Paul Dobson, Senior LEcturer,Staffordshire Business School
It’s been a challenging, confusing and worrying time for most industries during this current Coronavirus Crisis. But the hospitality sector in particular stands to be one of the hardest hit as it struggles to contemplate how it can continue to trade successfully keeping social distancing in mind, coupled with a rapidly shrinking economy. As part of Staffordshire Business School’s support to organisations I’ve been supporting the local and international hospitality sector and as the French businesses are ahead of us in coming out of lockdown I’ve noted some points to help prepare UK organisations.
After 2 months enduring some of the strictest lockdown controls in Europe, France is slowly opening up its economy and society. And the vast, hugely varied accommodation sector, which historically welcomes visitors across the world, is undergoing a rapid and radical revolution to ensure it can continue to attract customers in these unprecedented times.
The newly forced need to keep distance and natural sense of personal safety has fallen well into the hands of some of the self-catering sector. Private homes and villas, especially those that can offer generous outside space as well as little or no contact with others, have seen a huge demand since the 11th of May when the French Prime Minister officially declared that travel up to 100km was now permitted. The public, who have been largely “imprisoned” with massively limited scope to be outside their own homes since the middle of March inevitably have an overwhelming desire for a change of scenery. However, this is not a universal permission and policy, and restricted zones still exist across France, and indeed many local governments, even in the less-infected “green regions” are enforcing the continuation of heavy trading restrictions and forced closures of accommodation providers. But where these rules do not apply, the flood gates have opened and demand, all from customers within the 100km radius, has been significant. Also worthy of note is that the average length of stay has seen a dramatic increase for this time of year.
That’s not to say that this is return to normal times for these accommodation owners. French hospitality organisations have had a massive increase in questions about sanitation, personal responsibility and uniform industry standards on cleanliness and contact that the UK accommodation businesses will need to be prepared for when lockdown restrictions are relaxed. As of today, these restrictions haven’t been totally clarified in France, and only “best practice” guides from local tourism authorities exist online. Some of the leading booking platforms and websites for this sub sector are advising “safety gaps” between customers of, for example, 24 hours to allow any surfaces to become less likely to cross contaminate in the future. What is apparent from discussions with French hospitality businesses is that there is an increased desire for customers to have “direct online contact” with the service rather than through online booking platforms. This could be a welcome shift in attitude as this not only allows peace of mind for the customer, but also less commissions for the business owner to pay to the booking platforms which have come under much public criticism and scrutiny of late because of their high charges. One of the French businesses I’ve talked to has had an 800% increase in Facebook messages, their analytics has shown an increase in both mobile and desktop visitors to their website and the number of emails has increased by over 200% compared to last year.
The B&B (Chambres d’hote) and Hotel sector have reported an uphill challenge. With a mix of different guests under their roofs, all with potentially varying attitudes to respecting the new government guidelines, this poses a significant threat to their short- and medium-term existence. However, those that can offer genuine space, especially outside, have a clear advantage over those that cannot. Going from one restrictive box to another isn’t likely to be a great draw for the new discerning needs of the Covid-19 era traveller. Forced confinement has brought about a new desire to be out and about in nature, and burn off all those excessive calories consumed since March.
But with the high season fast approaching during which these businesses would traditionally run at maximum occupancy, the reality is that these organisations will be forced to not only give “buffers” in between guests checking out and the next ones checking in, but also run at a lower occupancy to ensure that interaction between different customers is minimized. Therefore “Making Hay whilst the sun shines” will this year inevitably bring about a lower yield, and reduce the vital cashflow which sustains many of these businesses during the quieter months.
An example of changes implemented is the hotelier Tim Bell and Ingrid Boyer in the Auvergne region of Central France. Tim has developed their website to include a link to their Covid-19 guidance on their home page (see https://chabanettes.com/). This is updated on a regular basis and outlines their commitment to client’s safety. He implements rapid alterations to its usual offerings and has created the foundations for business continuity and customer confidence. He has also set up a Facebook forum for like minded accommodation owners in Europe seeking support and advice. Tim collates industry data, statistics and best practice ideas from all over the accommodation sector and share his opinions and advice with the group.
The sector in which he operates is having to rethink more radically about its traditional services to ensure competitivity and customer confidence. This ranges from the provision of catering which is leaning initially more towards a “Room Service” culture to a complete overhaul of the check-in/check-out customer touch points, looking to technology and globally recognised physical safety barriers to reduce risk of viral spread. For an industry which relies heavily on close, personal contact for their reputation and overall experience, keeping a balance between customer satisfaction and safety is proving challenging, but not impossible. Clients now expect a more sterile and distanced world, with supermarkets leading the way in some innovation and rethinking of the customer journey that the hotels are learning from, such as one-way corridors.
Until the world is safely vaccinated against the virus, the accommodation industry will have to adapt quickly and radically to guidelines, legislation and customer fears. History has told us that businesses that do this will have the best chance of survival, and those that don’t not only fear a downturn in business, but also a very visible online reputation for ignoring what is now the number one priority for the 2020 traveller – Safety.