Challenges and Opportunities In The Hospitality Sector In Light Of COVID-19

COVID-19 has upended the world as we knew it. This unprecedented crisis has affected industries around the globe, and the tourism and hospitality sector is amongst the hardest-hit. Travel was the first to be completely shut down as countries sealed international borders and flights were suspended, compounded by the lockdown and restrictions across the nation. This standstill scenario has posed significant challenges for the hotel industry, causing immeasurable impact.
The uncertainty associated with this pandemic is leaving travellers apprehensive, and has led to a dynamic shift in their perceptions, expectations and behaviour. Reinstating their confidence will be the foremost step in encouraging them to travel again, and hotels will play a crucial role in this. 
Travellers will be hyper-conscious and more vigilant around cleanliness and hygiene going forward; these will be the key influencing and decision-making parameters when they look for an accommodation. So hotels will need to redefine and enhance measures for sanitising their rooms, restaurants, meeting areas and common spaces, as well as back-of-house areas while still prioritising the things guests seek in hotel stays – personalisation, attentiveness and comfort. 
It will be equally essential for hotels to develop clear communication about these new standards being implemented and penetrate this information to the guests even before they actually arrive at the hotel. What this means is guiding your customers through the journey from the time they search for you online, until they book and then finally arrive at the property. This will ensure greater transparency and confidence throughout the entire hotel experience. 
Once travel starts picking up, the domestic market is likely to be the game-changer, setting the precursor for recovery. There could be a surge in staycations, short getaways and road trips with people self-driving to nearby destinations. Indians who would have otherwise planned to go for vacation overseas will probably largely opt for local trips. It will take time before robust demand for international travel returns, given the apprehensions amongst people to get on long-haul flights and also depending on when border restrictions are lifted. So the number of Foreign Tourist Arrivals will be lower. 
Travellers will expect greater flexibility in booking policies. The recovery may include extremely short planning cycles driven by gradual lifts of the travel restrictions and small booking windows as travellers monitor the situation. Business travel will be more necessity-based in the coming months, not just due to the due to the pandemic related concerns, but also due to optimised travel budgets. Companies are likely to reduce spends on travel and lodging, so the corporate segment will initially drive lesser demand than leisure tourism.
This state of affairs will also have an obvious cascading effect on food and beverage and MICE (meetings, incentives, conferencing, exhibitions) in hotels. The culture of dining out and even the traditional in-room dining service will undergo several changes. Buffet spreads will have to be temporarily discontinued or limited; there will be a shift towards à la carte dining and individually plated and served meals. Contactless deliveries and takeaways might become preferred options for consumers. With physical distancing becoming a necessity, restaurants and banqueting spaces will need to reorganise and rearrange seating layouts.
 The MICE sector is also facing a slow down as most large-scale international conferences and events of all nature have either been cancelled or deferred. The size of gatherings for social events and weddings will be relatively smaller given the new guidelines that have been put in place.
Recent researches on traveller sentiments indicate that there is pent-up intent and euphoria to travel as people will want to catch a break to rejuvenate after this stressful period. But when we look at how long they will take to move from intention to action, majority still assert that they will plan their trips depending on how the conditions evolve. So hotels will need to keep a constant close watch on these market trends. They will have to be prepared to adapt as per the changing guest needs and think through key aspects both for the short and long terms and develop a resilient framework.
Hotels are facing great unpredictability right now; however these testing circumstances have also brought upon a unique set of learnings and opportunities for the industry to re-evaluate and ameliorate practices. Hotels are finding inventive business models to pivot their business and tide over these times.
The industry is navigating through uncharted waters right now, but it’s a phase and this too shall pass. We can emerge stronger from this challenge, with much more knowledge and more lessons to apply to the future. We must remember that the passion to travel and discover the world will never diminish amongst people; the spirit of travel will always keep us moving.

Story by Saurabh Khurana.
(The author is director of sales and marketing at The Lodhi Hotel. He can be reached at info@thelodhi.com)

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