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Is the Travel and Hospitality Industry Prepared to work with the Pandemic?

–Part One: Slaying the Beast

Yes, you read that right! There is no grammatical error in the heading. To overcome and outdo the challenges brought to our threshold by the novel Coronavirus, we need to, henceforth, work with, and not just in the Pandemic.

COVID 19 has been unique on several fronts. It is not that we have not faced tough times in the past. From World Wars to the Great Depression the world has battled sharp, knockout strikes. On the medical front, from the 430 B.C. Plague of Athens to the Black Death in the 14th Century, from Yellow Fever to Polio, from Spanish Flu to Asian Avian Flu, from Swine Flu to Ebola to Zika, we have been ravaged by epidemics that have wiped out big sections of businesses and large masses of people.

But in recent memory, no epidemic has buckled us down so badly. And there are gravely strong reasons for it. Almost the entire world is hit by the current Pandemic which has moved from geographical zones to sections of the society. It has served a blow to almost all the businesses bringing the world economy down to its knees.

The havoc unleashed by the Pandemic is staggering. As of 29th June, there are 10,021,401 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 499,913 deaths, reported to the WHO. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) forecasts a fall between 13% and 32% in the world trade in 2020 due to gross disruptions in life and the economy around the world.

Indeed, the travel and hospitality industry is amongst the worst affected.

With the governments in a bind over dealing with the chaotic devastation all around and with no definite cure or vaccine in sight in the near future, it all looks bleak and worrisome. I decided to speak with three hoteliers and travel experts to gain from their insights and learn from their experience.

Florida-based Kenneth Vincent is a Lama of the hospitality industry. He is the author of the book – So Many Hotels, So Little Time. In his remarkable 49 year career with hotels, Ken started off as a bellboy at the age of 14 and went on to manage over 100 hotels ranging from luxury boutique inns to limited-service properties, large convention hotels to multi-faceted resorts. He also performed consulting services for the State of Massachusetts. Ken formed eight companies, two of which are owned hotels. Having served on the board of directors of several companies, Ken, now, mentors young hoteliers in three countries.

David Ourisman is the Founder of Ourisman Travel and a Virtuoso Luxury Travel Advisor from California. A member of Brownell Travel, David Ourisman’s company is one of the significant sellers in the world of Four Seasons and other luxury hotels. David himself is recognized as a leading travel expert in the region and has established a specialization in the luxury hotel segment of the industry.

Jannes Soerensen is the General Manager of the London-based The Beaumont, the timeless and old-world, uber-luxe hotel. Jannes was a Golden Key Concierge (Les Clefs D’Or), who began his career in his native Berlin, before embarking on a professional journey which took him to leading hotels in Paris, Barcelona, New York, and London. Jannes has cut his teeth and earned his spurs at such legendary hotels as Kempinski Hotel Adlon, The Plaza Hotel, and the Four Seasons George V, Le Bristol, and The Connaught. Today, Jannes is recognized as one of London’s youngest General Managers of a Five-star Property and has been voted as the Best General Manager in the World (for the second year running). Under the stewardship of Soerensen, The Beaumont rated amongst the top 25 Luxury hotels worldwide, was named as the Best Independent Hotel in the World in the 2019 Gallivanter’s Guide Awards for Excellence.

My conversation with the three hotel industry professionals aims at outlining the circumstances at the ground level, putting the issues on the table, and offering wise counsel.

L. Aruna Dhir What is the effect of the COVID catastrophe on the industry?

Kenneth Vincent – The issue has been very tricky because the industry is so diverse.  The effect of COVID varies considerably between a limited-service highway hotel, a resort hotel, a convention/business-oriented hotel, and even geographically.  The impact on a hotel in NYC and one in Wichita, Kansas is not likely to be the same.  Even two similar hotels in NYC will have seen totally different conditions.  A hotel near the theatre district will have been hit much worse than one next to a major hospital.

The one thing they all have in common of course is that their normal market has virtually dried up as travel ceased.  Occupancy rates in most areas have dropped to 25% and over 40% of hotels have simply closed.  Government-mandated lockdowns have virtually eliminated travel by air, car, train, and bus.

With lockdowns lifting, the travel is still coming back, understandably, with a lot of trepidation. Corporate shut-downs have of course been a factor and will continue to be so even after lockdowns are eased.

David Ourisman – The lockdown has led to the complete shutdown of the industry. Destinations have had to simply put the shutter down. Americans cannot travel to Europe, and vice versa. The scene is being repeated all over the world. Many American cities and states, as much of the rest of the world, have been sheltering in place and have had to shut down hotels and other so-called non-essential businesses. The entire state of Hawaii has closed its tourism industry.

Jannes Soerensen – When the crisis first hit, forcing very abrupt closures, initially without a government mandate, many in hospitality and travel felt this presented an existential crisis for the industry. Since almost every country in the world was eventually forced into lockdown and once we had time to gather our collective breath, I believe we have begun to focus on resuscitation and revival. So I remain nevertheless optimistic.

The COVID crisis has also exposed how close to the edge many of our staff live! This crisis rapidly threatened the livelihoods of many of the people that are the backbone of our industry. This is something we are seeing in society in general, with our care workers, too. People who are paid the minimum wage live a hand to mouth existence and have feeble pliancy.

Ongoing job security issues will grow as hotels, restaurants, and travel partners are forced out of business. It is the people that have always made the difference in this industry and we now need to do everything we can to protect them and their families.

Loyalty goes both ways. The health of our employees and our guests is also a fundamental concern and some of us have lost colleagues and friends, and know people who have been very ill.

I think there is a crisis of lack of self-confidence: the industry feels particularly punished in this Pandemic and it is true that it will suffer more than most industries. But there are green shoots and there is hope that opportunities will come out of this, that better practices will evolve and that we will all work in a more cohesive and united way, for the benefit of the planet.

L. Aruna Dhir – What is the paramount leadership role of the Top management in all this?

Kenneth Vincent – This of course depends on what top tier management we are considering.  In a 120 room, limited-service hotel the top management is the G.M. and he/she will be able to do nothing without ownership approval, and more often than not that will be to simply lock the doors.

Top tier management in a franchise company has a few more options.  Things like waiving franchise fees and mandated FF&E reserves.

The top management in a management company or ownership group with multiple hotels (and even franchise brands) has not only the role of deciding which hotels to keep open and which to close but also a wide range of employee conditions from corporate staff to new line employees. Sadly, in all those situations the one common result is that many will be laid off, terminated, or will suffer temporary pay cuts.  There is no option. 

David Ourisman – Top management is in the difficult position of answering to owners and their financial pressures while simultaneously maintaining relationships with their team, travel advisors, and valued guests.

There are no easy answers. Tough decisions will have to be taken. But we hope that they will be taken with a strong moral compass and high emotional quotient, particularly keeping in mind the lowest common denominator. Yes, it is indeed, hard-hittingly Herculean as the turnaround time for the businesses to come back to the past revenues is very long.

Jannes Soerensen – The role of top management at this time is to stay informed, to communicate, and to plan. It is important to keep in constant touch with guests, staff, and partners in the industry. It is crucial to maintain the connection and emotional link. Don’t hesitate to communicate, even if you don’t have all the answers.

Government lobbying under the umbrella of a hospitality association and presenting a united front when it comes to formulating what the industry needs to reopen safely is also a fundamental element of the role. We all need to work together to make this a success.

And then there is the reopening planning. I maintain a small, tight team of executives to manage the building, to remain in touch with the travel industry, to communicate, and to oversee the reopening, with new protocols in place. 

L. Aruna Dhir
L. Aruna Dhirhttp://www.larunadhir.blogspot.com
L. Aruna Dhir is a recognized and national-poll winning Corporate Communications Specialist and Writer. Currently, she is a Feature Writer for ehotelier.com and Columnist with Hospitality.Net – the world’s two highest-ranked Hospitality publications. Aruna is also an avid blogger and a published poet; with two anthologies to her credit. Her writings appear in several national and international publications. A seasoned hotelier, with over 20 years of experience with some of India and Asia's top hotel brands, Aruna’s industry writings are syndicated to the finest global hospitality bodies and used as references in case studies and hotel schools. As an industry expert, Aruna has launched brands, developed training modules, created standardization dockets on business communication and written manuals. Aruna has been engaged in freelance work for Doordarshan – the Indian National Television, All India Radio, and Times FM. Aruna also serves on the Board of Association of Emerging Leaders Dialogues (AELD), a front-running Commonwealth Body that works towards developing leaders and influencers of tomorrow, with Princess Anne as its international President. An All- India level topper in her Public Relations course, Aruna has represented India to a select group of opinion-makers in the United States, as a Cultural Ambassador under the aegis of Rotary International. She has also participated in the IXth Commonwealth Study Conference held in Australia and chaired by Princess Anne. L. Aruna Dhir is the first-ever Creative Writer for the Indian greeting cards giant – ARCHIES Greetings and Gifts Ltd. She is the only person in India to have contributed original verses and have her byline on the cards. In her official and personal capacity L. Aruna Dhir has and continues to work on several social awareness projects – People for Animals, Earthquake Relief, National Blind Association, PETA, WSPA, Change.org, Friendicoes to name a few. www.luckyaruna.blogspot.com

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