After an alarming and unwelcome stretch of stillness, the winds are blowing across the tarmac at last and a post-pandemic travel scene is taking shape in the clearing. We will travel again, say the experts, and likely with the same enthusiasm as before. The differences to the experience will be both vast and subtle.
“People love to travel, explore the world and create lifelong memories,” says Craig Reaume, general manager of W Toronto, set to open this Spring. “I believe, when the time comes, travellers will be more than ready.”
Broadly speaking, says Jonathan Newbury, executive vice-president of Preferred Hotels & Resorts, the first wave is going to be about “revenge travel,” a phenomenon in which people, sick to death with cancelling plans, will fill the planes and hotel rooms with their exuberance for being anywhere but within their own four walls.
Leisure travel, everyone concurs, will be the first to bounce back. Pent-up travellers, liberated by a vaccine, will take to the skies in big numbers, “I see hotels through the eyes of friends and family,” says Newbury. “They get to a hotel, it’s an escape, they can be something different, they can change for a while and be someone [else], an idealized version of themselves. And, we, as an industry cater to that — and that’s not going to change. That’s what people want and that’s what we deliver in a hotel.”
Slower to rebound will be corporate and group travel, as companies and organizations grapple with liability issues around sanctioning trips to places where danger has so recently lurked. “Business travel is down enormously,” says Peter Gaudet, vice-president of Horwath HTL, a global leader in hotel, tourism and leisure consulting, articulating what legions of hoteliers know too well, though no one has precise numbers to account for it. “It’s very tough to think of [sending] massive amounts of employees out on the road when, if they get sick because they’re travelling for your company, you may end up responsible for their health.”
Meetings, conventions, events, sporting groups and association meetups have been severely hit by the pandemic, the victims of governmental restrictions limiting the number of people allowed in gatherings, to say nothing of the buffets and sit-down meals of which they’ve been deprived in convention centres, event venues and hotels since mid-March. But short-term corporate travel restrictions haven’t precluded innovation in that market. W recently launched WxW Meetings, a program that gives companies in
Toronto the opportunity to “meet” with their counterparts in Montreal. Here, small teams can meet (and stay) at W Toronto and connect to their teammates at W Montreal. One point of contact handles everything — from the technology and catering to a single bill, along with all the special touches that go into holding a meeting at W.
And, hotels have turned their corporate business on its head, promoting the idea of guests staying in hotel rooms during the day to work and going home at night to sleep — the opposite of convention.
But, the business-travel norm will return, Danny Hughes, EVP & president of the Americas for Hilton, asserts — even if it does so slowly. “There’s only so much business you can get done in a two-dimensional world. People need to see clients, to connect, to drum up business, to recruit people.”
From the current vantage point, following almost a year of volatile occupancy levels and Average Daily Rates (ADR), this all sounds a bit fantastic. But those with their eye on the suffering industry insist that not only will travel resume, but the alterations to the experience will be negligible once it does. Post-pandemic hotels will be clean — but that’s not new. “That level of cleanliness has always been an issue in hotels,” says Gaudet. “They’ve just kicked it up a notch in 2020. I don’t think they ever thought they’d be steaming shower curtains. Some of that may stay. Clients may get into that. But if you look at how we are in our homes, we [were] washing our groceries at the beginning, but in time fell back into what we knew. I think it’ll be the same with travel.”
“We’ll see a lot of the [introduced] standards remain, because there’s a psychological barrier for people, they’ve become a lot more conscious of hygiene,” says Newbury. Specifically, he foresees the endurance of the sanitization station, but also the return of buffets. The plexiglass separating guest and staffer will hang in for a bit, he predicts, but fall away as the virus subsides and vaccinations surge.
Hughes believes the global pandemic simply accelerated existing trends, including one toward increased personalization of hotel stays, whether that be in guests choosing rooms, customizing what they want in them or checking in and opening doors with their mobile devices. The big, leather menu binders at restaurants have been replaced by elegant QR codes, part of the digital movement overseeing the merging of physical and digital experiences. “These were trends that were very much part of travel and, now, in a world where we’re all trying to get used to contactless experiences, digitalization is going to be rapidly accelerated.”
In truth, the industry had a taste of the return in summer 2020, when infection counts flattened a bit and official constraints slackened. Indeed, says Horwath, some hotels were busier than usual last summer, accommodating a rush of giddy travellers, loosed at last from their lockdowns and keen to re-visit life when they could roam freely and in comfort.
“Here in the U.S., some of our hotels had the best summer season ever because people couldn’t get to the Caribbean, so they ended up going to New England or down to Florida,” says Newbury. Resorts, where guests arrived in their own cars and had plenty of space and fresh air when they did, were the obvious beneficiaries of this impulse. “We’ve actually been doing quite well in this pandemic, compared to the city hotels, which you would normally see very busy, but are still struggling and will continue to struggle until the fear of the virus goes away.”
Along with reliable statistics tracking pandemic-plummeting occupancy and ADR rates, measures of how hotel valuation has weathered the virus are in short supply. “It’s a tough subject for everybody right now,” says Gaudet, “with Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver running at occupancies we’ve never seen and would never have guessed we’d see in our lifetime. Everyone’s very hesitant to valuate hotels because, when we open that Pandora’s box, pretty much every hotel in Canada will see some loss in 2020. Let’s go as long as we can without having to do a valuation.”
Bankers financing hotels at 60 per cent, with owners kicking in 40 per cent are now looking at properties worth between 70 and 80 per cent of their starting values, which could knock their 60-per-cent stake up to 75 per cent or higher. “Bankers have all these rules and regulations and magic numbers they have to meet and none of the ratios are working right now — not on the financing side, not on the owners’ side. The definition of a market value is you put your hotel up for sale in a free and open market, but there’s nobody buying, because there’s no free and open market. Right now, the buyer has all the leverage, the owner has no leverage. It’s a very interesting time in the hotel industry.”
Hoteliers, meanwhile, are looking to make it less interesting with loud efforts to convince people their hotels are safe. Hilton has partnered with Lysol in a campaign highlighting cleanliness at every turn, from disinfected remote controls to steamed bed linen and door stickers that certify a pristine environment behind the seal. Where hotel operators used to tuck their cleaning efforts into the back of the house, largely undertaken when people weren’t awake, now they do the opposite, showily cleaning during the day so the consumer might witness the unabashed level of their handiwork. “This is all pre-planning,” says Gaudet. “The consumer can’t travel right now because of all the restrictions, but when we come out of this, they want people feeling re-assured about brands’ certain levels of cleanliness. Pop-ups on almost every independent hotel’s website account for their COVID-19 efforts, a clear message to the consumer: we’re ready for you. So, it’s not the consumer that changed, but the industry reaction.”
“I’m incredibly hopeful,” says Hughes, adding once a vaccine is rapidly deployed, “I’m positive business will bounce back. Every single one of us has cancelled something in the last nine months — a family reunion, a concert, a trip to Niagara Falls. We’re all burnt out with Zoom fatigue, and are desperate for the human reaction that only comes with seeing people together. We’re social animals and we want those interactions with humans. When we can, it’ll pick up quickly. People want to travel. And people have to travel. Travel is still an unstoppable force.”
By Laura Pratt