By Lynn Kaniper
Once coronavirus stay-at-home orders and global travel bans are lifted, the industry cannot simply return to business as usual. Destinations, resorts, hotels, airlines, cruise and tour operators and other suppliers will need to play a primary role in alleviating travelers’ anxieties about re-engaging with the outside world and re-embarking on leisure vacations and business trips.
The true challenge will be finding the correct balance across five competing operational factors in what can only be described as our “new normal.”
Maximum Occupancy vs. Personal Space
Prior to this global health crisis, the travel and hospitality industry’s emphasis was on maximizing occupancy for greater profits—think: more passenger seats on commercial airliners, more tables in restaurant dining areas, more hotel guests congregating in communal spaces and more attendees in meeting and event spaces.
When the world emerges from an era that mandated being no nearer than six feet to another human being, occupancy levels need to be reconsidered:
- Hotels & Resorts: Coming off the runaway trend of communal spaces for work and play—with guests and digital nomads mixing in convivial lounges, bar-goers savoring drinks elbow-to-elbow, meeting attendees clustered tightly around U-shaped table setups and event guests mingling at cocktail hours with close-set high-tops—best practices for group space occupancy levels will need to be reformulated.
- Airlines: Replacing entire fleets with new aircraft to allow for greater personal space would be cost-prohibitive. Fortunately, many airlines are already clearing sparsely booked flights for takeoff and/or eliminating the dreaded middle seat to allow for passenger social distancing. It would be wise to continue these practices until traveler confidence is fully restored.
- Restaurants: Adding or expanding outdoor seating for al fresco dining, eliminating the once-in-vogue communal table and distancing diners are all tweaks that can be made to an existing restaurant’s layout. Another critical change we should see in eateries and conference F&B? A calculated step away from buffet-style service toward individually plated and served meals, as well as single-serve or boxed refreshments.
Sustainable vs. Sanitized
Over the past decade, there’s been a laser-like focus on continually improving environmentally conscious efforts to reduce an organization’s carbon footprint. Hotels and resorts asking guests to reuse bath linens to promote water conservation efforts is a perfect example of this practice.
Post-pandemic, travelers will be on watch for evidence of ever-higher standards of cleanliness—as well as listening carefully to external communications around specific measures being taken to ensure their health, such as:
- Complimentary (and plentiful) hand sanitizer dispensers in public areas
- Distribution of a welcome amenity that can include a bottle of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and other personal-sized hygiene and cleaning products
- Frequent disinfection of high-touch surfaces (i.e. guestroom doorknobs/handles, airliner tray tables, restroom fixtures, stair railings, elevator buttons, etc.)
- Renovated and new spaces designed with finishes proven to reduce the survival time of germs and viruses
- Air quality improvements—this will vary depending on the industry. For example, most modern airliners already boast High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filtration systems in their cabins, capable of capturing more than 99.9% of airborne microbes, resulting in air quality similar to that of a hospital. At the other end of the travel spectrum, conditions aboard cruise ships proved to be a frighteningly fertile breeding ground for COVID-19.
- Extensive employee training and health screening
Taking sanitization and hygiene a step further, Singapore has launched the SG Clean Programme, an initiative to audit the country’s accommodations, attractions and other tourism establishments and award them with certification if they meet seven rigorous criteria. These criteria cover everything from the appointment of an on-site program manager to temperature and symptom checks for employees, contractors and guests to record-keeping of all preventative measures being taken.
In-Person vs. Virtual
Face-to-face interactions with staff have long been a prominent touchpoint for making vacationers feel welcomed, especially in the luxury travel sector. Of course, even before this outbreak, the gold standard of personalization has been increasingly addressed in the digital realm with customized communications to loyal customers.
Similarly, traveler convenience has been improved through technology—including mobile check-ins and room keys, chatbot customer service and smart hotel rooms. Watch for technology to take an even stronger foothold in the industry, post-pandemic, so visitors can enjoy travel experiences without feeling as though they’re putting themselves at increased risk of infection.
On the flip side, technology has become a viable competitor for destinations that are home to convention centers and hotels and resorts offering meeting spaces. With planners converting their live group events to virtual and organizations becoming adept at video conferencing for meetings, DMO and hospitality group sales professionals will need to reinforce the benefits of face-to-face gatherings and deliver a value proposition proven to positively impact ROI.
Security vs. Safety
Some airport security protocols put in place after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have already been walked back to protect the flying public against a new, invisible enemy. Specifically, the U.S Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has enacted the following three key adjustments, among others:
- Personal items such as wallets, keys and mobile phones can be stowed in carry-on items to go through the X-ray system
- Face masks may be worn throughout the screening process (although a TSA agent may ask passengers to momentarily adjust their mask to confirm identity)
- Up to 12 fluid ounces of hand sanitizer may be packed into carry-on bags (versus the previous maximum of 3.4 ounces of any single liquid)
Over Tourism vs. Preservation
International travel hot spots (notables including Venice, Reykjavik and Barcelona) are suddenly experiencing a temporary unburdening of resources and period of solitude at normally overcrowded landmarks, attractions and cultural sites. Moving forward, tourism-dependent destinations must determine where the pendulum must fall—between inviting wanderlusters from every corner of the world back within their borders to regain some of the losses suffered during this shutdown and preserving their local treasures for future generations of residents and travelers alike.
While the current health emergency is like nothing our industry has ever experienced before, we can trace parallels from its resulting fallout to those triggered by past crises, including the aftermath of 9/11 and the Great Recession. If history has proven anything, it is that travel and hospitality are vital to world economic markets and humanity’s well-being.
We will come out of this pandemic, necessarily and forever changed, but at the ready for the pent-up demand that is certain to come. Activity will begin with local and regional leisure and business travel to second- and third-tier destinations and, slowly but surely, expand outward to the largest cities—first domestically, then abroad.
Lynn Kaniper is co-owner and president of Dana Communications, a travel, hospitality and lifestyle marketing agency.
This is a contributed piece to Hotel Business, authored by an industry professional. The thoughts expressed are the perspective of the bylined individual.