The New Normal - The Lobby Boy

Recommendations to ensure you the best chance of recovery in the new era of tourism 

As vaccines are rolling out, travel corridors are opening and people are preparing to get away from their lockdown locations, the big question on all hoteliers’ minds is how to successfully reopen their property in time for the tourism industries’ eventual recovery. 

The reality is that things will not be the same and guests’ expectations, attitudes, and behaviors have changed. Hoteliers must be ready to change and adapt to them. We have spoken to one hotelier to get his perspective and have put together a list of recommendations to consider during the recovery process. 

The ‘new normal’ and what does it mean for hoteliers?

Identifying what ‘the new normal’ means specifically for post-pandemic tourists and how their priorities have changed is something that all hoteliers should be conscious of before considering reopening. 

Driving holidays have taken precedence over flying in the last year and this trend will continue, resulting in more local tourists than ever before. Social gatherings and large group tours are no longer in demand, so shifting to offering smaller, more intimate experiences for families or small groups will be beneficial. There are now higher expectations around health, safety and hygiene standards from tourists wanting a sense of control over their environment. This will drive their choices in how and where they decide to stay and what they choose to do on their holidays. 

Predicting these shifted attitudes and acting accordingly will be essential in determining which hoteliers manage to survive and even flourish.

A case study in success: Pepe’s House

We invited Clelia and Juan Pablo, founders and CEO of Pepe’s House Hotel & Boutique Hostels, to ask them a few questions about how they have handled the situation. Both are Colombians, and they started in Colombia with a small Airbnb in 2015, and in 2017 they opened a new hostel with their brand in the city of Cuenca, Ecuador that became the benchmark for international travelers in the south of the country. In 2020, a week before the restrictions, they opened Pepe’s House Micro Hotel & Hostel in Guayaquil, also in Ecuador. Both accommodations are currently open and operating.

Tourism has been the sector most affected by the restrictions derived from the pandemic. Please tell us what happened in your city and your business in the first days when the quarantine and restrictions were enacted.

‘On Sunday, March 15, 2020, the government announced the closure of air, land, and sea borders for tourists and travelers. On March 16, 2020, at midnight the nightmare began that we had no idea was coming. The international travelers who were staying at that time had been called by their consulates asking them to take the first flight back to their home countries.

Cuenca and Guayaquil, and the rest of the country, was blocked and quarantined. We helped travelers to organize their return, we refunded the money from the reservations and some travelers donated the money from the rest of their reservations to us. This happened between Sunday and Monday. We felt like a war or something similar had just started. There was a tense calm and a strange sense of utter uncertainty that persists even today.’

Now let’s talk about your concerns, which are surely those of many hoteliers around the world. What were your concerns in 2020 and what are they now?

‘The first few weeks our only concern was taking care of our team. After almost two months we realized that we were bankrupt and the priorities changed. From that moment the new objective was to take care of ourselves. We thought about canceling the contracts of the rental properties in which we operate. And the miracles began. We reached a new agreement with the property owners that remains until today in 2021.

In 2020 we set a simple goal: if we were operating in March 2021, we had survived, otherwise, we would seek new paths. The first quarter of 2021 started well, with stable occupations of 20% compared to before the Covid, increasing each month a little more, but from the end of March new restrictions returned us to the occupation figures for 2020.

Our new concerns, after surviving 2020, are to continue operating, increase revenues, increase services for travelers and promote the destination and our two accommodations.’

After the initial blockade and quarantines in many cities, the reopening of accommodation and all kinds of businesses began. Tell us about your experience, please.

‘We were lucky. We never closed the operation in Cuenca (in Guayaquil, yes for almost two months). We cared for trapped foreign travelers, government workers, business travelers, local tourists, etc. We can proudly say that only two accommodations never closed in Cuenca and one of them was us (currently less than half of the accommodations have reopened). Big brands, prestigious local brands, and many small accommodations went bankrupt, closed, and some have yet to reopen.

The government provided training on biosafety measures in the hospitality sector and our entire team participated, to reopen operations and receive authorization with two seals and certifications, one of them Safe Travels.

Since the new normal began, we have reached full occupancy about six times or more. This has given us a break to continue operating.’

Reinvention, the word that has become fashionable in many productive sectors, regarding the new normal. Are you doing something different? Did you have to reinvent your business? Did you do anything to attract new tourists?

‘We don’t like the word reinvention. It was a word so widely used, that in the end, it has lost its meaning. However, we adapted by making new agreements with our team, with the owners of the properties we rent, in the way we worked because we had to further optimize all the processes that we did before the pandemic. We closed the shared dorms and they will now function as private rooms until regulations change.

On the other hand, we reopened services such as the cafe bar, we created new services such as movie nights for local people who want to spend a great night on the terrace, we opened the high-speed internet service for digital nomads, we changed our website, we promoted our accommodation among corporate and national travelers more than before (before the pandemic 90% of our guests were international), and we are attentive to trends and success stories to copy best practices.

Something very important is that we have not stopped doing revenue management, offering promos, using hotel software, improving facilities, and so on.’

Vaccinations in different parts of the world are advancing, people are eager to go out and the numbers show markets are in the process of recovery for international tourism. What are your expectations for 2021?

‘We all know that we hit rock bottom and the only thing left is to get afloat. This is possible this year. We believe that in 2021 tourism will explode, but this will depend on the health reality of each country and city. Local/national tourism will continue to be important, and international tourists coming from countries with successful vaccination processes will certainly play a big role as well.

In 2022 we will probably be in numbers close to those of 2019. We expect a lot from this year because governments are understanding that if they accelerate vaccination they can stabilize the economy. And if both things happen, we as a resilient economic sector will benefit and perhaps the nightmare will turn into at worst just a bad memory and at best a learning experience.’ 

So, what can you do?

Despite this unprecedented situation, certain opportunities and decisions can be implemented to ensure a safe reopening. We have done the research and put together some ideas worth considering for every hotelier when reopening to navigate this new, previously unknown, territory. 

It may require more training, new ways of doing business, and possibly even some renovations or changes to the layout of the property, but the industry has changed and hoteliers must be prepared to change and grow with it.

Convert shared to private rooms:

Hostels are arguably one of the hardest hit of all, due to the environment of shared spaces and the promise of a sociable experience for guests; something that is now not as much of a priority as it once was. 

One of the most common changes, that many have already implemented due to new laws and restrictions, is to convert previously shared or dormitory-style rooms into private rooms. This is relatively easy for a 4-bed or even a 6-bed room. They are small enough that there is no need to change the layout of the room or even the number of beds, just start selling them as private rooms. 

Hostelling Scotland has measures in place for their expected reopening on May 28th, with their website stating; For the time being, bookings will be open to private rooms only…’¹

The challenge comes when with larger shared rooms, with some even going up to 32-beds. There is the option of renovating these rooms and creating a divider wall to split the rooms into two separate private rooms, but with most places working on a limited budget, this is not a possibility for all. In this case, the next tip may be useful, reducing the capacity of the room.

Reduced capacity:

It’s impossible to leave the house or browse online without the words ‘social distancing’ popping up somewhere. In the absence of the ability to renovate, to better comply with these measures, the next best option is to work at reduced capacity. 

The standard is to work at 50% capacity, so a 32-bed shared room would now be a 16-bed shared room. This can even be leveraged as a ‘guaranteed bottom bunk’ to appeal to potential guests. 

This will also carry over into communal areas such as; dining rooms, kitchens, lounge rooms, smoking areas, etc. The easiest way to do this is to block off every second chair/seating area in the space, using a sticker or sign. Rearranging the space is another option to maximize the number of available spaces and ensure there is adequate distance between each table/seat. In dining areas, having staggered 1 hour ‘eating windows’ will allow all guests a chance to utilize the space. 

Of course, not all places are choosing to open at a reduced capacity, each property is different, and the decision to do so and which percentage will be based on certain factors. The capacity chosen to open at should take into consideration the local laws and regulations if there are any, the amount of space available, the type of guests staying, and how much they value health and safety when traveling.

Reassure guests:

As hoteliers navigate this new territory and prepare to reopen, there is one major thing to be aware of at all times, the new health-conscious traveler. Previously, travelers were more carefree and not so prone to health and safety concerns, but that has changed and it is essential to understand and predict these changes to adequately accommodate them. 

First on the minds of tourists, when choosing where to stay, is safety and good hygiene practices. It must be made clear to potential guests all the measures that have been taken to ensure their safety such as; social-distancing, masks, hand sanitizer available, temperature checks, extra cleaning practices, staff training, reduced capacity, etc. Travelers now value a sense of control in their environment and reassuring them that everything possible to minimize risks has been done will ease their fears. 

With the emergence of consumers demanding more responsible travel policies, there have also been several different ‘Safe Travel’ stamps created. This will help reassure guests from a brand or name that they already know and trust. We recommend the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) ‘Safe Travels’ stamp.   

Another thing to consider, to reassure guests and minimize risks, is automating processes that were previously done manually. 

Tech solutions:

There has always been a multitude of technology options available to hoteliers to automate almost every process. These solutions are now even more useful and necessary than before to minimize the risk of contact and create a safe environment. 

Perhaps the most popular since the start of the pandemic is self check-in. We recommend chekin.com, a relatively inexpensive software. Talk to your PMS or Channel Manager provider and ask if they have this feature, if they have any integrations with companies that offer self check-in or if they plan on adding it soon. 

This may not be in the budget, however, and there are ways to do it manually. Set up an automatic email/message to new guests asking them for their travel document details and any further information required from them for check-in. This can be done from the property’s email or most OTA’s have an automatic message feature to be sent to guests when they book. Send them instructions on how to enter the property, wi-fi password, house rules, and any other information needed for their stay. Lastly, the payment will need to be taken via an online method, either Paypal, stripe, bank transfer, or virtual card. 

QR codes are another great free option open to any hotelier. The way they work is that the code will be posted, the guest can then scan it with their phone (almost all smartphones support QR scanning), they will be directed to a webpage that is linked to the unique code. The only thing needed is a website with the relevant information the QR code will direct to. 

The first step is to use a free QR code generator, we have found one here, or a simple internet search will find one. Follow the steps to create the code and link the content that is being promoted. Download/print the QR code and test that it works. Put it up for guests to scan and get the information needed. 

Some great ways to utilize these codes are for tips on where to eat and local activities in the lobby and in rooms with the house rules, wi-fi password, etc. reducing the need for contact with a receptionist. If you have a restaurant/bar, you can also eliminate the need for physical menus by exchanging them for a QR code at each table, minimizing contact between customers.

There are many more tech solutions available to properties of all types and sizes and finding the most appropriate solutions may just take a quick online search. Consider all possibilities and what will be the most effective and appreciated by the guests.

Be prepared:   

The most important thing when considering reopening is to be prepared. With many laws and regulations changing without warning it is vital to stay up to date with all current local and international news and to be ready to accept guests when the time comes. 

This means having everything clean, in order, and the appropriate signs posted so guests know what is expected of them. Review all OTA accounts and make sure they are updated and ready to go. Train all staff on any new practices that are in place and ensure they know what is expected of them. Have the correct systems needed to manage and run the business smoothly, in place, and ready to go.

A hopeful future

There is hope for the future of the tourism industry and to be a part of that future, hoteliers must be ready to adapt. 

‘…the travel industry is on the road to recovery, and people are eager to start traveling again’² said Wendy Olsen Killion, Senior Vice President of the Expedia Media Solutions Group that just released their quarterly Travel Recovery Trend Report in April.

Understanding how attitudes have changed and catering to these new wants and needs will establish and maintain trust with tourists. The road ahead is not an easy one but paying attention to other success stories, considering different ways of operating, and most importantly being prepared will maximize the chances of a successful recovery. 


Source:

HostellingScotland

Travel Recovery Trend Report

Author: Emma Flynn

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