In another interesting session of #TnlOutreach, four international hospitality veterans come together to discuss the new face of hospitality and outbound travel, after COVID-19. They also talk about how they are prepping to jump right back in, in what is their—and our—forte: luxury travel.
As much as we love ourselves a rugged trek or a dusty jungle safari, the pleasures of a champagne breakfast are quite incomparable. No wonder then, a long conversation about the landscape of luxury travel after COVID-19 was overdue. Moderated by Riaan George, a seasoned luxury travel blogger and journalist and T+L India contributor, the freewheeling webinar touched upon the predictions, affirmations, and everything else that falls under the ambit of luxury travel. Here is a round-up of the session.
Clarity, Communication, Confidence—The Three C’s
In a wobbly situation such as this, clarity, communication, and confidence seem to be crucial. “Currently, the only thing that could possibly retard or impair the pent-up euphoria or the excitement among travellers is a clarity-broadcasted response that offers them the minimum level of comfort and confidence they need to get out there,” Saurabh Rai, Executive Vice President, South & South East Asia, Middle East, Africa and Australasia, Preferred Hotels & Resorts, begins.
“Brand awareness is going to continue, with or without the coronavirus,” adds Michael Goh, President of Dream Cruises & Head of International Sales, Genting Cruise Lines. Paying heed to the concerns of the consumer, Goh discusses cancellation policies and mentions their ’Cruise As You Wish’ policy that allows flexible bookings. “It allows our guests to cancel 48 hours before the journey and we promise to provide them with a 100 per cent Future Cruise Credit,” he states.
Luxury Travel To Pick Up Faster Than Mass Tourism
Everyone agrees that luxury travel has always been a trendsetter in the hospitality industry, and the probable consensus is that it will be one of the first sectors to open up. “The exclusivity allows more protection against any exposure to the virus,” says Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale, General Manager of The Fullerton Hotels and Resorts. He goes on to add, “Business travellers who must travel for critical meetings will only travel once the bans are lifted. The numbers will fall as we’re seeing new ways of connecting, like right now via video conferencing.”
Talking of things from a UAE-perspective, Thomas Grundner, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at JA Resorts & Hotels, Dubai, agrees, “Luxury will definitely have its edge because of space and individuality.” At the same time, Grundner throws in an interesting observation where he’d like to see if the 1,000-room hotels will be able to cater to the safety requirements of the guests or if the boutique, “nimble” properties, will be deemed more approachable.
Unlike the general forecast of fewer but longer travel plans, and talking of cruises (that make for a significant segment of luxury travel), Goh remarks that holidays at sea will be shorter, to begin with and that Indian travellers will opt for destinations within Asia before going further away.
What Are Hospitality Brands Doing In The Meantime?
From brainstorming on attractive guest-friendly ideas to CSR activities to considerate recruitment policies post COVID-19, hospitality veterans have a lot going on, even when most of the conventional tasks are on hold.
For instance, Goh shares that two of their ships in Singapore are being used to house migrant workers. In addition, he says, “The team is busy trying to recreate and virtually offer the experiences we have onboard—such as live cooking sessions, introducing our performers, and more—through social media,” adds Goh. He also believes that this is a good time to build on partnerships. “Partnership is key to getting through these tough times together. It’s a good time to relook at our business models and expand our alliances in the industry. In Singapore, 30 per cent of our business is domestic and the rest 70 per cent is international. So, growing our partnerships with airlines and hotels in Singapore is what we are looking at.”
Other than seven properties in the Middle East, JA Resorts also operate out of two locations in the Indian Ocean. At their Maldives property, Grundner shares, “This time has been useful in making enhancements that we were not able to do with guests round the year.” In the bigger picture, Grundner feels that this pause has allowed the brand to relook at internal structures completely. “We’d grown really comfortable in the last few years; working, copying, pasting, and being happy with it. Now we’ve got the opportunity to relook at check-in/check-out processes, housekeeping approaches, and include technology components.”
While we are certain that a technological revolution of sorts will have taken over the travel and hospitality industry by the time we are on the other side of the pandemic, it is interesting to note how the process has already begun. For instance, Viterale shares, “I have been providing our employees with regular updates through LinkedIn, conducting webinars, etc. We are also making sure to update the guests virtually about our flexible booking policies, and sharing interesting content and tips on wellness, food, travel, and lifestyle through our Fullerton newsletters.”
With around 800 hotel partners in 85 countries, Preferred Hotels & Resorts has had a unique perspective. Rai talks about the three-quarter strategy that the brand has adapted. “Quarter one (April-May-June) was all about preservation and safe-keeping the health of people while minimising cash-flow. The next quarter is for thawing back and taking the responsibility of kickstarting the travel engine. We have taken the obligation to trend-watch very sharply from around the world, keep an ear to the ground, and pass the information to our partner hotels so that they can watch the moving target—because that’s what it is. We thought the virus was X but it has already turned out to be 10X. Now that we can put a box around what the demand-recovery flow and duration could potentially look like, we are keeping our eyes on the last four months of the year for an acceptable percentage of travel coming back.” Rai also shares an interesting survey that brightens up all our faces. According to a consumer-speak sentiment survey that Preferred Hotels & Resorts conducted across 3,50,000 members of iPrefer (their loyalty programme), 20 per cent of them had already booked travel before December 2020. Fifty-four per cent of them confirmed that they were confident about travelling again within this year.
On being prompted about the future of trainees and hospitality students, the panel has been mutually affirmative that the industry leaders will step in and support the budding generation. “Many of them will witness first-hand experiences and new measures that are taking shape at the moment. We’ll continue to work with different hospitality schools and institutions and to groom these young to-be hoteliers. They are the future, after all,” remarks Viterale.
How Soon Is Soon Enough?
When can we afford the luxury of crossing national borders? The common take on this million-dollar question remains dependent on the opening of borders and the local restrictions of each country. Nevertheless, the panellists hint towards a sooner-than-you-think revival. “Keeping in mind our conversations with various government authorities and agencies in Singapore, we think that the domestic cruises will be back on the waters from August and international cruising will resume from October. As the Genting Cruise Line is huge among our Indian guests, we are curating many new experiences to bring them back onboard once things go back to normal,” shares Goh. Also in Singapore, Viterale says, “We hear discussions of creating green corridors between countries that are the seminal points in this situation.” To this, Grundner adds how the countries that are enforcing a mandatory 14-day quarantine on arrival will be perceived differently. “People will consider that before travelling, along with the board-in and arrival processes elsewhere,” he believes.