Leaders’ outlook for post-COVID-19 hotel world

Throughout this week, HOTELS has presented thought leadership from high-profile leaders about how to best navigate through the COVID-19 crisis and disruption to business. We close out this series with what those leaders think the future will look like.

Kenneth Greger and James Theodore, partners in the Travel & Hospitality Practice at global executive search firm August Leadership, asked Arne Sorensen, CEO, Marriott International; Sébastien Bazin, CEO, Accor; Edie Rodriguez, immediate past chairman of the Americas, Ponant Cruise Line (former CEO, president, Crystal Cruise Lines); and Mike Leven, former president and COO, Las Vegas Sands Corp. to make predictions about how the hotel business will evolve – both in the short term and further into the future.

Read the four other installments from this leadership series: how they have managed through past crises, how to best manage careers through a crisis, how to maintain team momentum via communication and how to maintain credibility through a challenging situation like COVID-19. The authors also offer their takeaways from the leader’s commentary.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Greger/Theodore: What does the travel and hospitality industry post-COVID-19 look like to you?  

Bazin: I think in the short term, people will travel closer to home, maybe discovering or rediscovering the pleasures of their home country rather than making long trips abroad. This is partly due to more cautious attitudes, which I think will be widespread, and partly because we’re still going to be seeing disruption to air travel. Since 75% of Accor’s global hotel revenue is domestic anyway, we’re well-positioned to respond to these shifts.  But all players in the industry need to be flexible and adapt their offerings if needed; it will be a long time before things return to the way they used to be.

Longer term, I think most guests will start to travel further again as soon as they are able. But they will want to do so in a different, safer and more responsible way. Many will be cautious about health and safety, for example, which I predict will be a legacy of this crisis for a long time after the lockdowns are lifted. At Accor we’ll be putting in significantly increased hygiene measures so that guests feel safe and are safe. All around the industry, employees, customers and partners need to be reassured of hotels’ ability to offer them the best possible welcome in the right conditions. Ultimately, the goal is to be ready for the rebound, all together, and put the crisis behind us.

For our industry, when it comes to lockdown relaxation China is the example to watch in the months to come because that’s where the lessons are going to be learned by the rest of the world. How to reopen hotels and all the issues that go with that, we are learning from China. And what I’m seeing so far is encouraging; our hotels are reopening and there are lots of positive signs. But it’ll take many months for us to return to occupancy levels that match what we’ve seen in previous years. And it’s critical that our industry gets the pace and tone right, adapting offerings where needed to meet the changed guest demands that I think will be a legacy of this crisis.

Sorenson: I think throughout the next year, or until there’s a vaccine, there will be clear operational changes as we work to protect our associates and our guests. There will be changes in protocol for housekeeping, room service, guest check-in and so on as hyper cleanliness, hygiene and social distancing become our new normal. Technology, even before this crisis, was enabling guests in many hotels to check in and access their rooms with no contact. That will become more common. And our associates will wear masks. Hopefully, many of these things won’t be permanent. But we want to communicate to our guests and our associates that it is safe to come to our hotels. I think there will be pent-up demand to travel and socialize. So many life events have been postponed – weddings, graduations, anniversaries. There is no virtual replacement for that. When it’s safe, I’m confident people will begin to travel again.

Leven: I am optimistic it is going to get back to normal but I am not optimistic about the time it will take.  Perhaps recovering in 2021 and something that looks more like normal in 2022, barring a resurgence of the outbreak. Part of the answer depends on the post mortem of what happens because of the shutdown.   Some feel it was a massive over-reaction and the damage is higher and longer than necessary. There are opinions on every side, but history will decide what it actually is.

In the meantime, as we get from point A to point B and a vaccine, what do we do? You’ll need to regularly test your employees. You’re going to see masks on employees and providing masks to travelers, and there will be people with gloves. Guest expectation will be that the rooms are cleaner than ever, and will be willing to check in later for that assurance. I don’t think you’ll see airlines put up shields between seats, but in the early days they will have to book with space between people, and there will be masks and gloves for passengers and crew. These added precautions will likely not create an environment where people feel comfortable in the early days, but after a year or so, concerns will go away.  In fact, once there is a vaccine some of the added precautions will no longer be required.

When 9/11 hit, no one wanted to fly anymore.  When the TSA security system was implemented, people complained, but now it’s accepted. It wouldn’t surprise me to see TSA integrating technology to take your temperature and deny boarding if you have one. People will be encouraged to take their temperature at home before traveling. Until there is widespread testing or a vaccine, this will also be the case before entering any form of public transportation, stadiums, concert arenas and more. There are all these massive events – the answer is testing, acknowledgement you’ve been tested and the date, and that the employees have been tested as well. An example is Disney Shanghai, which partially reopened recently, where guests and employees must wear a mask. To be admitted, each person’s temperature is taken, plus they must present an app on their phone in which the government has embedded a code verifying they are virus-free.

Not to be overlooked is the importance of doing some coaching and research in regard to what customers and employees are feeling – this isn’t just about business; it’s about emotions, too.  In some of the hot spots like New York, even more work will need to be done in this regard.

Rodriguez: Just as 9/11 passed, the pandemic will pass, too. This is not a matter of “if,” but when, and we’ll need an emotional recovery as much as an economic one. COVID-19 is a very different kind of enemy than we have previously encountered. Some people will be willing to take their chances and travel before a vaccine is created and some will not.  Regardless, your brand must keep in touch with your loyalty members in a soft manner now to provide assurance that when they are ready to travel again, you will be ready for them.

A profitable post COVID-19 travel and hospitality industry must include a vaccine that has been developed so the global population has a comfort level that they can not only live, but also travel the globe with a mindset of better health safety. One should remain cognizant that even post a vaccine, the “new normal” for the global travel and hospitality industry will be very different, and that will be “okay.” It will include new cleaning measures and frequency of cleaning at every touch point of a vacation experience, from when they leave their homes to when they return, including all they will encounter, such as Uber to the airport, the airport itself, buses, trains, public restrooms, the airplane, the cruise ship, the hotel, restaurants, stores, museums, sightseeing attractions and more. These cleaning measures must take advantage of the latest technologies and the best cleaning products.

The traveler will be packing differently, too, bringing masks, gloves and extra medications for up to a month should their trip be interrupted or delayed. Pre-boarding will include taking each traveler’s temperature, perhaps requiring a medical passport, etc., and the traveler’s willingness to accept and allow these new protocols.

It is human nature for individuals to possess a desire and wanderlust to learn and see the world, so business demand and profitability will return in the future; the desire to learn, experience, grow, and create new memories, and our need for human connection, is something that even COVID-19 cannot defeat forever.