Hot Topics: What to expect with post-pandemic travel

During the latest Hot Topics virtual session, “New norms: What to expect with post-pandemic travel,” with sponsor support from Delos, leaders touched on topics such as the return of business travel and indoor air quality.

Moderated by Brian Kelly, aka The Points Guy, the group of panelists included Jim Alderman, CEO, Americas, Radisson Hotel Group; Bryan DeCort, COO, Hotel Equities; Peter Scialla, COO, Delos; and Dr. Zachary Pope, research scientist, Well Living Lab.

Kelly began with a question about the return of business travel, and Alderman replied, “People are traveling for business, and certainly sales forces are traveling for business. That’s simply driven by the need to make sure that your competition is not going to outpace. The last thing I can do is allow all of our competitors within the hotel space to be out there reaching new prospective owners and not have our team out there traveling.”

But there is some portion of business travel that may find it more productive to continue to meet virtually. “It’s that day trip stuff, where it’s an hour and a half to the airport, an hour wait [at the airport], the flight and the car—that could be a Zoom call,” said the Radisson executive, adding, “Business travel is certainly stunted, but there are parts that are back and I believe we’re going to be back strong, but not to the level it was before immediately. We tend to have short memories on this stuff, and as we get out of this and feel more and more secure about not getting the virus, it’s going to be hard to keep people tied to their desks or tied to their cameras at home.”

DeCort noted that his company’s portfolio of properties in the U.S. are seeing that the Sunday through Thursday pattern “is coming back with significance.”

He added, “If you take our portfolio in April 2021 vs. the same-store comparison in April 2019, we hit 86% of our RevPAR; that is an incredibly telling number for us. We hit 90% occupancy as a portfolio on Saturday [of] Memorial Day weekend. That’s not just a leisure traveler, and so we are incredibly encouraged by what we’re seeing in terms of travel trends.”

DeCort was asked if his hotels have changed the way guestrooms have been set up, and he replied, “We operate across a number of different brands, and while we certainly defer to brands in terms of guidance around [what goes into the guestroom], we also have our own inherent policies and we try to bolt those onto the brands that we operate for and do that in partnership. So, there has been a subtle attempt to start to put some of those creature comforts back into guestrooms with really rigorous cleaning protocols in place.”

However, mask policies and social distancing in some jurisdictions have slowed down the rate of return to normalcy, he noted.

“We’re really excited to hopefully in the very near future not have to wear masks throughout all the branded-assets we operate,” DeCort said. “We do have a portion of the portfolio that’s independent, and we’re able to be a little bit more aggressive in terms of how we pivot and return to normalcy in those environments. I’m really excited about the improved pace, and our ability to go into the guestrooms and start to normalize the guest experience.”

The topic then turned to science, specifically air quality inside hotel guestrooms and public spaces.

“I think all of us want to forget how it’s felt to be in lockdown, then not to be and then to be in lockdown again—that’s never fun,” said Pope. “What I don’t think we can forget about is the science and what the priorities should be moving forward as it pertains to what consumers want to see. We need to be real about how we can better ventilate our spaces, which means bringing in fresh—often outdoor—air, and really ensuring that that space is able to be as diluted, for lack of a better term, as possible. Things like portable air filtration units are very impactful in that regard, especially in hotel rooms where oftentimes you can’t really open a window, especially when you’re talking about high-rise verticals. There needs to be a prioritization; that prioritization needs to follow the science, and the science right now says that we probably get more bang for our buck ensuring that the air is clean.”

Delos, Scialla noted, has been focused on fine particle filtration for five or six years, and said, “What we found is that the science argues for wall-mounted portable air filtration over HVAC or in-line solutions in most cases because you’re circulating and cleaning the air closer where people convene. It’s important to make sure that we’re not just testing things like filtration efficiency on a factory line, but rather making sure that when those filters are placed inside an air handling unit, we’re validating the efficiency of the whole device, and not just the quality of the filter.”

Portable and wall-mounted units also provide a visual that the hotel is focused on providing clean air. “[They] offer transparency and a real powerful marketing lens for guests of hotels or participants in meetings in conference centers and meeting spaces when they can see it, and they don’t have to take the word for it that something is happening magically in the ceiling,” said Scialla. “[They] create a lot more confidence, and when you add the cost and the marketing power, we certainly favor the wall-mounted units over inline units, and it sounds like the market is telling us the same.”

Look for more coverage on this Hot Topics webinar in a future issue of Hotel Business.