by Fran Worrall, Hospitality Upgrade Editor
Yesterday, the World Health Organization announced that COVID-19—the viral disease that has swept the globe and killed more than 4,200 people—is officially a pandemic. At the same time, President Donald Trump announced that travel from Europe to the U.S. would be restricted for 30 days, beginning tomorrow at midnight. Analysts are saying the virus is having a bigger impact on global aviation than 9/11. And a recent Skift Research survey indicates that nearly one-third of U.S. travelers are deferring their plans. A number of industry conferences and meetings have been cancelled or postponed, and many companies have elected not to require employees to travel on business.
So, what are leading hotel associations saying about COVID-19? To find out, we talked with top executives at the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), Hospitality Financial Technology Professionals (HFTP), Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI) and Hospitality Technology Next Generation (HTNG). Together, these organizations represent a huge cross-section of the industry. Following are their comments regarding COVID-19’s effects on the hospitality industry and what their associations are doing to support their members.
‘A SELF-INFLICTED WOUND’ — Chip Rogers, President & CEO, AHLA
We’re in daily contact with public health authorities and are acting on the most up-to-date information on the evolving coronavirus situation. While there currently are no restrictions on travel within the United States, we’re taking very seriously the concerns of the traveling public. While it’s critically important to remain vigilant and take precautions, it’s equally important to make calm, rational and fact-based decisions.
Hotels have protocols in place to deal with everything from the common cold to the flu. Beyond the normal cleaning procedures hotels have had in place for years, properties are increasing the frequency of guestroom cleanings, increasing the alcohol content in cleaning materials to a minimum of 60 percent alcohol, making sure all laundry reaches 120 degrees Fahrenheit and installing hand sanitizer stations.
We are concerned about the steady pace of cancellations of conferences and meetings and the impact on hotel employees and small business owners. Those who are currently being affected are, in fact, the mom-and-pop small business hotel owners. Sixty-one percent of the hotels in the United States are small businesses that will face difficult decisions should these cancellations continue. That’s why we are having critical conversations with the White House and Congress.
In many ways, this is a self-inflicted wound to our industry, not from people in the industry but from those who travel, for not following the CDC guidelines from the experts who say that the risk remains low, that travel is safe. There are precautions people need to take, there’s no question about it, but if you take those precautions then travel will continue to be safe. It’s unfortunate that a lot of people are making decisions that are not based on facts.
‘LEAD BY EXAMPLE’ — Frank Wolfe, CEO, HFTP
HFTP is fortunate to have a very supportive infrastructure as well as a board that allows a number of contingency plans. Many organizations are hampered by an inability to make quick decisions; or, their staff members aren’t empowered to make decisions. We make decisions based on what is best for our industry because we’re a non-profit organization, and the reason we’re in business is to support the hospitality industry. We’ve always had a crisis management plan in place. We treat our suppliers as partners and vice versa, so we count on each other for help and advice; and, sometimes, renegotiation. Crisis situations eventually end. And when they do, we want our partners and clients to be in business.
Organizations should take precautions, of course, staying in touch with their constituents and above all making sure they do what they can to protect their stakeholders’ welfare. With that said, however, major conferences like HITEC are the showcases for products and services, and many companies spend months preparing for them. I’m aware of new companies that have leveraged almost everything–including maxing out personal credit cards–to participate in HITEC. If organizations like ours pull the rug out from under them without due diligence, there may be no recovery and these companies will most likely go out of business.
After this crisis is over–as in the aftermath of 9/11–there will be changes, and most of them will be positive. The coronavirus might be the best thing that has happened to infectious disease control because it will prepare the world for what’s next. If nothing else, its fallout is educating the public regarding hygiene practices that can prevent the spread of disease. COVID-19 is also highlighting how important it is for the hospitality industry to come together during a crisis and to distribute truthful information rather than allowing the global press to define the travel industry.
Unfortunately, only negative headlines seem to make it to print these days. For example, a recent headline in an Austin, Texas publication read, “Austin Man Traveling to India Tests Positive for Coronavirus’, leading readers to believe that coronavirus is in Austin. Not so! If you read the entire article, you find out that the man was in India for several days before testing positive.
Our only recourse is to ‘toot our own horn’ and announce the precautions we’re taking and the training we’re providing to protect our guests’ health and wellbeing. I also believe those in our industry should be held to a higher standard. How can we expect guests to stay in our hotels, dine in our restaurants, gamble in our casinos or fly in our planes if we don’t lead by example?
‘THE REBOUND COULD HAPPEN QUICKLY’ — Bob Gilbert, President & CEO, HSMAI
HSMAI has done a number of things to provide guidance to its key stakeholders—hotel sales, marketing and revenue optimization professionals. We’ve created a resource center on our website with information specific to members. We’ve also created a three-part webinar series—one for each of our stakeholder groups—on confronting coronavirus. The first webinar, which addressed the legal issues surrounding hotel sales contracts, had more than 500 attendees. The second webinar, which was held earlier this week and focused on pricing psychology in challenging times, had 773 attendees. The third webinar, which is being held today and addresses crisis communications, has almost 400 people registered.
We haven’t changed our event strategy in any material way. In fact, attendees at our meetings and events have a more compelling need than ever to come together. Our members are the people responsible for the revenue streams of hotels, and they can directly impact the flow to the bottom profit line. We’re holding a board of directors meeting and our Curate event March 23 and 24. Although we expect some attendance fluctuations due to non-essential travel policies that some companies are implementing, these events create material value for participants and many want to meet face-to-face specifically to connect with peers and discuss what’s happening. We will provide the option for people to participate virtually. We also have an Executive Roundtable scheduled in May. Earlier this week, I reached out to those who have already registered and they confirmed they still wanted to meet for many of the same reasons.
The hospitality industry is at the front lines of an anomaly like this, and we’re bound to feel its effects first. But we’re resilient, and the rebound could happen relatively quickly. After 9/11, the pent-up demand for meetings and business travel created a spike as people got back to the business at hand. Also, a demand drop in one market often creates an opportunity for another. If someone cancels overseas travel plans, perhaps they will go somewhere closer to home.
‘WE WILL RECOVER’ — Michael Blake, CEO, HTNG
HTNG is actively monitoring COVID-19 and taking advice from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and national and local government authorities. HITEC Europe has been postponed, and if we make the decision to forgo other events, we will do our best to postpone them rather than cancel.
As a trade association, we’re doing all we can to help our members during this difficult time, and our top priority is keeping everyone safe and healthy. We’re grateful that the majority of our organization operates virtually; so, our workgroups are still meeting and conducting business as usual. Additionally, we’re exploring the possibility of increasing the amount of educational content for our members by delivering more webinars or even virtual events.
Unfortunately, this is not the first epidemic we’ve faced, and it’s not going to be the last. In the short term, there will be significant hits to our industry, but we will recover. For the most part, we believe that eventually everything will go back to ‘business as usual,’ but we may see more virtual meetings arise in the meantime as organizations try to supplement cancelled in-person meetings. We can only hope that this awful virus will teach and prepare us to more effectively handle any crisis that may occur in the future.
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