In search of the new normal: The changing face of hospitality

Urvashi Singh
With travel grinding to a halt, the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging tourism-dependent communities like never before. And even as countries reopen their economies, signs of travel picking up anytime soon look remote
Owner, Urvashi’s Retreat

With travel grinding to a halt, the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging tourism-dependent communities like never before. And even as countries reopen their economies, signs of travel picking up anytime soon look remote

The 90 day-short summer peak season in Manali—a small Himalayan resort town in northern India—attracts an annual influx of tourists that often exceeds the hill station’s infrastructure capacity significantly. However, the summer of 2020 in this Himalayan haven passes in ghastly silence. The streets of Manali’s Mall are quieter than its quietest off-season months, leaving an impression of gloom and solitude that is associated with its dreary winter.

What makes this year’s summer months of April, May and June even gloomier is that the clenches of COVID-19 aren’t likely to loosen up on the world anytime soon, and uncertainty is the only constant.

Hotels in the line of fire

Regardless of their optimism or pessimism through this pandemic, hoteliers will reach a point of existential surrender sooner or later when they exclaim: “It is what it is!” After all, there is only so much news and speculation that one can digest before feeling a little mind-numbed. Being an independent hotelier, I hesitantly try to believe the older veterans of the trade when they say, “it cannot get worse than this”, because if experts are to be believed, it is about to get much worse before getting any better. Despite knowing this only too well, I find the extended lockdown alleviating the initial anxieties I had, which has come with a growing acceptance of circumstances.

For the twin sakes of prudence and sanity, many hoteliers like me have begun to periodically assess our buffer amounts saved for a rainy day. Without a doubt, these are the rainy days we saved up for. But for how long will these sums help us tide over the effects of the pandemic?

The clenches of COVID-19 aren’t likely to loosen up on the world anytime soon, and uncertainty is the only constant.

In the state of Himachal Pradesh, the government has announced some relief measures including subsidised electricity and employee provident funds that offers hotel-owners temporary respite. But there are more pressing expenses that the peak seasons usually took care of. For hotels of all sizes, staff must be taken care of, and their livelihoods sustained.

Many large hotels have had to let go of a sizeable share of their workforce as plummeting revenues have resulted in questions around affordability.

And this, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg that we are jointly (and inadvertently) sailing over. The longer these troubles persist, we’re going to find the industry faced with greater challenges that will be harder to overcome.

Uncertainty around the resumption of travel

The refusal of the COVID-19 curve to flatten anytime soon is causing uncertainty across businesses—regardless of our professions—and societies. Given the depth of the economic downturn, and with many struggling to make any purchases beyond the bare necessities, the resumption of leisure travel is not imminent anytime soon.

The food & beverage, hospitality and civil aviation industries have been reported as the hardest hit worldwide. Many in the hospitality industry believe that domestic tourists may be willing to consider road for leisure holidays, but only time will provide a definitive answer to whether a person—who has gone through months of lockdown and knowing that the number of COVID cases is still rapidly increasing—will be willing enough to risk an outstation trip to simply refresh their senses. What if this was contrary to their very reason for remaining locked down for all these months?

A deserted street in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India. Photo by Farzan Lelinwalla on Unsplash.

Ironically, many prominent tourist hotspots in India and across Asia have frail and insufficient medical infrastructure, which will likely deter tourists from visiting these locations anytime soon. This is an issue many tourism centres across Asia will have to contend with, till potential tourists can muster enough confidence to travel to these locations again.

Compounding problems is the dependence of some of these centres on tourism. In Southeast Asia for example, tourism contributes 14% and 33% of GDP in Laos and Cambodia respectively, underlining the importance of the industry to the local population both in terms of generating revenues as well as in terms of jobs. However, many developing economies such as Laos and Cambodia that rely on tourism for economic growth, are also characterised by poor and insufficient healthcare infrastructure. And just at a time when more investment is needed in healthcare delivery and infrastructure, government revenues have been hit, resulting in an inability to invest in these services. This is a vicious cycle that’s not easy to get out of.

These developments illustrate that the slowdown in travel is not a micro-level challenge for the odd hotel owner alone, but is having serious implications for communities and economies around the world.

A safer future

The slowdown all around us has given us time to take stock of what we need to do, and how we intend to go about doing it. On my part, I’ve been preoccupied with strategising how best I can ensure the safety and wellbeing of my future visitors.

Mandatory check-in protocols—which include accredited COVID-negative test reports, as well as infrared thermometers and sanitisations—are of primary importance. The house-keeping department of every hotel requires crucial training before it can start to host guests in what will be a new era for travel. In-house sanitation, mandatory distancing guidelines and operating the hotel inventory at a lesser capacity will help more tightly packed properties obtain similar protocols that larger properties are able to maintain with full occupancy.

The future of travel in a post-COVID-19 world is going to be closely related to confidence. As such, it is imperative hotels provide prospective travellers with the confidence that they will be in a secure environment when they travel.

Ample hygiene-related precautions need to be taken when it comes to the preparation and service of food and beverages. To ensure this, food safety departments at hospitals must make themselves proactive and regulate a tightened list of standards across all hotel and restaurant outlets in their designated areas. Mandatory distancing guidelines between dining tables are easily manageable in larger properties, but they must be strictly implemented and practiced.

In general, stricter monitoring is going to be needed to ensure all staff and guests comply with official regulations and internal guidelines around health. All stakeholders must be part of this process, including staff, guests and vendors.

The future of travel in a post-COVID-19 world is going to be closely related to confidence. As such, it is imperative hotels provide prospective travellers with the confidence that they will be in a secure environment when they travel.

It’s all going to be very new for everyone concerned. Whether it becomes normal, time will tell.

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Owner, Urvashi’s Retreat

Urvashi Singh is a passionate and independent entrepreneur with over five years of experience in hoteliering and content creation. She is the owner of one among the top 15 small leading hotels of India (ranked by TripAdvisor). She is also a philanthropist, founder and goodwill ambassador at Run for Lupus.

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