The hotel industry, and the many people who work in it, are going through an unprecedented crisis, but leaders speaking during the online Hotel Data Conference said brighter days will eventually come.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—People and companies around the U.S. have found ways to be productive while being apart, using teleconferencing and other tools to make up for the fact that business travel is still largely off the table. But that won’t stop people from traveling when it’s once again viable, sources said.
Speaking during the “Winding down with the bosses” panel during the online Hotel Data Conference, Summit Hotel Properties Chairman, President and CEO Dan Hansen said tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams aren’t going to replace business travel.
“I don’t think (Zoom) goes away,” Hansen said. “I think it’s here to stay, … but I don’t think it in any way negates our desire to be with people and to get out and get on the road.”
In the depths of the downturn, various leaders on the panel said it’s important that people don’t lose sight of their natural desire to connect and the hopefulness of the human spirit.
Hansen said that while people are reticent now, the idea of travel is more exciting than ever.
“I think 2021 will be better than is currently expected,” he said. “I’ve been on a plane twice, and every time I’ve met with somebody, there’s was this excitement like it was Christmas. Everybody wants to get out and see people.”
He said that feeling is here to stay.
“I think some of the takeaways from this crisis, as bad as it is, is a recognition that we are social beings and we want to see people and we want to go to meetings,” he said.
Raul Leal, CEO of Virgin Hotels, agreed that—at least some—people will want to get back on the road, but that doesn’t mean things will immediately snap back to the way they were. And it’s the duty of the hotel industry to accommodate that.
“I still think they’re going to be a little bit more cautious, especially in the very beginning and probably over the next 18 months,” he said. “So I think us as hoteliers have to be aware that we are going to have to curate an experience for people that maybe don’t want to leave the hotel. Maybe they’ll just want to go to a hotel, go to a location then get back on the plane.”
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Communication key through crisis
Remington Hotels President Sloan Dean said there has never been a period where constant communication with employees, both active and furloughed, has been more important.
Before the crisis, Remington employed 7,000 associates. That number dropped to 500 in April. While the number of employees has climbed back up to roughly 2,000, Dean said it could be years before the company reaches the employment levels it had before.
Since the start of the crisis, Remington has done biweekly webcasts for both active and furloughed associates, sometimes including hours-long question-and-answer sessions.
“I think human nature is such that in times of uncertainty, even if it’s the same news that you’re delivering, doing it in an iterative fashion makes all the difference,” he said.
But Dean doesn’t believe that to be the case across the industry.
“What I’ve seen from others is that they have furloughed associates out for months on end, and they have a furlough date, but there’s no communication in between,” he said.
Similarly, Leal said Virgin Hotels has prioritized communication, developing an internal app with daily updates on things like unemployment benefits and training. He said it’s important to strike the right tone in those communications.
“We try to keep it light,” he said. “I think during this period of time, it’s about knowing there’s light at the end of the tunnel. So our words and tone of voice is really about humor and making sure that we keep it light.”
Dean said companies need to prioritize communications even when they’re uncomfortable. That has included telling associates as early as possible when furloughs are expected to turn into layoffs.
“It’s not great news, but the more advanced notice you can give people, particularly with the unemployment benefits ending at the end of July, I think it makes all the difference,” he said.
Tending to mental health
With the stress of the current environment, employees are reporting more strain on their mental health, panelists said, even comparing the stress to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’ve had GMs who’ve said they can’t sleep at night,” Dean said.
He noted his company’s mental health-related claims have doubled during this period.
Leal believes “society in general” will need to collectively heal from this crisis.
“I think it’s going to be interesting for all of us to rebound from this,” he said. “Even those of us who are gainfully employed, and I’m still traveling a little bit to some of our hotels. But I do think it’s going to take a while. It’s going to take a toll not only on just general volume with hotels and restaurants that we operate, but just how people react to social gatherings.”
But Leal also noted he has continual faith in the human spirit.
“We’ve overcome so much, and I get it, it’s a difficult time,” he said. “But I think it’s another bleep on the radar screen that we have to overcome together. I’m just optimistic every day when I wake up, thinking that sooner or later this will get resolved and we’ll walk out stronger from the experience.”
Leaning on diversity
In addition to the pandemic, the U.S. has been struggling with issues of racial discrimination, brought to the forefront of the national consciousness by protests around the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others.
STR President Amanda Hite said it’s important to not let this moment pass by and to use it as an opportunity to empower employees of different races. (STR is Hotel News Now’s parent company.)
“We have global employees that represent tons of nationalities, religions and perspectives, and we need to value those perspectives,” she said. “That’s an important value to who we are at STR. So it’s really opened up the discussion to just hear worldviews and perspectives, particularly from our Black colleagues, on their lives and what their experience is and what it’s like to be in corporate America as a Black person.”