened sensitivities towards the new world will however play a part in where we choose stay.

As the first to fall against the outbreak of the coronavirus, hotels are expected to be the last to recover. In the US, CBRE anticipates a 30 month recovery for the hotel sector, though position this statement against property-specific factors. For example, hotels located within tech-influenced markets like Washington D.C. are expected to make a quicker recovery and to a greater degree than those which rely on the tourism and energy sectors, such as Las Vegas and Houston respectively.

Aside from location, the security associated with certain brands will emerge the preferred and safer option for some. The psychological impact of the pandemic will ultimately help to steer and shape strategies for recovery. Bustling lobbies and communal areas do not reassure anxious minds, and preemptive measures will need to be taken to address these concerns. Alongside strengthened customer communication, operations will need to be revised to streamline staff and consider a de-densification of social spaces. Boutiques hotels, which have greater freedom in determining brand standards, could therefore have the advantage of first welcoming guests.

Throughout the crisis, the resilience of serviced apartments and aparthotels is a strong precursor of how this sector will fare. Serviced Apartment News recently polled 36 operators of varying size from around the world. The survey found that only 30 per cent of operators have closed buildings, with 58 per cent not laying off staff. In fact, the US extended-stay sector is rather robust, with brands like AKA keeping all 10 of its properties open with occupancy at each location.

Larry Korman, president of AKA, said: “We have learned that “sticking to our knitting” has been the right decision for AKA. As a luxury, long stay brand that focuses on weekly, monthly, and semi-annual stays, it is easy to get distracted by the hotel model, whose rewards include a shorter sales cycle, a plethora of dials to turn to drive revenues quickly, and the glamour that comes with the luxury hotel experience. By remaining focused on the long stay model, we have been able to maintain stability and witness the transient hotel consumers’ newly-born appreciation and understanding of our offering.”

The benefit of this model is twofold; for managers it’s the adaptability, for customers the autonomy. Stephen McCall, CEO of edyn, summarised: “As we were created with extended-stay front of mind, each Locke and SACO apartment is designed to be lived in. This means guests can enjoy complete autonomy and continue their every day while staying with us, or in current circumstances, hunker down and stay at home. These efforts have been compounded by the rapid response of our on-property and central teams, who have swiftly introduced new health and safety protocol, and kept in close communication with guests to provide reassurance. In the wake of COVID-19, I believe travellers will become more aware of the option of self-contained accommodation that facilitates an autonomous lifestyle, and perhaps also a renewed focus on health and safety.”

Airbnb has recently shifted its focus towards a longer-term strategy following a 20 per cent increase in these types of bookings compared to last year. The company said it’s seeing more people in long term work assignment such as students and doctors turning to Airbnb to find housing for six-to-nine months. Yet with COVID-19 disrupting the typical working week, it beckons the sector (which is largely underpinned by corporate travel and relocation) to pivot towards the leisure guest.

The Global Serviced Apartments Industry Report 2020-21 states that 66 per cent of travellers work while on holiday. Additionally, 57 per cent of business travellers have taken at least one bleisure trip within the last 12 months. With business travel and bleisure already booming pre-coronavirus, it stands as a prerequisite for brands to re-shift focus. Operators like Supercity have already entered the leisure market with its latest opening in Brighton. Although the location will drive demand in this case, operators should consider technical adaptations such as revenue management tools which are better suited for transient stays.

With the growth in SME business travellers booking their own accommodation, it will likely remain the core target demographic for serviced apartment operators and aparthotels. Throughout the lockdown, there will be a build-up of necessary business travel and this demand will inevitably need fulfilling. However with minimal business travel on the books, the profit potential of the leisure guest could prove beneficial in the short-to-mid term. With self-catering facilities and in-room entertainment, serviced apartments present a favourable option to those holidaymakers looking for a private though flexible getaway.

Summary

Characteristics of the new tomorrow are closely interrelated and therefore have a knock-on effect. The relationship between the four key trends explored in this feature are explained below:

  • All hail the road trip! - As global airlines struggle with the mass drop in passenger capacity, drive-to markets will be the first benefit when lockdown ends. Although rural destinations are expected to see most demand, locations will be determined by the extent of travel restrictions left in place. This gives rise to the long term trend of travelling with purpose: that is more time spent planning with a deeper appreciation of the trip.
  • There will be no business as usual - The imposition of travel bans has forced many businesses to quickly adapt and work from home. With greater reliance on digital tools and workforces growing ever-familiar with the suite of available products, this is likely to become a permanent aspect of business conduct. As such, corporate travel is expected to not recover to its former levels as companies take an irrevocable step towards digital empowerment.
  • From solitary to solidarity - The crisis has led to many if not most organisations seeking help, advice and guidance from industry peers. Temporary accommodation closures has put an indefinite pause on trade whereby alternative revenue sources have been quickly sought. The need to ‘future-proof’ businesses has emerged a sector-wide priority, and partnerships with specialist providers and suppliers could strengthen ones position in the market. 
  • Bleisure blends with greater reason - The resilience of serviced apartments and aparthotels throughout the crisis is compelling evidence for the sector’s recovery. With lean business models that are able to adapt to the needs of customers, it also stands favourably for when travel resumes. Yet with the majority of business travel off the cards, it calls for a pivot towards the leisure guest. 

To read part two of the feature, click here

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