The hotel experience will not be the same for travelers when they return – and travel managers should be ready for the changes
By Harvey Chipkin
As business travelers take to the road in ever-increasing numbers, they will be returning to many of the same hotels they were familiar with before – as well as new ones, because of pandemic-driven changes in company policies and client locations. Will it be lodging as usual? With the industry facing critical staffing shortages, will guests see a reduction in service? How should managers deal with the expectations of their travelers and with upcoming contracts with room providers?
Travelers can expect significant changes, according to both hoteliers and intermediaries – not necessarily for the worse, but ones travelers would do well to anticipate. For example, operators might position innovations like contactless technology as a positive while guests may continue to seek more human interaction, so progress may be in the eye of the beholder.
Bjorn Hanson, adjunct professor, Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality, New York University and a longtime industry observer, says most guests will accept limited housekeeping as they understand the combination of health and safety practices, the challenges of staffing, and room rates that are 15-25 percent below 2019 levels. But by late 2021 and into 2022 as rates continue to recover and COVID-19 concerns diminish, many guests, says Hanson, “may perceive the reduction in service as nothing more than cost cutting with health and safety primarily as an excuse.”
Steve Reynolds, CEO of Tripbam, a hotel rate shopping platform, says he doesn’t expect long-term service disruptions, particularly in the US. In Europe, he says, “the opening up is going more slowly so they may have lingering issues into early 2022, but those should dissipate by the second quarter.”
Hoteliers continue to invest in technology that provides health and safety solutions, though it might reduce human contact. Kimberly Wilson, senior vice president-global sales for Preferred Hotels & Resorts, says the Hotel Monville Montreal, offers robot-operated room service. The hotel robot, H2M2, is used to deliver items such as face masks, extra towels, Nespresso capsules and more. The robot is also employed to provide food and beverage to meeting and event guests.
Contactless technologies are also on the radar for Kathy Mouw, vice president, global sales, US and Canada, Marriott International. Mouw says the company is leveraging the tools available to help “reimagine the guest experience” and is encouraging guests to use mobile check in/checkout, mobile key, mobile dining and mobile requests “whenever possible and wherever available.”
There is an opportunity now, according to Jill Hatfield, vice president, global sales-North America for Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, to meet the growing demand for contactless service and streamlined technology. “We are confident,” she says, “that business travelers will support and understand potential changes in a post-pandemic world.”
There is no doubt that service levels have changed considerably since the pandemic began, notes Derek Sharp, chief operating office of RoomIt by CWT, a lodging consulting and sourcing platform. He says, business travelers need to check with the specific property to ensure the experience will match their expectations, “as consistency across hotel brands is limited.”
Frank Passanante, senior vice president Hilton Worldwide Sales, Americas, says even before the pandemic, his company was working on initiatives around the Hilton Honors app “to provide guests with more choice, control and convenience.” Today, Digital Key, along with the other contactless functions of the Hilton Honors app, like choosing to walk straight to your room using your smartphone, is available in 80 percent of all Hiltons.
Whither Buffets? Perhaps no other sector of the hotel experience was more impacted by the pandemic than food and beverage, with “grab-and-go” becoming the “go-to” choice while buffets were forced to “go-away.” Dorothy Dowling, chief marketing officer for Best Western Hotels & Resorts, says certain pandemic-driven options will continue for a while. They include an enhanced “grab-and-go” breakfast with pre-packaged food and beverages, and “served” or pre-plated breakfasts to minimize guest contact with servers.
Travel managers should create a protocol to inform travelers of the current situation for a particular property, says Laura Kusto, global hotel practice leader for Advito and Stay by BCD Travel. For high-risk destinations, she says, managers should “encourage travelers to follow protocols such as dining at the hotel with the preference for room service vs. the hotel restaurant.”
IHG Hotels & Resorts VP of global sales strategy Tamara Laster says Holiday Inn Express is transitioning to a modified self-serve breakfast that ensures physical distancing, limits product exposure and reduces communal touchpoints. Full-service hotels are offering enhanced options that might include breakfast in bed, chef’s table in the room and coffee and tea barista experiences.
Hotels should try to enable travelers to maintain their at-home food habits, says Jason Fudin, CEO of WhyHotel, “by making the ordering of delivered food a seamless experience.”
Rates vs Service? Travel managers will have to monitor traveler input to get the information they need to balance rates with service levels, according to intermediaries and operators. Reynolds says rates will not only reach pre-COVID-19 levels but will likely outstrip them as hotels try to recoup lost revenues and as demand outpaces supply. The current buyer’s market, he warns, will likely pivot to a supplier’s market early next year. Buyers need to secure negotiated rates and discounts now, Reynolds advises, and set rate caps in their programs to avoid significant hikes next year.
HRS, the corporate hotel booking portal, is expecting a rate increase in 2022 with a focus on what amenities might be included in the price, according to Lexi Benakis, vice president-procurement consulting. While travelers are not seeing 2019 levels yet, she says, rates will be higher in 2022.
In general, says Sharp, rates tend to be driven more by supply and demand than by service levels. However, if services continue to decline, he cautions, “travelers will begin to complain and shift business to properties where service levels have been restored. Hotels are constantly looking at their competitive set and, ultimately, they will adjust pricing and service levels to match their nearest competitors.”
Addressing service issues, Wilson says, “I want to reiterate the opportunity for travelers to discuss any service opportunities while on property in order for the hotel management team to address their service expectations and improve client engagement.”
Setting the Bar How should travel managers communicate what might be a new normal as their travelers return to the road? Hatfield says it will be challenging for travel managers to find ways to engage a new wave of bleisure (business/leisure) travelers. Travel managers have to recognize this trend, she says, and “rethink tactics to improve their travel programs for employees who will be traveling for both business and pleasure purposes.”
Travel managers should also continuously track hotel ratings, says Reynolds. If they see a significant drop in service level ratings in the coming months, they could replace that property with a higher quality hotel in that market. Similarly, Sharp says that if a company has not previously implemented a mechanism to solicit hotel reviews from travelers, that should be a priority.
Wilson says travel managers should ask their travelers to “please practice patience as everybody learns how to travel again.” She says that as a veteran of on-property operations she knows that hotels do not want to alienate guests as they return to the road. “That could cause angst with business travelers,” she says, “and despite staffing shortages, employees want to go above and beyond.”
Even with less staff, hoteliers agree that cleanliness will be paramount. Laster says IHG’s Way of Clean program includes more cleaning in high touch areas, hand sanitizer stations, physical distancing in the lobby and public areas and removing hard-to-clean items in room. What’s Ahead? Having the right mix of hotels in a program, says Reynolds, will have the greatest impact on travelers. That means finding a balance between brand, location, quality and price. Buyers, he says, should monitor and make adjustments to their programs throughout the year to account for shifts – a drop in service levels, discounts that aren’t honored and volumes moving into new markets.
Laster says IHG expects short-stay trips to be replaced with longer ones so it’s critical to discuss relevant amenities during negotiations. She says the company is re-imagining the corporate travel RFP process to make it as simple as possible. “We are also looking for evergreen pricing and agreements to drive value for our customers,” says Laster. There will be shifts in negotiated inclusions, agrees Wilson. For instance, she says, add-on items like parking have become more important as more business travelers drive rather than fly.
Negotiated rate agreements, says Hanson, will likely include provisions about services that would never have been part of negotiations in the past, such as for airport and local transportation and extra charges for housekeeping.
Since many travelers did not engage with rewards programs over the last year, says Dowling, brand loyalty now has to be “re-earned.” This is more relevant to business travelers, she says, “as we anticipate the lines between business and leisure travel to blur more than we have seen in the past – meaning the value of business loyalty is becoming increasingly personal.” Strong loyalty programs, says Dowling, can also be leveraged to increase preferred hotel policy compliance.
With continuing uncertainty among both managers and travelers, says Hatfield, the rate negotiation process will be “a little more complex than usual.” She says suppliers and buyers will need to demonstrate flexibility and “be open to creative options on how deals are structured so that both parties win on key elements.”
Corporate travelers, says Hatfield, can expect a continued return to normalcy as vaccinations become more widespread and as organizations like the CDC continue to modify and update their guidance in response. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” she concluded, “and that’s worth celebrating.”