Industry Update
Opinion Article26 August 2020

Travel and Life in the times of Corona – Lessons from Hong Kong and Istanbul! - Part I

By L. Aruna Dhir, A Hospitality & Feature Writer and Columnist

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A few days back the Delhi Disaster Management Authority met to take a decision on reopening the hotels in New Delhi, India's Capital, its nerve centre and an important gateway city.

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Kalyani Chawla, the former VP of Marketing and Communications at Christian Dior, a luxury expert and an art aficionado stepped into the marbled elegance of The Oberoi in New Delhi. General Manager Jay Rathore, masked yet upbeat, welcomed her as one of the first guests to step in just as the hotel is opening up its doors.

The hotel looked unnaturally quiet and spookily deserted, but Rathore is optimistic and buoyant as he tells Kayani that the very popular 360 degree, one of the Capital's finest restaurants is open too.

Hotels in Mumbai and elsewhere are limping back to the new normalcy with a zillion stipulations.

While the Government in Goa - India's hippest destination, allowed the hotels to open sometime around the beginning of this month, many hoteliers are putting off the reopening to October or November, news reports say, as it makes bad business sense to open during low occupancy months, especially in times of heightened tribulation.

Similar reports are coming from all over the world.

Ostensibly, only 40% hotels had opened in Italy in July. In the United States, hotels are opting for 30% and 50% occupancy. In Switzerland, hotels have opened in strict compliance with safety protocols. Besides, the country itself has put in place a COVID 19 ordinance, whereby the low risk countries have easier access, while stricter entry restrictions are imposed on those from the high risk countries. Several other countries expect the visitor to self-isolate and quarantine before getting on with their business.

It's a new world order.

We all now know that the novel coronavirus is not going away any time soon. We also know that it will be quite a while for the vaccines to be made available. This means that the business providers and the product users will have to learn novel ways to bring a semblance of normalcy to their private and professional lives.

And life will just have to get up, get out and get on; but with caution and a multitude of precautions.

A business woman made a work trip from India to Milan, armed with all the required papers and permits, and kitted out with the masks, shields and PPE.

A friend from Geneva took us all by surprise when she announced her holiday trip to Tuscany and took off almost immediately.

Another young social media friend living and working in Germany has been taking short holidays to Amsterdam and Paris.

Yet another friend had to address a family emergency. She took a flight from New York to visit her ailing father on the west coast. She beamed images of ghost-town like quiet terminal with threadbare human presence.

The hotels worldwide are gearing up to conduct their business equipped with new tactical measures and SOPs.

Arne Sorensen, the legendary hotelier and President & CEO of Marriott, the world's largest hotel chain, has joined hands with the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) to put forth and abide by a new industry checklist around health and safety procedures. Since July onwards, Marriott requests all its guests to use face coverings mandatorily.

While Marriott has announced the creation of Marriott Global Cleanliness Council, Radisson Hotels has activated their corporate crisis response teams worldwide and developed the Radisson Hotels Safety Protocol.

John Davison, President and CEO, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, has put in place the hotel chain’s global health and safety program, “Lead With Care.” An instrumental part of the program is delivering contactless service via the Four Seasons App. Davison states that Four Seasons has also entered into a consulting agreement with Johns Hopkins Medicine International.

Gradually, hotels have been reopening all over the world in a phased manner. Uncertain of how the future will unfold, but self-sure of the path they would carve. In trepidation about the shape of business to flow in from hereon, but steel-spined about how they want to tackle the situation. Battered and bruised with the abysmal turn of events, but optimistic and hopeful that they would come out of it strengthened and strapped with renewed zeal and a new set of skills and strategies.

For this article in my Series on 'Combatting COVID 19,' I spoke with two tall leaders who are meeting the challenges head on, getting the act together of their organizations and setting exemplary standards in charting the new course of action in revitalization, revival and reemergence.

My two guests are - Stefan Leser, the dynamic, globally experienced hotelier is the Chief Executive Officer of the Hong Kong headquartered Langham Hospitality Group. With 30 years of experience in the travel and hospitality industries, Stefan wears a well-plumed hat that includes the inauguration of The Terrace at Burj Al Arab and the launch of the Arabian Gulf facing uber luxury hotel Jumeirah Al Naseem.

Ralph Radtke is the General Manager of Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul and Regional Director of Kempinski Residences in Turkey. The avuncular, multiple award-winning General Manager has run this majestically remarkable Ottoman Imperial Palace and Hotel on the Bosphorus with the expertise and refinement of a hotel leader par excellence.

Here follows my cogent and compelling conversation with the two gentlemen -

L. Aruna Dhir - What are your first reactions on the Pandemic?

Stefan Leser - These are unprecedented times we are in, and the magnitude of this pandemic affects all countries, industries, and livelihoods. Although the pandemic has prevented people from travelling, gathering, celebrating special occasions, and our operations were on a standstill but it has also forced us to be more creative and forced us out of our comfort zone.

In a crisis especially during this current pandemic, it is important to actively seek opportunities to care for our guests and members of the public who are self-isolating.

I am so proud of my colleagues and team who go above and beyond during this period.

Ralph Radtke - COVID-19 has been an unprecedented force on the travel industry, which has seen many ups and downs. Travel restrictions around the world became more stringent as the Coronavirus hit global travel.

Airline revenues are set to decline. Hotel occupancies have dropped. Cruise industry is severely affected and millions of hospitality industry jobs have been lost.

And there is a predominant psychological effect - even though most of the authorities took dramatic measures and actions, there would be a fear factor which will effect travel decisions.

L. Aruna Dhir - Stefan, on account of your proximity to the source region, what has been the impact on your Chain? How is the area in general and Hong Kong in particular affected?

Stefan Leser - The devastating domino effect of this pandemic is still reverberating around the world. And although Langham Hospitality Group is not immune from the profoundly disruptive effects of the virus outbreak, my confidence in our company has not wavered once, and that can be directly attributed to our over 8000 colleagues around the world.

As our group has 13 hotels in Mainland China and Hong Kong, we have the benefit of applying the difficult and painful lessons they have acquired since mid January 2020 to the rest of our hotels around the world.

We are actually busier than ever now in China and Hong Kong. Here the pandemic had hit earlier than the rest of the world, consequenlty the confirmed cases have been decreasing and we have re-emerged from the crisis earlier so we are rolling out a robust recovery plan.

F&B is also busy and positive as people in this region have started dining out as per normal but with group restrictions, precautions and distancing between tables in place.

We will positively manage through today's challenging environment just as we have successfully steered through difficult moments in the past.

What is important is the immensely resilient spirit, determination and talent demonstrated by our colleagues' care and concern for each other, our guests, and our communities. With everyone working together to help stimulate travel and getting the hotels to welcome guests when they are ready to return, I firmly believe that our hotels and group are in very good hands. I am very positive that we will emerge from this turbulent period stronger, together.

l. Aruna Dhir - What impetus can the hotel owners give to keep the high risk at bay?

Stefan Leser - We remain constantly vigilant and have implemented stringent measures against the spread of the coronavirus.

For the sake of our colleagues, guests, and the communities in which we operate, we cannot and must never let our guard down. We do not compromise on safety precautions, and we never take matters regarding our colleagues' and guests' well-being lightly or for granted.

We have reinforced strict precautionary protocols which include conducting temperature readings for all colleagues, hotel suppliers, and contractors upon arrival at the hotel and frequent disinfection of all areas of the hotel. The guests are requested to fill out the declaration forms.

The increased cleaning and sanitizing regimen throughout the entire hotel includes all rooms, public spaces, back of the house areas and especially, the front desk, elevators, elevator buttons and room keys. In addition, automatic hand sanitizer dispensers are placed in lift areas in the lobby, and at host stations at the restaurants and bars that are still operational. The Staff who are performing these extra cleaning tasks are provided with protective gloves and masks, as are any other colleagues who need or request them.

We continue to regularly educate our colleagues and guests to observe good hygiene practices and have taken additional preventive actions amongst our colleagues to help avert the spread of COVID-19. We will continue to respond and adopt the necessary precautionary processes based on the expert advice of the World Health Organization, local governments, public health authorities and medical professionals to ensure we play our part in stopping the transmission of this virus for the safety of our colleagues and guests.

Ralph Radtke - Each country has different types of support available via their governments. In case this is valid for the respective region, the first thing hotel owners should be doing is to review what their local governments are offering to support local businesses.

This will also help in having fewer people laid off or furloughed.

Secondly, the hotel owners should go through their cost items that would help their cash flow. There might be respective decisions taken to reduce CAPEX or investment at the first stage.

Moreover, owners can also ask their operators to ensure those operational savings which will not affect them quality wise. If the owning company has credits involved, they might renegotiate their credit loans to manage for the best way.

L. Aruna Dhir - What is going to be the shape of things for the industry in the coming months and the following year?

Stefan Leser - It may take a little while before people are completely at ease to travel long haul. However, I have full confidence that travel and tourism will bounce back. People will want to travel more than ever - they will want to engage, interact and travel with their express needs around the pandemic addressed.

Luxury hotels have had the highest standards of hygiene even before the pandemic. Still, one has to have a more clinical approach now. Security and privacy will be important factors too.

People will want to travel better than before and are seeking natural destinations, awe-inspiring experiences that will improve mental and physical well-being. They will travel with purpose and want experiences that connect with communities.

In the shorter term, staycations, road trips, inter-cities domestic holidays will be more popular.

And people are seeking more private space, so luxury villas in resorts or exclusive private residences like The Langham, Nymphenburg Residence in Munich will be what people aspire and expect of luxury retreats / hotels.

Over at Langham Hospitality Group, we have never slowed down. In addition to putting in place robust recovery plans, we have the following projects in the pipeline:-

Latter half of this year, we are looking forward to opening The Langham, Nymphenburg Residence, Munich, located within the stately 490-acre imperial estate of Nymphenburg Palace, just a 15-minute drive from the Munich city centre. This one key exclusive private residence is steeped in royal Bavarian history. Guests will enjoy the privacy and exclusivity of this 18th century manor with a privileged location next to the Royal Nymphenburg Porcelain Manufactory which is renowned for exquisite avant-garde and tailor-made designs for four centuries.

We are opening The Langham, Jakarta in the first quarter of next year. It is going to be our debut in Southeast Asia. It is located in a triple 'A' location and a jewel in our portfolio with exciting F&B experiences.

We are also opening another Langham hotel in Changsha, the capital of central China's Hunan province, a large ancient city with a 3,500 year history dating back to the Zhou dynasty.

We are also busy with the renovation of The Langham, Boston, which is housed in the old Federal Reserve Bank. I am confident it will be the most luxurious heritage hotel in North American after the renovation.

Ralph Radtke - As more and more destinations start to open, and we learn more about how to control the virus, we will see more people begin to travel again.

Once the world gets a better grasp on how to control the virus and guarantee the safety of all travelers, travel will recover.

Individuals should also be more responsible about following the rules of the new era. We should not forget that all of us are responsible, not only the company or the hotel side.

As a matter of fact, all the efforts which are done in our business cannot be successful if people are not disciplined and if they do not take the pandemic seriously

L. Aruna Dhir - The efforts that hotel companies are making require an increased investment in operating and managing properties. Ralph what do you think hotels can do to secure their Bottomline?

Ralph Radtke - I would like to summarize a seven-point strategy -

  1. Adapt your operation into the current situation
  2. Freeze unnecessary capex and investment
  3. Renegotiate existing contracts with existing 3rd parties
  4. Adapt your expenses into your actions
  5. Strategically communicate with your local market to share your adapted offerings
  6. Enhance your social media presence via strategical communication content
  7. Use technological and digital marketing and sales tools to explain why you are unique and a must visit.

We will continue our conversation in the next part, where we will discuss the top management role, employee engagement, guest focus and the New Normal.

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