Josephine Lim, managing director of Southeast Asia for Preferred Hotels, talks with Nick Walton about the impact of the coronavirus epidemic on corporate travel, the response by hotel members, and predictions for the new face of business travel.
How will COVID-19 change the way corporates travel?
Despite the now-widespread use of video conferencing and technology, in-person meetings and networking will not be wholly replaced by technology. Corporate travel will return, but efficiency will become a much bigger consideration and travel budgets will reflect that. Over these long periods of lockdown staggered across many countries, the adoption of teleconferencing and videoconferencing as a means to conduct business is here to stay because it provides a cost-effective contingency for when international travel is not an option.
As travel restrictions ease, businesses and organizations will cautiously resume corporate travel programs, starting with essential industries like healthcare, food supplies, defense, finance, and government travel-related services. Travel-buying companies from other sectors will follow with many implementing stringent travel guidelines and observing measures such as voluntary at-home quarantine following trips and ensuring that members of the same team do not travel together.
How will the expectations of business travellers change post-epidemic and how will Preferred Hotels cater to those new expectations?
Post-pandemic, business travellers will expect hotels and serviced residences to provide a higher level of personalized service and to have transparent and visible duty of care standards in place. These include stringent hygiene control and precautionary measures such as deep cleaning guestrooms between stays and safe social distancing procedures in communal areas, including lobbies and fitness centres.
Some corporate travel buyers are beginning to secure hotel room blocks for 2021 and are requesting dedicated hotel staff in addition to fully-flexible booking and cancellation policies. The evolving needs of the corporate traveller present an opportunity for hotels to reinvent their offering. It will be a buyer’s market more than ever before, and corporate travellers are more likely to book hotels that can demonstrate their ability to minimize person-to-person contact with facilities like self-check-in, lift operators, and keyless door locks while providing thoughtful amenities and experiences such as personalized amenity kits with face masks and hand sanitizer.
Moving forward, we will include each member hotel’s approach to safety and sanitation on all of our channels and our global sales team will ensure that our loyal guests who favor the independent hotel experience are fully aware of our approach. We want our loyal corporate travel guests to feel as safe as possible when choosing their next independent hotel experience. Many of our properties will provide guests with the same housekeeper throughout their stay for higher fees. This is not to take advantage of the situation, but rather an opportunity to offer an additional level of service, reassurance, and peace of mind. We are also advising member hotels to remain flexible on cancellation and attrition.
When do you expect to see international travel return and who will be the first travellers you expect to venture from home?
Travel has been disrupted like never before and it is unlikely to return to the way it was before Covid-19. While we do not have a crystal ball, we can look to the progress made in China as an initial reference, where local travel and drive markets were the first to bounce back.
International travel, particularly short-haul travel, is expected to climb back six to nine months later, and our booking data supports this, but a true return to borderless travel is heavily dependent on individual government lockdown measures and their reopening timetables. It could take up to two years before international travel resembles pre-pandemic levels. Italy has just lifted its lockdown and opens its borders to other EU countries from June. Other countries in the region may follow, leading to possible intra-European travel from Q3. Here in Southeast Asia, Malaysia and Singapore are also likely to lift restrictions in Q3, and travel by car between the two countries may lead to a return to international travel in the region.
Leisure travellers, specifically luxury and family travellers, will be among the first to venture out – ahead of corporate travellers – because personal travel experiences – the touch, taste, and smell – cannot be replicated virtually. As such, our immediate efforts are focused on developing regional marketing campaigns and relevant partnerships to support drive markets, staycations, and family travel. Recognizing the importance of corporate travellers to our I Prefer Hotel Regards loyalty base, we are launching additional benefits for members that include access to improved member-only pricing options and unique partnerships.
Many hotel companies are now emphasizing their hygiene standards – what initiatives have Preferred Hotels members put in place to bolster consumer confidence?
In addition to our brand standards of excellence, for which key criteria has been updated to reflect the times, we have been referring member hotels to ISSA (the leading trade association for the cleaning industry worldwide), which provides comprehensive guidance for cleaning and disinfecting public spaces, including hotel restaurants, meeting spaces, lobby areas, and other high traffic areas. Hotels that haven’t already created their own health and hygiene procedures can adapt the association’s recommendations to make sure that they are in line with government guidelines.
Preferred Hotels recently commissioned a survey of I Prefer members looking at their travel intentions. What were the results and were there any surprises?
Our I Prefer members are resilient travel enthusiasts who have responded positively to both our early adjustment to protect their status and extend the validity of their points. We surveyed approximately 4,000 members from around the world for our Future of Travel Survey, and the results were exciting because they highlighted a desire and a readiness to travel again – both domestically and internationally. Fifty-four percent said they would book travel as soon as restrictions are lifted, while 17 percent indicated they are booking travel now for 2020. Forthy-three percent said they will travel internationally this year with more than 80 percent planning to travel by air and more than 75 percent indicate they plan to travel with family.
What developments should business travellers look out for from Preferred Hotels in the coming year?
In addition to further development of I Prefer and its member benefits, which include new member rates and rich value-adds, we recognize a clear opportunity to appeal to corporate travellers through the expansion of extended stay and residential-style accommodation options. Preferred Hotels was among the first to enter the branded residences space in 2015 with Preferred Residences and we anticipate increased demand for professionally managed stand-alone hotel units in hotels, condos, and townhouses across all travel segments due to the space, privacy, and security that these properties provide.
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