“This is perhaps the first time in recent history that almost every part of the world is dealing with a singular crisis, and travel and hospitality are among the most severely impacted sectors globally, “ is the frank assessment of Seema Roy, Area Managing Director of South Asia, Middle East, and Africa for Preferred Hotels & Resorts
TT Bureau: What is the impact of Covid-19 in the regions that you are responsible for? Is the impact different for each region -South Asia, Middle East & Africa?
Seema Roy: At a macro level, the impact is largely similar across regions, the key difference being that the virus is peaking at different rates in different countries. This is perhaps the first time in recent history that almost every part of the world is dealing with a singular crisis, and travel and hospitality are among the most severely impacted sectors globally.
No one has a crystal ball to accurately predict when or how this pandemic will pass, however, we do know that people will travel again - even if it will likely look and feel a bit different on the other side.
Across the board, room occupancy and rates have dropped dramatically. In India, room occupancy averaged at 11.7% compared to 64.3% in the same month last year; and the average nightly rate has dropped by 27%.
While the figures are disheartening, we are happy to see signs of a rebound and to work with hotels that are finding creative ways to stay operational, despite the overall lack of bookings. Some hotels are blocking out entire floors and wings for companies seeking safe accommodation options for their employees, which is providing alternative business continuity plans.
In the Middle East, Doha and Abu Dhabi have been among the better performing cities across the region and there is increased demand at member hotels in both destinations for stays from mid-September onwards.
The recent Eid holiday break also witnessed a boost. In Africa, we are also seeing booking increases in Kenya and South Africa for the months of July and August. Hotels are also showing positivity by contributing to the fight against the virus.
Our member hotels like The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts in India, Safir Hotels & Resorts in Kuwait and many more around the world are collaborating with local authorities by providing care packages in form of food provisions and personal hygiene products for the underprivileged as well as accommodation and related services for medical professionals and frontline workers.
TT Bureau: Will business strategies for revival be created in collaboration with individual hotels depending on location and clientele or will the business strategy be more in the shape of guidelines?
Seema Roy: Our global team works relentlessly to ensure that our partners at more than 750 hotels, resorts and residences are continually supported during (and beyond) this crisis and that they are receiving the best guidance.
We are hosting market intelligence virtual town halls to provide insight from experts across our global sales team and to offer a platform for hoteliers to hear directly from important trade partners. We are also providing individualized strategic counsel, access to programs, and other resources to help hotels prepare for recovery.
TT Bureau: What kind of technologies for customer interface is likely to be adopted?
Seema Roy: Post-pandemic, the role of technology will be more important than ever - across industries, not just the hospitality sector. COVID-19 has accelerated our use of technology to communicate from home and this will undoubtedly continue when we return to the workplace.
Before, many hotel brands had the luxury of rolling out new technology at their own pace, but today, hoteliers recognize that technology is no longer optional and will be a critical enabler of health and hygiene-assured travel experiences. As such, we will see further implementation of contactless check-in and check out apps, key-less room entry, e-payments, and digital menus, to name a few.
Technology will also play a huge role in the bounce-back of large, event hotels with hundreds of rooms. Instead of hosting meetings and events for groups of 100 or more, hotels are more likely to host 50 people or less with others joining remotely to participate virtually. This means a complete rethink of staffing and logistics. Large-scale hotels that invest in event technology will be better equipped to meet evolving guest expectations.
TT Bureau: Will the trade-off between guest comfort and guest safety come into play when introducing COVID-free protocols?
Seema Roy: Luxury hotels have always maintained the highest standards of hygiene and sanitation, but now it’s about taking it to the next level and inspiring consumer confidence. It will be essential for hoteliers to be transparent in their communication of hygiene policies and to ensure that guests can be assured of their personal space.
Ramping up guest safety does not have to take away from the luxury experience or guest comfort levels. Luxury hospitality will become more thoughtful and more intimate than ever - and luxury travellers understand this. Our hotels are already finding ways to elevate the experience such as offering guests the same housekeeper or butler for the duration of their stay or taking personalization to new heights for guests staying at stand-alone villas and serviced apartments.
To reassure all of our loyal clients that each of our member hotels is prioritizing guest safety and wellness, we will be stating each hotel’s safety and sanitation policy on their respective property page on our brand website PreferredHotels.com, starting in June 2020.
TT Bureau: What kind of recovery period are we looking at when we use the word Revival for the hospitality industry?
Seema Roy: There is a lot of discussion around this and the reality is that no one can speak with any certainty right now because the situation is still evolving. What we do know is that the industry is in survival mode. Revival timelines and patterns might look different for each market, but the good news is that flights are resuming, hotels are starting to reopen their doors, and some countries are opening their borders - and that in itself is promising.
As restrictions are gradually wound down, which will be a staggered process over several months, we are likely to see short-haul international travel return. In the last few days, we have seen European countries like Italy and Greece lifting lockdowns and planning to reopen to neighbouring countries as early as June. Many of our member hotels in these markets will be allowed to operate and we couldn’t be happier.
We recently conducted a future travel survey with members of our I Prefer Hotel Rewards loyalty program. More than 4,000 members from around the world shared their plans for travel when free movement is restored and the results highlighted a desire and a readiness to travel again - both domestically and internationally. 54% said they would book travel as soon as restrictions are lifted while 17% indicated they are booking travel now for the second half of 2020. 43% said they will travel internationally this year with more than 80% planning to travel by air.
TT Bureau: Which categories of tourism are likely to recover first?
Seema Roy: Leisure travel, specifically luxury and family travel, will be the first segment to come back. People crave social connections and we have been separated from friends and loved ones for several months in many cases. More than 75% of I Prefer members who participated in our survey indicated that they plan to resume travel with family.
Recent trends from China and East Asia indicate that local and drive markets will be the main beneficiaries of the return to travel for the first six to twelve months. The majority of travellers will want to stay close to home and in the safety of their own vehicles, and our booking data supports this.
Short-haul travel to destinations that can provide open, spacious environments will follow. Business travel will be on an essential basis initially as companies prioritize the safety of their employees and keep their newly lowered travel budgets by maintaining virtual meeting solutions. There is a limit, however, to how much businesses can achieve virtually in the long term. Zoom fatigue is a reality, and we cannot fully substitute face to face human interaction with video calls.
Long-haul, transcontinental travel will take the longest to recover and is dependent on many factors including airlift, the opening of borders, and the easing of visa regulations and quarantine requirements.
An eventual winner at the end of the road to recovery is likely to be sustainability in travel. This was already an upcoming trend prior to the pandemic, but it will be more of a focus with consumers questioning travel brands about what they are doing to protect the environment and how they are giving back to local communities.