From booming world travel to complete bust, some of how we spent the lock-down so far, and a new better-than-COVID standard of sanitisation becomes part of ISAAP Accreditation. Here’s to the bounce-back!


Well.

This is different!

Back at last year’s ASAP Convention, when we heard Simon Calder talk about his predictions for this year – including a global pandemic – I don’t suppose any of us had the faintest idea that within five months, life as we knew it then would possibly never be the same again.

And it was just before the COVID-19 crisis struck, on the 7th of February in fact, I wrote a blog piece outlining my thoughts about boom, and how it’s usually followed by bust. And how things coming to a head, becoming almost out of control, can often lead to a reset, a cleansing – and often something more optimistic.

When I wrote that blog, it was actually aimed at the Online Travel Agents – the OTAs – and their apparent disregard for the individual guest as they over-booked accommodation, and then auctioned the rooms off to the highest bidder. The guest, turning up at their pre-booked, often pre-paid accommodation, might suddenly find themselves shunted off to a less suitable room or even another hotel altogether, because they were worth less to the hotel after commission then another booking. We’ve all been there. I’ve often spoken here about booking a penthouse and checking in to a basement – me! An ex-hotel inspector and head of a hospitality industry trade body.

And the sharing economy was also in on the act. Numerous stories of misdemeanours, from fatal shootings in party houses and fraudulent listings the ‘host’ didn’t own, to midnight visits from heavies demanding money with menaces from guests who thought they were simply living like a local in someone else’s apartment. (Interesting to see that about half has been wiped off Airbnb’s $35bn valuation ahead of its much-touted floatation, originally planned for this year but now in doubt.)

Everything had really hit some peak, pre-Coronavirus. Rising 5% on the previous year to 1.4 billion tourist visits worldwide in 2019, it’s almost unimaginable that there are almost no planes in the sky right now – and those there are, are mostly flying cargo. No international leisure or business travel, many businesses closed for the duration, or their staff working from home. We’ve all been told to stay indoors until our governments decide somehow that it’s safe, and all living in hope of a vaccine.

That was boom. And now we’re bust. So, time for a re-set.

Of course, nobody would actually want the world to go through this again. Nobody would ever want any of the personal, economic or mental stress of this pandemic, with the poorest likely to come out of it worst, at least in the short term. But there’s no denying that the period of enforced lockdown has brought some benefits. The unintended consequences – and many of them affecting our own hospitality sector as dramatically as any other.

The air is clearer, the water less polluted in some of our over-touristed ancient cities, the beaches in some of the world’s most exclusive hotspots suddenly available to locals who would never normally afford to use them. And it shows we can actually have an effect on our carbon footprint, as individuals, while getting to know some of our neighbours, reading some books, enjoying birdsong. A romantic view of lockdown, of course, and not the same for everyone. But a reality for many.

And some of our own ISAAP Accredited Members came to the fore during the lockdown – I’ve never been so proud. Dozens of them came forward to answer the cry for accommodation for frontline workers who needed to isolate away from home. We housed rough sleepers, NHS workers, firefighters, victims of domestic abuse fleeing with few possessions and looking for somewhere safe to rest. And our apartments were ideal every time, coming as they do with extra space, ‘welcome’ packs, toiletries, kitchen, laundry facilities. We will be sharing these stories – some truly heart-warming – over the coming weeks. But suffice to say, our operators and agents helping this to happen were not only doing the right thing – it was also a sensible commercial decision, working with councils and the NHS, that kept some afloat.

Nobody knows yet how long this is going on, even as we start to see new cases and deaths lessening. And we’re told most things – holidays, flights, international travel across borders – are not likely to recover for two years, at best. But at least (going back to the boom and bust scenario) we have a unique opportunity as a sector to get this right now, as we re-set hospitality and travel.

Survey after survey finds that consumers are in no rush to dive straight back into social mixing. Many are saying even when they venture out for leisure activities, they’re likely to stay close to home and avoid enforced contact. It implies the rise in staycations across the world. Some countries are making it an enforceable requirement for travellers to stay in their own countries, in fact, including Australia.

On top of which, the European Commission is discussing with major airlines the future of air travel, and there’s the likelihood of dramatically lower numbers of flights, and half-empty flights. Many airlines are already slashing routes, and jobs. It’s possible some low-cost carriers will insist on business as usual – Michael O’Leary decried empty middle seats some weeks back – but even they are shedding jobs six weeks into the lockdown.

When the climate emergency grew last year and became a topic of conversation in the mainstream, rather than purely among activists and scientists, it took children to bring cities to a halt. But while we probably all thought, yes, this is now urgent, it wasn’t clear how we could make a difference. This COVID-19 lockdown has shown how quickly the lack of cruise ships crowding ports and city-hop flights can start to take effect; perhaps it will make us aware of the dangers of cheap flights to Eastern Europe for stag and hen weekends, honeymooning in South Sea islands where the local poverty is kept hidden, or island-hopping cruises where the local economy takes no benefit but simply clears the diesel away afterwards.

And when people do begin, tentatively, to travel again, there will need to be some major changes. In order to reassure guests about hygiene, many hotel chains are establishing their own brands of disinfection standards, with Hilton partnering with Lysol on its CleanStay campaign, and Marriott launching a Global Cleanliness Council. Our own Accreditation is adopting a better-than-COVID standard module, so we’re future proofing ourselves against other oncoming pandemics, covering as a minimum such obvious elements as sanitisation, toiletries, personal protection and keyless entry. And as we’ve all become so used to social distancing that these measures will feel like second nature rather than an imposition, to cope with future crises.

It’s a shame that many were previously looking at sustainability in terms of losing the single-use plastic and in-room mini-bars and fruit, switching to dispensers and water fountains, but now may have to re-think even that strategy. Perhaps guests will become more used to bringing more of their own toiletries and other items from home, give up the fripperies and avoid the buffet breakfast queues.

And when it comes to their accommodation, we have the chance to focus properly on the guest. Many hotel brands are leaping over one another to get the attention and loyalty of the fewer guests who will be travelling. And much of the sharing economy is facing a battle to convince consumers that cheap is one thing, but truly well-managed hygiene is another; in the meantime, many of the less ethical landlords have moved on to longer-term housing rentals or left the market altogether, leaving the professionally-managed short-stay sector to those who have the guest’s best interests at heart.

So there we have it. Our own sector offers benefits that many more people are now aware of, from the professionalism of our operators to the accreditation that reassures the quality of accommodation, cleanliness and safety, and we need to jump on this opportunity.

Boom and bust may be one thing. This pandemic is possibly offering us not only the recovery we need so badly, but the opportunity to make things better for the long term. Let’s make sure we take a stand, and make sure we play our part and take our own reward.