Human connections will still count in a socially-distanced hospitality sector

By Ian Morris, Partner

The Spring Bank Holiday weekend would normally see Britain’s holiday destinations buzzing with tourists, but with reopening of hotels, holiday parks and tourist attractions not due to take place before 4th July, the mood will be muted in the hospitality sector.

Lockdown rules are slowly starting to relax in tourist destinations across the world. In Europe, Slovenia has already started reopening restaurants, bars and accommodation with 30 rooms or less; Greece’s hospitality businesses are due to reopen on Monday (25th May); Italy is removing restrictions on international arrivals on 3rd June; and Spain aims to do so around the end of June.

But even as lockdowns end and borders re-open, international travel won’t fully recover for a long time. The UK Government is still warning that British nationals should avoid all but essential travel. And when this advice eases, many people will remain wary, or unable to afford international vacations due to the financial strain caused by the pandemic.

For the travel and hospitality sector, the socially-distanced staycation is very much on the cards for 2020 as domestic tourism will be more important than it has been for a very long time. In the UK, VisitBritain says it expects a 55% decrease in expected income from inbound tourism for 2020, with the prospect of a 14-day mandatory quarantine for new arrivals to the UK starting in June, and a 24% decrease in expected income from domestic tourism. The Government will urge people to holiday at home. Suggestions for encouraging this include imitating Sicily, which has set up a fund to subsidise holidays on the island.

This has significant implications for the marketing and communications strategies of hotels and destinations. And while the primary concern of many of these businesses will be surviving when social distancing and a lack of income from major events and festivals will lead to business-threatening revenue falls, in order to secure the income that is available they will need to get their marketing and communications strategies right.

For example, many hotels and destinations, particularly in cities such as London, seek high-spending international travellers from countries such as the US and China. But with levels of international travel set to be severely impaired, the direction of marketing and communications budgets will surely be partially re-routed from these countries to focus on UK audiences through UK channels. 

Marketing to an audience of lower-spending domestic tourists may also necessitate changes in menus and price points, for example, which will need to be reflected in communications.

And of course, all stakeholders will want to know what to expect from a hotel or destination in a post-pandemic world. 

Businesses will have to keep investors informed about what is being done to address the challenges, compete with and stay ahead of competitors.

Brands will need to communicate clearly to owners, operators and asset managers, working with them closely to implement essential changes in ways that make financial sense while maintaining brand values and guest experience.

Effective communications will need to be managed with the travel agents, OTAs, corporate bookers and group travel organisers that represent a vital part of the travel ecosystem.

Some businesses may choose to proactively join industry efforts to lobby national and local government bodies on issues such as the extension of the furlough scheme and business rates holidays, or the easing of planning restrictions to more easily allow the setting up of tables on pavements or public spaces.

But most importantly of all, of course, they will need to communicate with guests and employees.

Hotels will be making big changes to adapt to the new normal. Changes being considered that will affect guests include staggered check-ins, protective screens at reception or the removal of tables to ensure social distancing in lounges, bars and restaurants. The use of online and mobile check-in will be maximised, as will the use of digital administration forms and payment methods.

Other technological solutions being mooted include digital room keys (already in use in some hotel groups), self-service wine bars and facial recognition in lifts. Communication channels such as WhatsApp will increasingly be used to allow guests to communicate on their own devices to speak to reception or order room service, simultaneously increasing convenience and removing the need to touch a hotel phone handset.

Clear communications to guests will be required about the health and safety protocols in place, so they know their holiday will be safe, but still enjoyable.

This is a tricky balancing act. Safety is of course paramount, and many guests will want reassurance that their stay will be managed in a well-planned, safe manner. But no-one wants to go on a 100% technology-enabled holiday where they have no human interaction.

These changes will need to be communicated to guests from the moment they first search for a holiday or hotel. Part of this communication is in external marketing and communications work across a multitude of channels. But even more important is the direct communication that takes place between employees – whether in reservations and customer service roles or hotel staff – and guests.

Hotels must not allow the need for social distancing and the proliferation of technological solutions to take away the human contact and exceptional service that is the beating heart of hospitality. They must find ways to balance the necessary changes with ensuring their employees are still empowered to offer the warm welcome and personal touch that makes stays memorable – potentially a tough act to carry out from behind a mask or a plexiglass shield.

Doing this across a large hotel group, for example, is not easy. Creating a culture where this message can resonate and flourish firstly requires effective and inspirational internal communications from the CEO and senior leadership team. This must then cascade down the organisation to the general managers and their teams – who are in most cases the only people your guests will ever directly see, meet, or interact with. These are the people who ultimately need to understand that even in a socially distanced, tech-enabled hospitality world, guests still need to experience a warm welcome and exemplary service. 

The hospitality businesses that negotiate the recovery in the best shape will be those who are not only agile enough to adapt their operations to the threats and opportunities of the new normal, but who are also agile enough to adapt their communications to it.

On this quiet Spring Bank Holiday, here’s hoping they succeed, because we all need this vital industry as much as it needs us.

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