If hoteliers (and everyone else) take one lesson from the last 3 months, it should be this; expect the unexpected.
After Delta peaked in September of 2021, the world began to hope that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic was over. Some believed that, with increased immunity and vaccination, the virus was entering its endemic phase.
This optimism could be seen clearly in hospitality industry data. Hospitality added 164,000 jobs in the United States in October 2021 (more than any other industry) and Thanksgiving holiday travel was only 4% below pre-pandemic levels. IHG Hotels & Resorts CEO Keith Barr predicted “a record [second quarter and third quarter]” in 2022, and the U.S. opened its border to international travelers.
Then, headlines began warning of a new variant. By December 15th, Omicron had been detected in over 30 countries, and governments around the world began imposing new restrictions to mitigate its spread.
The effects of Omicron on the hospitality industry have not been consistent, causing erratic fluctuations in staffing as well as variability based on location. For example; hotel performance has suffered in Europe in the first weeks of January, but Chinese and American hotels experienced significant gains. And while Omicron appears to be peaking in cities like New York and Washington, D.C., some independently-owned hotels are still feeling the pressure.
If you’re feeling weary and a bit cautious as we enter year three of the pandemic, you aren’t alone. The constant uncertainty of COVID-19 has worn on the nerves of even the hardiest hotel managers.
On the upside, the last two years have uniquely prepared hotels to weather current and future storms. While some changes are short-term, like extended benefits for rewards programs, others will continue to impact the industry for years to come. Savvy hoteliers are carrying the following three lessons with them as they face 2022, 2023, and beyond.
Design For Flexibility
Since the start of the pandemic, guest habits and preferences have evolved. People are less comfortable with certain traditional hotel offerings, like the breakfast buffet. Travelers are combining work and play on “bleisure” trips, taking advantage of work-from-anywhere policies and flexible schedules. And most guests, regardless of the purpose of their travel, are seeking opportunities to integrate more outdoor experiences into their trips.
These shifts are giving hoteliers an opportunity to consider how they can design both public and private spaces in their hotels to be as flexible as possible. When speaking with Travel + Leisure magazine, interior designer Andrea DeLosa said, “moving forward, we must consciously design for intentional flexibility that will offer the least amount of disruption to the guest experience — and operations — in a time of need.”
On a large scale, this can mean bringing in new, modular furniture or installing pergolas and awnings for outdoor meetings. But small, thoughtful changes, like enabling poolside cabanas with strong WiFi so that parents can work while their children swim, can also offer the flexibility needed to address guest needs.
Prioritize Proactive Cleanliness
Cleanliness is not just about improving cleaning protocols, although that is certainly important. More than ever, guests expect attention to detail when it comes to the state of rooms and common spaces. Robert Rauch, a member of the RAR hospitality team, sends an “inspector” into rooms to identify high-touch spaces that require more thorough sanitization, like TV remotes and bathroom faucets.
However, cleanliness can be proactive, as well as reactive. This means that, rather than simply cleaning up, hoteliers are thinking about how to prevent spaces from becoming “dirty” in the first place.
There are a number of ways to maintain clean spaces with minimal effort. Mobile apps and voice-activated controls give guests the power to control their in-room experience (or even the elevators!) without having to touch a single surface. Hard flooring, while more expensive in the short term, is more sanitary and much easier to keep clean. Minimalistic room furnishings, with fewer decorative items like pillows and throw blankets, give dust, dirt, and viruses less fabric to cling to and reduce the workload of housekeeping teams.
Maintain Access To Real-Time Data
Strategic planning, which used to take place annually, is now taking place quarterly or even monthly to keep pace with changing key market indicators. Decisions made based on data from 3 months ago might no longer be relevant to current conditions, so marketing and sales teams need to be nimble when responding to changing circumstances. This means that hoteliers are making sure that they have a firm grasp on activity in the market and their properties at all times.
This kind of deft decision-making isn’t possible without easily accessible, high-quality data being drawn from multiple sources.
Booking channels provide a great example of this. Earlier in 2021, direct bookings overtook online travel agencies as guests looked for direct reassurance from brands regarding their cleaning policies and available amenities. Now, guests are more likely to book their travel through other channels. Hotels that are able to keep pace with shifting guest behavior can better target preferred channels as appropriate. These hotels use CRMs to aggregate data from multiple booking channels, as well as to track their competitors, to ensure that they adapt to meet the needs of the moment.
With Great Change Comes Great Opportunity
Many hotels have already used the pandemic as a vehicle for changes that benefit their guests and staff. They’ve redesigned to ensure their spaces are flexible, focused on creating a safe environment, and used data to engage with guests where they are (online and offline).
COVID-19 will likely continue to create unpredictability and challenges for hotels across the globe in the coming months. However, any hotelier that’s pivoted operations, reimagined offerings, and still provided excellent service to their guests over the last 2 years is well prepared to thrive in an uncertain future.