World Panel
Viewpoint 2 April 2020

COVID-19: A stress test for sustainable development in hospitality?

Sustainability in Hospitality

— 22 experts shared their view

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This viewpoint was created by
Willy Legrand, Professor of Hospitality Management at the IUBH International University
José Koechlin von Stein
Founder & CEO at Inkaterra Hotels

The COVID-19 outcome reminds us how essential it is to manage sustainably all the natural and cultural resources that define each destination – main assets in the hospitality industry. Hence, it is more urgent than ever to establish global strategies for the conservation of historic and natural patrimony, considering these as a main source for sustainable development. It is key to establish governmental policies and public-private alliances around tourism, considering the travel industry as one of the main strategies to reactivate regional economies. Moreover, these are times when the hospitality industry should invest in niche markets (from birding to gastronomy), finding out innovative ways to promote each destination's identity. see more

The global situation we are living nowadays poses challenging times for us all, but rest assured that we will thrive through solidarity, innovation, and resilience. I am confident that the hospitality industry will soon recover, as we all know how essential it is to travel. Tourism is a source of inspiration for everyone, everywhere, as we humans need to move, to explore, and to experience the diversity of nature and culture abroad. Travel makes us wiser and more empathic. It allow us to feel free. Eventually, COVID-19 will fade away. Your travel bucket list will not.

Catherine Dolton
Vice President Global Corporate Responsibility at InterContinental Hotels Group

Momentum was building for 2020 to be a year of pivotal collective action on sustainability, with business and governments coming together to tackle the climate emergency. The Covid-19 outbreak has emphasised more than ever, the importance of future-proofing business for growth and resilience within the context of climate change.  see more

It will also provide some of the most important lessons for a generation, and it is a crisis that we're all facing here and now. As we work through the many unknowns of this pandemic and consider global and local responses to issues, it has brought a stark reminder of how important it is to act quickly to tackle global risks and to do this collaboratively – both within and outside of our industry.  

At IHG the primary focus, rightly so, is on supporting our people, our owners and our business to tackle the economic and operational impacts. The natural comparisons of this crisis to the climate emergency are obvious, and I anticipate that a key lesson from this will be the shift in focus to our longer-term health, and how a company responds by doing what is right – and that includes by the environment. And so, while the phasing and roll-out of specific sustainability projects may change, we must continue to plan and be ready as we recover.  

Suzann Heinemann
Founder and CEO of InfraCert GmbH

The exciting question is how quickly we can get back to normal life. The longer it takes, the greater the damage will be and it will be more difficult for us to return to normal life. see more

We are in a positive mood and hope that we will gradually return to normal in May. 

Then, after taking the first steps back to everyday life, we will take up the issues that previously concerned us. The topic of sustainability also belongs to it. Our climate footprint will certainly look better this year due to the forced rest, but it is far from being good.

We will have to prepare better in the future. We do not know whether we will succeed, because every crisis is different and this will not happen again. People have learned to move closer together in the past few weeks, even if they were not allowed to be physically close. Aid to the neighbors, to older and needy people, has become very important and hopefully will not be forgotten so quickly.

Madhu Rajesh
Chief Executive Officer, Sustainable Hospitality Alliance

The global response to the Covid-19 pandemic has shown what can be achieved by everyone working together for a common cause. Governments are working more closely with the private sector, as is the private sector with their customers – and to great effect. see more

The crisis has demonstrated the need for, and ability of, businesses to adapt in order to keep operating. We speak about the pace for change to happen, but in the space of weeks, if not days, the hospitality industry has demonstrated that they can rapidly flex their operations to turn hotels into hospitals, quarantine centres, homeless shelters and offices, as we have seen from Hilton, IHG, Marriott International, NH Hotel Group and Wyndham Hotels & Resorts as well as many smaller properties all over the world.

Hospitality has been one of the most innovative industries in this crisis so far. We've seen connections rapidly formed to donate food to local charities from hotels including Caesars Entertainment and NH Hotel Group. This not only helps support communities in the short-term but, beyond the crisis, these types of connections will be vital to minimise food waste.

The hospitality industry has also been contributing towards keeping spirits high despite the difficult times they are currently experiencing. This includes offering free food or accommodation for healthcare professionals, as seen from Four Seasons and Taj as well as independent hotels, and standing in solidarity with communities affected by the pandemic by lighting their windows in the shape of a heart, seen in hotels across the world including Caesars Entertainment, Hyatt, IHG, Marriott International and Radisson.

After this crisis, the hospitality industry will have a very important role to play in repairing lives within their local communities. Millions of people will be unemployed leaving them at high risk of poverty and exploitation. As the industry starts to recover, hospitality will be able to offer much-needed employment, while also ensuring it is mitigating against the risk of unethical recruitment practices in labour supply chains that may arise as a result of people's increased vulnerability. The training of their staff and having appropriate corporate governance in place to mitigate against human rights risks will be more essential than ever.

In a short space of time, we've seen what can be achieved through operational agility and increased partnership between government, the private sector, non-profits and the public. We should aim to take these learnings into our approach on environmental sustainability after the crisis.

As the industry begins to recover, the cost-saving benefits of operating more sustainably will be an attractive opportunity for every hotel. There is a strong business case for sustainable hotels including reducing operational costs through utility savings, benefiting from national and local incentives, and increasing control of energy costs through installing on-site renewables. There are many green financing options available for sustainable developments from investors and financial institutions such IFC, and our research shows the savings soon outweigh the initial costs.

In these unprecedent times, both personally and professionally, it is a moment for us all to reflect on our contribution as well as our impact. With hotels, large and small, around the world stepping up in the face of crisis, we can all try to ensure that some of this spirit lives on. The industry has played a strong role in supporting our communities through the current emergency and, in the medium to long-term, there is a real opportunity for deepening community and government engagement and mainstreaming industry-wide action on the sustainability agenda. 

Trevor Girard
Director of Standards and Accreditation at Hotel Resilient

With COVID-19, hoteliers have witnessed first hand that the mere threat of a pandemic can lead to a sharp drop in tourists, widespread flight cancellations, supply chain disruptions, and severe government restrictions. These are on top of the primary threat that the coronavirus poses to the health and safety of guests and staff.  see more

When the dust settles, hotels will have a chance to assess their performance: did we successfully communicate the risks and prevention strategies to guests and staff? did we implement effective transmission prevention measures? were we prepared for a pandemic threat or did we respond ad hoc? did we support our community and help the response effort?

Such post-pandemic performance reviews are critical to understanding what improvements are needed to prepare and respond to the next pandemic, let alone the potential second wave of COVID-19. But hoteliers should go further to ask what other hazards could potentially impact their business. COVID-19 should not only persuade hoteliers of the need to include pandemic into their contingency plans but also to ensure every potential hazard is addressed, including fire, flood, earthquake, tsunami, windstorm, landslide and technological hazards. Importantly, hoteliers need to understand how climate change will impact their risk of hazards. Climate change may result in new hazards associated with sea-level rise, increased temperatures and drought, as well as intensify existing hazards such as windstorms and flooding. 

As hoteliers revisit their contingency plans, they should learn from those hotels that have adapted to play a critical role in the COVID-19 response effort. Hotels around the world are transforming into temporary hospitals and self-quarantine spaces, providing free food and accommodation to healthcare workers, safe refuge for the homeless, or offering alternative workspaces. Following their lead, hoteliers in affected areas can find similar ways of contributing to the current. But importantly, hoteliers everywhere should take this opportunity to envision how they can contribute to any future crisis response. A truly resilient hotel should not only keep its guests and staff safe in times of crisis but also improve the safety of the surrounding community: an island of resilience in times of crisis.

Jan Hein Simons
Managing Partner at MRP hotels

To what extent do primary 'life' expectancies, as defined in Maslow's Pyramid (or Hierarchy) of needs, have anything to do with sustainability or circular economy and COVID-19? Everything! As long as we continue to predominantly focus on the linear economical model of growth (for shareholders), we disregard the fact that our earth is a 'closed system' (=circular), in/on which resources are limited and cannot be mined endlessly while many stakeholders are excluded. see more

Hence, if the COVID-19 virus had been more actively managed by Chinese and other international officials, rather than suppressing its existence it for economic reasons, its spreading would have been curbed long before it could have started spreading. While it moved towards Europe, even here, under the initial political disregard (to safeguard the economic interests), governments were very much underestimating its impact, just as much as Mr. Trump initially did in the US. We are actively witnessing an unfolding pandemic, which we could have prevented altogether. Humankind, in its conquest for everlasting growth, was irresponsibly irrational, although we had been warned in the recent past. L'Histoire se répète, as they say in French. How many more times do we repeat this saying, before we smarten up? When we actively become sustainable in our approach to life on this world and our sane use of resources, we'll be glad (and smart) use different yardsticks to measure our success and free up time to avoid pandemics such as Corona.

Julia Massey
Vice President Global Sustainability at Kempinski Hotels S.A.

The Coronavirus crisis in a matter of two months has demonstrated how dependent we are on a tight network of supply chains that we have created. We have control only over the short portion of it, and when other links are disrupted, we cannot get the supply of vital protective or medical goods. This also means that we are not able to minimize environmental impact in the life cycle of a product. see more

We had to close the borders in order to understand that we need to change the system of supply and create a better balance in the productive ability of various regions. Incentivizing productive ability in different regions would reflect on more equal economic development, better opportunities for social development and reduce emissions from transportation due to shorter delivery distances. I think this new mechanism could provide better monitoring of emissions related to various products (especially if we include also monitoring of a used product “afterlife”), and hence, identify focal areas in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate emergency cannot be placed in the background. Even if we emit zero emissions now, we will continue to feel the impact of climate change – droughts, floods, lack of food, loss of biodiversity, migration, and other impacts. But the new system that would have to emerge for a more balanced production and the use of natural resources, can serve as a platform for better controlling greenhouse gas emissions associated with running the economies of the world.

Roger A. Allen
Founder and Group CEO of Resources for Leisure Assets (RLA)

Images of air pollution before and after the coronavirus outbreak have shown the hospitality industry how a drastic change in everyday behaviors can impact the environment. With transport systems and industries ground to a halt, carbon monoxide from cars fell by nearly 50% in New York and carbon emissions in China dropped by 25% in a four-week period. 
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Ending the pandemic is the top priority now and economic interests will certainly be a priority once normality resumes, but the hospitality sector may be forced not to reverse the very initiatives they put in place, because we will be awaking to a more informed world that will have greater values in place.

Research shows that times of change can result in the adoption of lasting habits, which may be also true for guest preferences, behaviors and expectations in the longer term once this pandemic is overcome.

The hotel industry should keep exploring strategies to deal with the climate emergency and continue the good work it began in 2019, pushing forward with a better sense of purpose.

Nancy Scanlon
PhD, Professor at Florida International University

At a time when hotels, restaurants and tourism sites are shuttered and closed for a prolonged period, many investors and operators are struggling to keep businesses afloat long enough for the opportunity to be back in business. Smart management is looking forward to hearing the first dates in which they can reopen for reservations. Behind all of this activity is the need to operate going forward, in the most cost effective ways possible. see more

One of the most important messages to business regarding sustainability practices is the opportunity to reduce operating costs and simultaneously contribute to profit margins. Hotel corporations such as Marriott International, Accor, Hilton International, and IHG, among others, have used the results of their sustainability efforts to inform investors of their practices and corporate responsibility programs. Hilton International features their 'environmental impact' in the corporate responsibility section of their web page, 'Travel with Purpose', which graphically identifies corporate wide goals and reductions of carbon emissions, clean water, energy use and waste output across their brands. For all of these reasons, astute operators will understand the value of both continuing and recommitting to sustainability practices.

What may not see growth, is investment in new technologies to reduce energy and water use. Hotel companies with property development in process will be looking to cut building costs. Technologies that support sustainable practices will be an easy target to appease shareholders and owners in order to get hotel and resort properties operating.

Over the period in which industries, transportation and other business have been shut down world wide, there are very clear measurements of the resulting reduction of carbon emissions and regional improvements in air quality. Will this be enough to illustrate how a global effort can push back the growing effects of climate change on the world's environment? Will it be enough to have a global realization that, as we return to 'business as normal', we do so in a way that maintains the reductions in emissions and rising temperatures that have been achieved during a time of limited energy use. Can business move forward in a way that reduces corporate costs and actually increases profits? Can we understand the lessons of resilience that have been learned throughout the pandemic as evidence that the world can join together when humanity itself is threatened along, of course, with global economics.

Jonathon Day
Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director School of Hospitality and Tourism Management

While “covid-19 may be climate change at warp speed” (Wagner, Mar.10, 2020), perhaps the most important thing is to remember that we've known about the risk of both climate change and a global pandemic for a long time. Both possible challenges seemed far off and hard to imagine. We had time to change, to respond, to prepare, and we didn't. Neither issue seemed possible... until it did. Let's hope that from the tragedy of Coronavirus, we learn that we must act before the worst of the climate crisis is upon us. see more

It is critical that we get our tourism and hospitality industry workers back on the job, our businesses operating, and our destinations welcoming visitors again soon. There will be a desire by many to rebuild our damaged industry as quickly as possible, recreating it the way it was. But just coming back the same isn't good enough. I have been encouraged by the chorus of voices calling to take time, during this unwanted time-out, to change tourism for the better. That won't be easy – particularly as we scramble to get back on our feet. Studies have shown that only a few small businesses come back from disaster better than they were before the event.  It is not easy to bounce back better. Yet – that is must be our goal. 

Willy Legrand
Professor of Hospitality Management at the IUBH International University

'The courage to recognize what must be changed' (Diamond, 2019, 7). In a book published in 2019 called 'Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change', author and UCLA Professor Jared Diamond write that “successful coping with external or internal pressures requires selective change” (p.6), with a focus on the word 'selective'. Diamond argues that “individuals or nations under pressure must take honest stock of their abilities and value” (p.6). And thus, the challenge “is to figure out which parts of their identities are already functioning well and don't need changing and which parts are no longer working and do need changing” (p.6). see more

So here we are; a few months away from a potential start of recovery. And then what? Travel restrictions are being eased; local travel is slowly picking up; long-distance trips are still lagging behind but hotels are running at low, but steady occupancy. A chance to bet for the long-term; set the record straight and have the courage to recognize what must be changed. The Guardian will “no longer accept advertising from oil and gas companies” (29 Jan. 2020). What will our industry change wake up from this current chaotic situation?

Henri Kuokkanen
Associate Professor at Institut Paul Bocuse

COVID-19 will wreak havoc in the hospitality industry, and some operators may have to cut all non-essential operations to survive. Unfortunately, I can see how sustainability initiatives could be categorized in this group, and moralizing this would seem unfair during a battle for survival. On the positive side, there will be survivors in the industry with stronger balance sheets. For them, the question is how customer preferences might change because of the crisis. In the short term, travel will likely decrease and expose excess capacity. The ability to offer the right experience to these fewer travelers will be crucial in attracting them. The question thus becomes whether, in the post- COVID-19 world, ethical and sustainable experiences matter more or less to customers than before. The unprecedented global crisis may well cause some of them to shift from appreciating mostly hedonistic experiences to preferring those that incorporate other-regarding values. This could create a source of competitive advantage for companies that seize the opportunity.

Franziska Altenrath
Co-Founder at TUTAKA

Comparing the current Covid-19 crisis to a prospective climate crisis solely on the basis of both being crises does not make sense to me. It is more than obvious that each crisis has its own character, cause, and outcome. It is true that both have a serious impact on the hospitality industry, but, would we call it a crisis otherwise? see more

However, this crisis reveals and reminds us of certain traits of the hospitality industry and the conditions upon which it thrives.

The hospitality industry has soul. Many souls in fact. According to the UNWTO 2017 Annual Report one in ten jobs worldwide is linked to our sector. When business is down, existences are threatened. Just think of those places, far away from protective financial aid programs, where tourism is the only available income source. It is in hotels, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, at events and festivals where people socialize and connect. Hospitality has people at its heart. And in times of crisis, it is the human spirit that is awakened and puts assets and skills to work for a higher good. There are plentiful examples of remarkable leadership and team efforts for supporting crisis relief these days. People like to do what is right - during a crisis and beyond.

The hospitality industry is vulnerable and highly dependent on a stable, liberal and healthy world community. We cannot take the conditions we depend upon for granted but need to actively create, strengthen and stabilize them. And we should definitely refrain from destroying them ourselves.

As such, my outlook on the impacts of this crisis on further transforming our industry are net positive. People, especially those trained to serve one another, want to be involved in creating good. They are given the opportunities for that through sustainability. Our vulnerability as an industry will never be overcome. But we can do our part in building a more resilient world community, consciously connecting people and cultures with each other and creating awareness for the fragility of ecosystems. 

Friederike Vinzenz
Expert for Sustainability Communication & Founder at RoomFor

Certainly, we cannot look into the future, but various social science studies indicate that people find it difficult, especially in crisis situations, to recognize larger contexts and take measures that go beyond the symptoms of the current threat. Sustainability is still perceived as a sufficient but not necessary condition. Sustainability programs and initiatives are put on hold until the damage caused by the threat to livelihoods is mitigated at the economic level. see more

However, the current situation offers the opportunity to take a holistic approach to crisis and risk management. Developing measures to counteract problems such as climate change at an early stage (or at least the earliest as possible), thus enabling a long-term and successful business strategy to be implemented. If companies seize the opportunity offered by these difficult times to adapt their business model and risk management in such a way that creative solutions are generated to counter existential challenges, then the industry can emerge from this COVID 19 crisis stronger than before. 

Elena Cavagnaro
Professor of Sustainability in Hospitality and Tourism at Stenden University of Applied Sciences

While people are still struggling to survive, some theorists say, they do not think of the common good. Yet what this crisis has shown (for some surprisingly for some not), is that this is not by definition true. In The Netherlands, for example, we see locked-down restaurants offering meals to hospitals' personnel, who have no time to kook for themselves but need more than ever substantial and healthy food. We see small F&B outlets joining forces with local distributors so that the food they would have to waste in closing down, finds its way to local consumers who have to keep quarantine at home. I hope that one of the key lessons from the Corona pandemic will not (only) be better risk management but the insight that we do care for each other and that changes that are deemed impossible (such as lowering GHG emissions) are not only possible but can also be sustained by people when they work together towards a clear aim. see more

This being said, my thoughts are now with all the people in the industry that are struggling for their business. Be strong, be safe, take care.

Frauke Fischer
Founder, Agentur Auf!

Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease - one that is transmitted from animals to humans. More than half of all diseases that emerged in the last decades belonged to this group. Scientists believe, that the present pandemic is just the tip of the iceberg. Such diseases spread when rainforests are cut and wildlife is sold on "wet-markets". The more we destroy intact ecosystems, the more diseases will spread! Future sustainability efforts of the hospitality sector need to take into account that saving rainforests is much more than protecting nature. It is about protecting your business - much more than you might think.

Arjan van Rheede
Senior Research Fellow in Sustainability at Hotelschool The Hague

I fully believe that this is a stress test. A stress test because even stronger than before the corona crisis, any advocate of sustainable development will need to work harder in convincing others that we need to remain thinking Triple Bottom Line (a.k.a. People, Planet, Profit). So recovering the corona crisis will be tough, and doing this in a way that is also having a positive effect on the climate crisis will even be tougher! But it is, even more, a stress test, because the fact that the Coronavirus spreads so fast, we should realize that we really need to rethink the way we live and do business. We need to innovate to remain connected as people, but not actually let people and goods be moving around in such large numbers and in such an in-efficient way. These two characteristic are two important ingredients of both the fast spread of COVID-19 and the current Climate Crisis! 

Gabriel C. M. Laeis
Lecturer at IUBH International University

This pandemic will cost many lives and even more jobs, no doubt. Employees in numbers I would not dare to estimate will see their livelihood options diminish – especially those in countries, which do not have reliable financial safety nets. The fight against COVID-19 will stop many sustainable development efforts because available budgets will be needed otherwise. However, every crisis is also an opportunity: to measure exactly how drastic degrowth impacts climate change; to understand how far we can adapt socially to a less consumeristic lifestyle; to make us aware of what we actually need to feel at ease, connect with people and have a sense of escape from routine, without being able to travel to faraway places. see more

All of these insights might eventually shape a different and more sustainable tourism and hospitality industry. This greatly depends, however, on how we will approach the rebuilding of our industry – not least of all in terms of financial aid allocation. Sustainability must be at the heart of this effort. Otherwise, we are in for the bigger crises, the one we are unlikely to recover from any time soon as well as the crisis, which will cost significantly more lives: climate change. More than COVID-19 I fear a 'back to business as usual' after the crisis has passed.

Simon Martin
Head of Development Hospitality-Catering at IECD

Certainly, the Covid-19's crisis is larger than previous ones and became global rapidly. But at the hotel and tourism level, nationally or regionally, other crises of a similar type (SARS) or with comparable impacts economically (military coup in Thailand in 2014) were observed in the not too distant past. see more

At the time, they were considered major and the industry (as much as governments concerned) were very worried. We could think it would have been a wake-up call for doing risk prevention of all sorts, including on matters linked to “sustainability”. Instead the focus was mostly on recuperating from the crisis's negative financial impacts as quickly as possible, to pursue an even faster development.

To the risk of sounding cynical, I have the impression that history will repeat, and that sustainability will not be the focus during the crisis and in its aftermath's.

Nevertheless, we will not be starting from scratch. Processes are there, working groups will resume. And the people taking charge of the “reconstruction” will be the solution. Some of the new generations of hoteliers are already in the industry and they expect change. They will be leading it soon… and maybe earlier than expected. A wave of unfortunate dismissals is already ongoing throughout hotels and replacements will be made when recovering from the crisis. Many of these will be done with younger leaders who have strong beliefs and ideas to implement regarding sustainability.

Others will have shut down businesses, leaving shares on the market to be taken with entrepreneurs who will be eager to start with values to make the hospitality world better.

Also, the proof that “work from home” is functional will be remembered, certainly driving companies to see the economical advantage of it … and reducing daily commutes and long haul flights.

Lastly, several countries have shown, when the constraints are high, an ability to react fast and to implement the necessary measure. Its people are showing creativity and resilience. Climate change and its impacts are there too, it is only a matter of realising/proving that it is urgent.

In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity…

Peter Varga
Assistant Professor at Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL)

In conjunction with the colossal economic impacts the pandemic will generate, there may also be socio-cultural alterations of how people perceive traveling. Among many questions that will be asked in the future, mine are more about perceptions; will 'cultural labeling' impact our perceptions of culturally different fellow visitors? Will a sort of social distancing become a universal norm to respect while visiting formerly crowded destinations, which will enhance strict carrying capacity measurements? Will tourism and tourists become more controlled and restricted? Although the global tourism industry will do its best to inspire people to return to former travel dynamics swiftly, after the pandemic disappears, I believe it will take a long time to stabilize a, hopefully, more responsible way of traveling.

Sam Laakkonen
Contingent Managing Director - Sustainability at Techstars

My focus is technology innovation and it seems that COVID-19 has already inspired a lot of new thinking and solutions. It has been extremely uplifting recently to see viable new concepts including more effective technology-driven infection testing, machine learning-based predicting of virus transmission hotspots and leveraging AI to reduce the development cycle of new vaccines. Many of these recent innovations can also be applied to other problems and there are already use cases for climate change-related issues. Possibilities in leveraging new technology combined with the aggressive intervention tactics applied to the pandemic, offer us perhaps one of the best blueprints for dealing with climate change. I, therefore, believe that if the hospitality industry is able to look past the short term catastrophic consequences and is able to shift thinking to “ensuring making a profit today does not endanger our ability to make a profit tomorrow”, there might perhaps be a silver lining to the current crisis. 

Christopher Warrensupplier view
Founder of My Green Butler

The coronavirus requires hospitality firms to take immediate action to protect their business; these actions can be implemented at the same time as taking decisive, creative action to make the firm more sustainable. In fact, seeking to reduce fixed costs and examining ways to survive the current crisis opens doors to thriving in the future. This is exactly the time to consider experience design changes to your service delivery and guest activities that will reduce energy and water use, cut food waste and increase guest satisfaction. Rather than simply prune back fixed costs, re-engineer change. Include all the points you have noted over the years, and the features you can add for a competitive advantage. Why taking action will also help you thrive; consider that the Coronavirus is a crisis all mankind is sharing. Collective responsibility is now transparently being allied across society. The value of CSR will be all the more important for companies and for motivating stakeholders. Use this time to supercharge your sustainability programme. It will not only save your money it may increase your appeal and boost your yield.