Industry Update
Opinion Article19 October 2020

A Budget Opportunity To Invest In Your Brand

Somo’s chief growth officer, Rebecca Crook, explores the tactics budget chains need to help weather the unpredictable green shoots of travel recovery, post-COVID

By Rebecca Crook, Chief Growth Officer at Somo

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Travel is currently a strange beast. Each destination has its own restrictions and regulations. Italy, for example, is proposing people wear masks even whilst outdoors where Sweden seems to be back to a level of normality.

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Requirements can even vary from town to town and street to street. In the UK, where local lockdowns alter what is permitted from one week to the next it can be hard to know how to respond. In some areas, total closure has been the only option and this has been traumatic for many well-known brands. Premier Inn owner Whitbread only recently announced it was to cut 6,000 jobs as a result of a dip in demand.

Despite the emergence of a second wave of COVID, travel is still possible and the industry is continuing to open up overall- but it must do so in a way that recognises the altered landscape and work to accommodate not only regulatory concerns, but new customer needs.

Budget travel is in a particularly strong position to capitalise on a slowly emerging sector. They are expected to see growing traffic numbers as constantly fluctuating local lockdown measures look set to inspire more spontaneous but local trips. A quick weekend break has much less at stake than a two-week long-haul holiday that could mean a long quarantine after.

A new style of hospitality

Despite headlines to the contrary, the travelling public is by and large a law-abiding, responsible group, as keen as anyone to avoid unnecessary contact with COVID-19. In many ways, they are willing to take even more stringent precautions than the law requires to stay safe. If travel brands are to attract this cautious consumer, they will have to understand how best to address those needs.

Hotel brands are already taking the initiative to make going above and beyond part of their brand proposition. Hilton is launching 'Hilton Clean Stay', a programme designed to reassure guests throughout their stay. It begins with an official room 'seal' which shows that no-one has breached the threshold since its last deep clean. Digital directories replace the standard in-room menus and brochures and copious cleansing opportunities are made available such as disinfectant wipe stations.

These initiatives aren't limited to the high-end hotel chains. Marketers often talk about getting their hygiene measures right before adding the 'bells and whistles' to their proposition. Nowadays, it really is all about the hygiene whether you're putting on the Ritz or escaping for a Travelodge staycation.

Many adaptations in this new COVID-safe world of travel present a view of hospitality that is the very opposite of what the word represents. Social distancing, extra hygiene measures, low-touch and low-involvement are the order of the day.

Somo's latest research of 1000 consumers shows that travellers are actively seeking a remote experience with 77% wanting to check-in and enter their room without visiting the front desk. A further 80% said they'd be more likely to stay at a hotel if they could use digital tools to avoid any contact with hotel staff.

Building connections through digital

Apps have long been a target for hospitality brands, either as another booking portal, interactive brochure, communication tool or even room key and in-room controller. But they take on a new dimension in a post-COVID world. They become the brand's only link to the traveller and have to merge form, functionality and friendliness all on a single platform.

There are any number of opportunities not only to keep the consumer safe, but to find new ways to rebuild some of that 'inspiration and delight' that is such an integral part of the travel experience.

In terms of sheer functionality, guests will be looking for a comprehensive digital check-in and out procedure in-app. Then, there will be the ability to read and refer to the hotel's specific COVID policies, perhaps reiterating any local quirks such as where the wearing of masks is required and local amenity curfews.

Investing in the digital back-end will be equally as important as a front-end app. If it's one thing this period is, it's uncertain and short-notice cancellations and rebookings are going to become a feature of travel for some time. It's not something that the sector has covered itself in glory with recently as airlines in particular have sought to mitigate the havoc wrought by large-scale, short-notice cancellations.

Rather than attempting to swim against the tide, the hospitality industry is going to have to recognise that an ebb and flow of custom, accompanied by a flood of last-minute bookings and cancellations will become the travel buying status quo. They will need to build booking engines and models to cope.

The future for low-cost travel providers

The challenge for budget travel is to ensure they are not perceived to cut corners with safety measures because they are cheaper and therefore need to ensure they communicate in a fully transparent and assuring way. Sites like Trip Advisor are no-doubt going to be scanned for evidence of poor cleanliness or risk and so using digital tools to visibly show efforts being made to keep customers safe could work well. Similarly, a pre-welcome email preparing the guest for what to expect is also an effective way of communicating and instilling trust.

Equally, in order to protect their bottom line from a volatile cash-flow situation, they would be well advised to consider loyalty bonues and other incentives that mean travellers prioritise rescheduling over refunds, or find other ways to maintain engagement such as memberships and added value services such as discount packages with local restaurants and attractions.

Ramping up the cleaning regime and minimising human contact with digital tools may tick all the safety boxes but it drives a horse and cart through some of the essential pillars of customer service and brand experience that hospitality brands have built up over time. Full transparency at this time and flexibility around booking is essential - customers want reassurance that they are covered and have their booking protected should they need to cancel for safety reasons - therefore a refund or change of date guarantee needs to be in place which is where many travel companies slipped up in recent months.

Hotels will no doubt be investing in technology to help give assurances to customers but part of the a holiday or hotel visit is about the experience so it will be interesting to see how brands grapple with still providing that personal service.

Rebecca Crook

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