Industry Update
Opinion Article 5 May 2020

The COVID Conundrum …We just don’t know…

By Terence Ronson, Hospitality Professional, Technology Consultant, Public Speaker and Inventor and Maria Ronson, Co-director of Pertlink

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Maria  RonsonMaria Ronson

If there's one thing we have learned about COVID-19, it's that we just don't know. Political posturing aside, we really don't know where it came from, we know very little about how it's transmitted, we really don't know how to cure it, and most importantly, we don't know how to stop it both now, and even worse, possibly, well into the future.

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Let me say at the outset, I am not a doctor nor an epidemiologist, nor am I someone who, after soaking up a multitude of news bulletins or podcasts, attending webinars, or reading a gazillion words about COVID-19 that I know more than anyone else - I don't. Nor do I have a crystal ball - I'm just as confused as the next person about the situation. But what I am, is surprised - that in the year 2020, after everyone has been locked down at home for around three months, and out of the 7+ billion people on this planet, and with all the tech and resources at the world's behest, the solution to this crisis continues to elude us. Not only that, but with every corner we turn, be it curve flattening, hopes of positive drug trials or other promising discovery, we are still hauled back to reality - back to square one… we really don't know.

COVID-19, this silent enemy which has risen out of nowhere in this 3rd millennium has indelibly placed its mark on mankind - some for the good and sadly, some for the worst. Yes, it's brought death and destruction much like any war, but at the same time, it has turned people into something they maybe weren't before - like appreciative of the silence of nature brought about by car-less roads, airplane-less clear blue skies and clearer horizons. Some have turned to all manner of ways to combat their otherwise boring [email protected] by picking up hobbies, performing delayed chores, cooking, sewing, reading, learning, writing, gardening and some have even rekindled their love of religion. Many too have even said they've set aside in their homes, a place of worship, praying for a miracle that the crisis will soon come to an end. In many cases, the pandemic has brought families and friends physically and virtually closer together, while unhappily others have become troubled by the extended physical proximity of spouses, partners and children.

But my real focus here is the travel industry which encompasses hospitality - a vertical probably the worst hit of all. On a global basis, travel has all but dried up, demand for hotel rooms in the low single digits and airplanes lay idle collecting dust across the planet. Restaurants were forced to close, or luckily in some cases, only provide take-out meals. And let's not even touch on the cruise industry, because that's one which is likely to be suffering for a long, long time. Having said that, probably out of desperation and to assuage fears, news is breaking that Carnival are planning to re-light their ship's boilers and start making waves in August 2020.

For now, let's zero in on two sectors - international air travel and hotels, how are these industries going to pan out in the future? When will business travelers feel comfortable to stop WFH video conferencing and instead physically zoom about on a plane - and feel safe confined in an aluminum tube for 90 mins, 4 hours, or even 17 hours and take that risk? Will Head Offices require their employees to make a business trip to see a client or meet a partner and potentially become infected? Will their business insurance cover this risk? After all, why would the employee make the trip in the first place unless their company required it…So how will that risk be mitigated? Yes, airlines can rapidly test passengers, but those tests are not 100% guaranteed, nor is the absolute cleanliness of the airplane or the incidental surfaces or people you may come into contact with while in transit, and what about the virus that could be lurking inside your suitcase? Will you only feel comfortable wearing a full bio-hazard suit?

That brings me to the hotel itself, where brands and individual properties are scrambling to set up safe zones by temperature screening people at the doors, having sanitization ambassadors roam the building to perform frequent cleaning, and devise new processes which would involve housekeeping spending extra time dousing the room with anti-bacterial chemicals (and by the way, what could be the health implications of prolonged exposure and frequency to these?), using ultraviolet lights and wrapping all manner of things in (non-bio degradable) plastic with a "sanitized for you" label on the outside.

For as long as I can remember during my protracted hospitality career, Hotels have struggled to maintain high standards of cleanliness, but now - this is a whole new ball game (and cost). These rules and guidelines issued by Hotel Groups, NGO's, Hotel Associations and chemical companies should IMHO only be written in pencil and subject to change as we go along making this horror movie, hoping and praying that what we've done is enough. But what is enough? Who sets that bar - who is the authority behind these KPI? How do we give re-assurance to the guest that its safe enough to return? Where is the script to the last chapter that hopefully has a happy ending?

Then there's dining out in restaurants, which for many, constitutes a great part of people's social lives. For the last few months, restaurants have been shut down, depriving many of the pleasure of going to their favorite haunts. When I ask some friends, what will be among the first things they will do after lockdown is lifted, going to a restaurant is definitely in the top three - second only to having a haircut, taking a long walk, or traveling somewhere.

But how will restaurants protect themselves going forwards? Yes, I've seen pictures of plastic or glass cubicles and yellow circles painted onto floors to help with social distancing. I've also read about discussions of food being plated, and completely covered and protected while transported by mask and glove-wearing staff or delivery Robots when it leaves the kitchen, and then only having its cover removed when the plate arrives at the table and is in front of the diner. But does that guarantee the safety of the cutlery, the cleanliness of the napkins, the cruets being perfectly sanitized, and the glasses un-touched by human hand? We can't all survive on pre-packed meals - or can we? Will the haute cuisine restaurants go the way of the speakeasy?

On the surface, it appears to be an impossible task, but it's one the industry and customers must together overcome if it is to survive. It must go back to basics and establish a whole new set of rules - formulate a new playbook - one that its stakeholders approve from a cost perspective, as well as workable operationally.

Then from the customer POV, noting that one size does not fit all. Some generations and demographics are less risk-averse such as millennials versus boomers and will likely be more adventurous and happy to cast aside their fears and go eat and travel - some out of sheer necessity, and some out of revenge for being locked up and wanting to regain their freedom. To assist in this re-boot process, businesses will likely need to pivot or re-position their offerings accordingly.

As countries slowly ease their lockdowns, and domestic travel such as the staycation business is likely to be the first to pick up especially since many countries talk about not re-opening international borders or allowing flights during 2020, - we will inevitably witness how much of a risk this is going to be or whether the fact we just don't know, is knowing itself…

Terence Ronson

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Maria Ronson

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