Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson has said that the impact of COVID-19 on his business is worse than the 2008 recession and September 11 attacks combined. This is a worrying statement and it reflects the severity of the impact on the hospitality sector as a whole. The need for social distancing and resulting inability to travel for leisure or business means that most properties are currently empty.
All sectors have been affected, and the original ‘V’ shaped curve of recovery is now seen to be optimistic, meaning that the impact of COVID-19 on tourism will be deep and long term. When people are able to travel again, for hoteliers it will mean much more than simply providing hand sanitisers in public spaces.
While we are cognizant of the negative impact of this pandemic, it is important to acknowledge the positives too. Pollution levels are down, and so nature is enjoying a break. We have more time to reflect on where we are heading as a society, and we have seen a coming together of communities to tackle the virus.
According the scientific journal Nature Climate Change tourism accounts for eight percent of the global greenhouse gas, a statistic that will surely gain more brevity as sustainability becomes more important to governing bodies and future travellers. Following this pandemic the population will question the distance and frequency of which they travel for leisure, being more aware of their own carbon footprint.
As many of us have now adjusted to working from home, we are all confident that work can be successfully conducted remotely, and our previous mistrust of technology is giving way to appreciation. As a result, we will see a marked drop in business travel, with all non-critical meetings being held online in the future.
These changes in behaviour will result in lower occupancy levels in hotels as business and leisure travel decreases, and hoteliers need to adapt if they are to survive. Hoteliers should consider diversification, and how they can be less dependent on revenue stream purely derived from tourism.
The rise in co-living and co-working spaces presents an obvious opportunity. City properties might be adapted into a mix of hotel guestrooms and long-stay units, with public areas mimicking the members club model with co-working facilities. These spaces also need to be inclusive enough to encourage non-members from the local community into their spaces, and include compelling culture-driven programming.
Technology will continue to play a huge role in keeping hotels ahead of the curve. Our newfound appreciation for tech, along with our heightened awareness of spread of illness will manifest itself in an increase in digital hotel experiences.
Self-check-in and general transaction systems will be contactless, access to rooms will be via phones, and rooms will feature voice-activated services. Programmable spaces will allow guests to customise their environment with specific art, or images of friends and family to create a home away from home.
As guests seek a closer connection to their hosts for a sense of security, we may see a rise in hotels using more direct communication apps such as Whatsapp which should be seen as a way to streamline service by operators, and future-proof systems for owners.
While the travel ban will eventually be lifted, people will continue to be thoughtful about overseas travel, both in terms of the virus and in terms of environmental impact. This opens up opportunities in urban and rural settings for ‘staycationers’, allowing people to connect with local heritage, unlock previously unexplored locations, and release pressure on the over-tourism of popular and seasonal destinations.
This pandemic has been devastating to communities, businesses, and industries around the world. The hospitality sector will be deeply impacted, but it will survive. It will just be a very different model to the one we currently know.