By Dr. Alan Fyall

Months into the pandemic, it has now become cliché to talk about how COVID-19 has battered the travel and hospitality industry. Still, no matter how cliché, the severity of the situation continues to be a reality. Unfortunately, in all likelihood we are going to have to continue enduring these challenges for the foreseeable future, at least until a vaccine is found. Having said that, I do believe there are things the industry can do to alleviate some of its current hardship. 

The first thing to remember is that as brutal as the effects of the pandemic have been, there’s no reason to believe the industry won’t recover from it. No matter what undesirable events have occurred in the past, both manmade and natural, the hospitality industry has always been able to bounce back. This isn’t meant to downplay the hardship, simply to spark some of the hope, optimism, and resilience our industry’s professionals will need to bounce back from adversity.  

Don’t Rely Entirely on Domestic Travel

Ever since international travel plummeted, the industry has looked to domestic travel as the answer to its woes. Recent reports have shown promising indications that domestic travel has indeed enjoyed some recent growth, at least conditionally. There is a fair amount of uncertainty here, however, particularly with the growing number of states enforcing interstate travel restrictions which we’ll probably see more of given the infection numbers we have been seeing. Also, the numbers for domestic travel have gone up and down in response to ongoing developments. For example, hotel-related searches went up in May and June as states reopened, but the sharp spike of coronavirus cases in July caused the number of searches to go back down again. 

Consumers Will Always Prioritize Travel 

As mentioned previously, the travel and hospitality industry has always managed to bounce back after disruptive events. Part of the reason for this is that people will always have the desire to visit new places and have new experiences. In fact, it is consistently one of the common desires that people are least willing to sacrifice. They may be willing to forgo that new car or that new entertainment system, but they are reluctant to sacrifice the joys of travel. According to a 2018 industry report, travel and tourism remained a top spending priority for consumers, second only to dining and nightlife, beating out home improvement, entertainment, and fashion. 

While travel may be temporarily reduced at the moment due to COVID-19, people’s underlying desire for it never wavers. With some good marketing, the hospitality industry could help consumers reframe what words like “travel,” “adventure” and “discovery” mean in their minds, shifting the association of these words from far away destinations to nearby ones—very nearby ones.  

Destination Hotels and Staycations Are the New Vacations 

While the industry has scrambled to find ways to compensate for the drop in travel, the market potential of local travel has still not been fully tapped into. It is actually remarkable how much of the industry does not realize the size of the market on its proverbial doorstep. This lack of realization goes both ways. Many consumers as well still don’t appreciate enough how satisfying local travel can be. The good news is that local travel and staycations have grown in popularity in recent years. The timing is now ripe to make this form of micro-travel more popular than ever. Americans are hungry for respite from their pandemic-related stresses, and staycations are becoming known as the ultimate way to get away and relax since they remove much of the logistical planning that longer forms of travel typically require. 

There are many other advantages that local travel and staycations have during this time. People feel safer the closer they are to home, and local travel offers this sense of security while still providing the thrill of getting away from their routines for a few days. And whereas air travel, international or domestic, is a source of anxiety for many, most people feel safe in the relative safety of their own cars, and many local travel destinations can be reached by car in just a few hours or less.

In some cases, hotels themselves can be the entire destination. These so-called destination hotels make local travel even easier since guests don’t even need to venture beyond the hotel grounds to enjoy themselves. Even hotels that were not designed at the outset with the goal of being destination hotels could, with some investment, offer more self-contained experience for their guests via internal dining, shopping, and entertainment.        

Technology’s Role in the Hospitality Industry 

Various technologies may also provide helpful solutions in an age when people are wary of environments where they have limited control. Contactless technology, for example, is quickly becoming the order of the day. Offering people contactless ways to check-in, contact the front desk, access in-room entertainment, and order room service will go a long way towards reducing their anxieties related to touching surfaces. Sterilization methods that go beyond manual cleaning via high tech air purifiers and UVC technology can also help create an additional source of reassurance for guests. Destination hotels in particular should consider implementing such tech to some degree since guests would likely be spending most of their time on the property. 

Certainly, implementing tech of this sort would be an added burden on hotels that are just trying to survive. Depending on their situations, such technologies may not make sense, let alone be financially feasible, for many hotels.  But for the hotels who choose to implement them, they may further ease nervous travellers’ minds, particularly when combined with the already lower risks of staycations versus other forms of travel. 

At the end of the day it is up to each hotel to determine what is right for them under their current circumstances, but the universal takeaway should be that this, too, will pass. The hospitality industry will recover just like it has always recovered. However, since this knowledge alone is scant reassurance for hotels that are struggling to keep their doors open, the industry as a whole should seek to tap into the vast and as-of-yet unrealized potential of the local travel and staycation market. When combined with other incentives, such as dynamic pricing and attractive deals, this can go a long way towards helping hotels survive until a vaccine finally arrives.