As a COVID-19 vaccine appears to be nearing, industry experts say hoteliers need to adapt to the changing needs of guests, although hoteliers advise against dramatic changes.
REPORT FROM THE UNITED KINGDOM—Independent hotels in the United Kingdom—ones without famed names at the very highest end of the segment—have had to work much harder to survive the pandemic as well as remain independent and not jump to the security of a brand, sources said.
In the United Kingdom, that struggle is even tougher with the country entering a second lockdown, which started on 5 November and continues through 2 December. This follows a better-than-expected summer for hotels in rural and seaside locations.
David Robertson, co-owner of The Bull & Townhouse in Beaumaris on the Welsh island of Anglesey, said during the pandemic he has better understood the importance of community.
“Community in the true sense of the world, with a small ‘c,’” Robertson said.
He said his hotel, pub and restaurant provided free meals for 45 local families at a time when people began to suffer hardship.
“We earned a lot of brownie points, and then we had an incredible summer of bookings. I know a lot of seaside resorts, but going forward, we know we need to make sure we do not get lost in the crowd,” he said.
Peter Hancock, CEO of fellow marketing alliance Pride of Britain Hotels, said he saw most hoteliers have taken the pandemic on the chin, adapting quickly, borrowing money and furloughing and laying off staff.
He said his members, too, have had a terrifically busy time since the first lockdown ended at the beginning of July.
Hancock said hoteliers do not need to always do a great deal, because after the pandemic, guests will likely still want what they did before anyone had heard of COVID-19: quality, a good welcome and that extra bit that just makes a hotel better than the competition.
Recognition, awards and accolades still set properties apart and should still be sought, he said.
“Be as good as you can, and do not give in on rate,” Hancock said. “Charge what you’re worth, and look after people as well as you can.”
Guests are now spending more than they did and are enjoying longer stays, he said, also acknowledging the situation is tough in the U.K.’s major cities.
“All (owners) can do is to borrow enough to get through,” Hancock said.
One change Robertson made was to experiment with online booking and marketing tools, ones where he has the power to switch them off and on when appropriate.
“I think we will have a busy Christmas. The English came in droves in the summer,” Robertson said, referring to numerous media outlets suggesting those in the U.K.’s other countries should not visit Wales.
That notion is not restricted to any one of the U.K.s four constituent nations.
Melvin Gold, owner of Melvin Gold Consulting, said the biggest question facing independent hoteliers is likely whether to reopen at all.
“With the furlough scheme running through March, and hotels already closed and not knowing what tier they will be in and looking at a situation in the run-up to Christmas where no company is having Christmas parties, some will think it would be better to reopen in March when the sun starts shining a little more,” he said.
Gold said that decision also will depend on what the ownership and operational model is for any one hotel.
Robertson said he is closely working with tourist partnerships in his area and that his hotel is a member of marketing and distribution alliance Welsh Rarebits, named for a local delicacy.
He has noticed in recent years that the tourist seasons are getting busier than ever, but the off-season is moving in the opposite direction.
“We’re trying to lessen seasonality, to look at what the numbers tell you and to respond accordingly,” he said.
Apart from his hotel’s two restaurants, Robertson has experimented with a casual food option, but this has been shelved for the time being.
“But we have a little room off the main bar, and we’ll convert that into a high-end coffee shop,” he said. “That is nothing revolutionary, rather a change in emphasis from the need to sell just alcohol. It reflects a changing market.”
Sources said guests are still looking for experiences.
“The Nare Hotel (near Truro, Cornwall, and a member of Pride of Britain) has a Morgan two-seater car, which can be hired, for example, but ultimately a hotel’s success still comes down to the quality of hospitality. There is always demand for the best,” Hancock said.
“The Hambleton Hotel (in Oakham, Rutland) does nothing. It has no features or activities, but all (is) beautiful and everything is immaculate in a traditional way,” he added.
Hancock said hotels further down the food chain will have difficulties in standing out.
“Everyone needs a point of difference, a USP. One of our hotels, the Vineyard at Stock Cross, is in Newbury,” Hancock said. “No one thinks, ‘Oh Newbury, we have not been to Newbury for a while,’ but it has 2,000 wines in their cellar, the owner being a wine grower in California. Innovation suggests you have done something no one else has done, which is rare in this industry, and what is seen to be innovative is soon copied.”
Gold said hoteliers should look at who is more likely to start traveling and booking when the world opens up more.
“Hotels need to recognize there is a societal difference in how different ages are looking at things,” Gold said. “Younger people with money in their pocket, living with parents, even in their own flat, probably will be more inclined to travel and can be enticed to go to a place. Young families, too.
“If they cannot jump on a plane, they need to be shown opportunities such as spas, surfing, watersports, area attractions, 4WDs, things they can do. The grey market will be harder to attract until a vaccine is developed.”
Gold added that will be easier to do if the hotel has maintained investment and refurbishment.
“Recognize the market has changed, and people have discovered new areas in the U.K. Word-of-mouth marketing is also possible right now,” he said.
The traditional coach market for older guests has completely disappeared, and with it some hotels dependent on that business.
Specialist Leisure Group, which owns coach vacation firm Shearing’s and several in-house hotel brands, was an early COVID-19 casualty, going into administration in April with the loss of approximately 2,500 jobs.
Gold also encouraged working closely with local tourism bureaus as domestic tourism flourishes.
Revenue-managing parking is also critical as guests shun public transportation.
“In the U.K. most arrive by car, with city centers now a little taboo,” Gold said. “And safety is a given, so that does not attract people either. They have a quick look at what (the hotel says) about COVID-19, and then they look at what the hotel offers and local attractions.”
He added that guests are now quick to mention on social media what they see as deficiencies in safety and hygiene.