When COVID-19 first caused a global shutdown around this time last year (we can’t decide if time has flown or gone by soooo slowly), the hospitality industry was among those hit first and hit hardest. Hotel occupancy rates plummeted, and restaurants around the world shuttered as people quarantined — bringing things to a halt almost overnight.
It quickly became clear that hotels, restaurants, and airlines were going to need to put strict safety measures in place while we all weathered the pandemic together—and we now know that many of the changes implemented by the hospitality industry are here to stay as the world starts to look forward to life post-COVID. We spoke with industry leaders to get their take on the new norm and how, despite everything, the pandemic has led to some positive changes in travel and hospitality.
Changing Attitudes About Travel
It comes as no real surprise that people are viewing travel differently now than they did in 2019. A quick weekend jaunt from New York to Miami, for example, no longer holds the same appeal when you factor in testing, quarantining, and the fact that sunbathing with a mask on isn’t ideal.
That doesn’t mean that the desire to travel isn’t there, however. Quite the opposite: People are desperate to get back to exploring new destinations, but as Súsanna Sørensen of Visit Faroe Islands says, “the COVID-19 outbreak has also given us time to think about why we travel and how we can travel more sustainably in the future.”
Contributing to more sustainable travel is a recurring theme. Almost everyone we spoke to called out changes in consumer consciousness as a result of the pandemic. “When borders open again, travelers will be more selective about the brands they stay with, placing greater scrutiny on their impact on local communities and the greater environment,” says Jennifer Dembitz, Co-Founder & Managing Director of Upcycle Communications, based in Singapore. In fact, as consumers become more aware of how their travel impacts the environment and the communities where they are spending time, they are also willing to spend a little more money if it means that they will be supporting ethical companies.
Cleanliness has always been a top priority in the hospitality industry, and COVID has just amplified the need for additional safety measures. In the past, touchless check-ins and check-outs could be seen as detracting from the personal touch that hotels wanted to provide. “Now, it is a baseline necessity to offer guests a way to check in without contact,” says Sharon Andrade, Vice President of Sales at Staypineapple.
“Minimizing touchpoints will continue to be a key practice across the industry this year as hotels, airports, restaurants, and others have turned to mobile apps and QR codes for increased safety and social distancing,” echoes Dembitz.
The travel industry was never known for its flexibility when it came to making last-minute changes to bookings. That has certainly changed in the past year, with most airlines and hotels drastically changing their cancellation policies due to COVID. We don’t know yet if these changes are here to stay across the industry, but they appear to be for some brands.
Staypineapple’s CORE passport, for example, allows travelers to pay a fixed rate for a specific number of nights at any of the brand’s hotels, and they have 365 days to redeem those nights. You’re guaranteeing the rate for the year regardless of the rate the hotel is offering at the time you book. “You don’t have to worry about the fluctuating prices of the market or hotel you want to visit,” says Andrade.“The CORE Passport evolved from the pandemic, but it will be around to stay.”
Necessity is the mother of invention, and never have we seen this more clearly than in 2020. The travel and hospitality industries have had to change not only their operating procedures but also their messaging. Thoyyib Mohamed, Managing Director of Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation, tells us, “Our main strategy during the pandemic is to promote the Maldives as a safe haven, focusing on the unique geography of the destination and giving great emphasis on the geographical isolation.”
This ability for companies to pivot, make changes quickly, and constantly be innovating is something we expect to continue past the pandemic. As Mohamed puts it, “The crisis has paved the way for more creative means of destination promotion and developing relationships with each other.” Expect companies to turn their focus to developing closer brand-consumer relationships through new messaging and creative use of marketing channels.
So, where does that leave us? At the risk of sounding like complete downers, we do need to acknowledge that COVID has ravaged the food and travel industries. The leisure and hospitality sector lost close to 500,000 jobs in December 2020 alone, and we saw far too many beloved restaurants shut their doors for good last year.
With all that said, we’re in awe of the resilience and generosity that we are continuing to witness across the board, from small restaurants to international hotel groups. Whether it was Snooze an AM Eatery donating over 200,000 meals to No Kid Hungry and 2,500 meals to frontline workers, Brooklyn’s Olmsted serving as a free food bank to industry workers in need, or the Four Seasons New York providing rooms free of charge to healthcare workers, we saw people step up when they were needed most. While COVID recovery will not happen overnight, we’re confident that the travel and hospitality industries will emerge stronger than ever, not only because of the changes they are implementing but also because we as consumers know, more than ever, how much we need them.