Keeping it clean and capturing wanderlust

The desire to travel is strong but as economies begin to open, customers will be looking for hotels with clear lines of differentiation. Cleanliness, value and flexibility will be top of mind. Pamela Whitby reports

Covid-19 may have ravaged the global travel industry but one thing it cannot destroy is wanderlust. According to data, insights and consulting company Kantar, social media mentions of travel intent across English speaking markets soared by 2,232% between March 23 and May 4.

Inderpreet Banga, the former VP of channel and distribution strategy at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, for one, has had a strong desire to escape after spending weeks in lock down. “My wife and I have already scheduled two trips in the coming months. We just want to get out the house,“ says Banga, who recently joined Epic Revenue Consultants as chief operating officer.

Source: Global English language social media mentions in connection with what people are looking forward to after Covid-19/quarantine/coronavirus, 24 March – 4 May 2020.

However, like many people planning to travel, Banga and his family will be testing the water closer to home. His first outing, planned for August, is a short drive away, while the second is tentatively a more adventurous short flight. When it comes to choice of accommodation, this also reflects what the wider travelling public will probably be looking for when and if they venture out. “Hilton’s ‘clean stay initiative with Lysol protection’ makes me feel a lot more comfortable,” he says.

As David Gardner, managing partners of 80 Days, a hotel and travel marketing firm which recently launched a benchmarking service that delivers competitive set analysis, puts it: “Positive messages related to hygiene will be a minimum requirement for all hotels”.

Every guest will request a security and clean protocol, but nobody on holiday wants to feel like they are living in a hospital

Laura Lo Mascolo, CEO, Interlude Hotels

Many of the chains, as reported by Business Traveller, have already announced such initiatives. However, as many hotels will be opening doors at a similar time, differentiating this Covid-19 driven requirement while remaining competitive will require creativity like never before. Laura Lo Mascolo, the CEO of the small luxury Italian chain Interlude Hotels says there a fine balance to strike between guaranteeing safety and health, while maintaining quality and comfort. “Every guest will request a security and clean protocol, but nobody on holiday wants to feel like they are living in a hospital,” she says. 

Francisco Fernández, the chief operating officer of My Way Hotels, which has a strong focus on well-being, agrees: “If our guests can’t feel safe and enjoy a positive, relaxing time with us, then it doesn’t make sense to open our hotels.”  The team at My Way is working hard to deliver this with a number of initiatives including halving the number of people allowed in public spaces. 

Banga remains positive that hotels will find a way to welcome guests. As occupancy rates this year are likely to reach, at the very best, 50%, there is no reason why hotels can’t create appropriate rules of engagement for social distancing. Never mind reducing numbers of people in public areas, one possibility may be to keep every alternate room empty, which may boost consumer perception of a property. Providing any additional global certification such as the Hilton-Lysol partnership or video displays with a clear explanation of how and where hotels are being cleaned could be another ways to allay fears.

Creating value in the direct channel

The nature of the beast is that hotel inventory can now be found everywhere – on leisure and business travel platforms, travel management companies, global distribution systems and more. While hotels are looking to perfect the onsite guest experience, Banga believes this is a unique time to “press the pause button” and rethink distribution and channel management.

“These relationships should be highly transparent and aligned with the goals of the property. It is matter of economics. If you are going to sign something it needs to make sense for the property and the brand,” he says.

In an environment where there is not going to be a tonne of demand, value proposition will be key!

Banga is not a big fan of exclusivity (such as the deal Marriott signed with Expedia) and in the short term, in particular, he believes it will be important to keep options open. He is, however, a fan of “value proposition” on the direct channel. Especially at this time of Covid-19, this, he says,  “must be inherently different” and “out-of-the-box”. 

As the value proposition especially around cleanliness and hygiene is not going to be so easy to get across on an OTA, and especially at scale this can be something hotels do well on the direct website. 

Another plus is that while travellers are still in the dreaming, rather than transacting stage, homepage views are up by 26%, according to 80 Days data. “This reinforces the importance of this page and the need for it to be relevant, informative and rewarding,” says Gardner.

Other tips include:

  • Remain competitive and flexible but don’t be combative. “We are all in this together,” says Banga. So, instead of trying to compete on price, hotels should be considering overall demand, and working with local convention and visitor's bureaus to understand the current market position. Data gathered by 80 Days finds that average order values are up 56%, which is attributed to hotels offering more expensive flexible rates and the demand for longer stays especially in rural areas.
  • Deliver deals but don’t race to the bottom. Add value by creating partnerships with local bars, restaurants, and tours and activities providers. In the UK, for example, Kantar found that interest in outdoor pursuits such as cycling and fishing has been higher in recent weeks than at any time in the past five years. Armed with data like this UK hotels in more rural areas can start to think about appropriate partnerships with local tours and activities providers, and vice-versa.
  • Go above and beyond the room rate. Any value that a hotel can deliver above and beyond the room rate should be on the table. Banga points to many different [loyalty] programmes that “allow independent properties to participate and that don’t cost too much”. Examples include the Guestbook and Stashawards. Gift cards are another way to go – Choice Hotels Your Extras programme is one example that involves partnerships with the likes of Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and Shell that have benefited its mid-week clientele.
  • Avoid direct contact where possible: My Way Hotels, for example, is accelerating its use of digital tools in order to minimise unnecessary contact. Online check in, digital door keys and smart phone tools that allow guests to order directly from the restaurant or bar menu are among its plans. In the drive to cut costs hotel brands, if they haven’t already, could also consider chat bots that could help to answer obvious queries. Importantly, communicate these initiatives clearly. 
  • Keep engaging with customers, it counts: Transactional website traffic may have slumped but this is not the time to ignore past customers or those showing an interest now. 80-Days data gathered from 3-5 star hotels finds that the hotels that engaged with their audience saw traffic drop by 55% versus a precipitous 84% for those that failed to engage. For the most proactive hotels, the fall was as little as 40% and 
early results show these properties have experienced less of a decrease in transactions and revenue.

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