Hoteliers should be using the pandemic travel downturn to diversify their offering and forge greater connections with their local community. That’s the view of luxury travel expert, Mary Gostelow.
Traditionally living out of her suitcase more than 300 days a year, traversing the world to provide global market intelligence to the industry, the coronavirus has forced the Brit to wind back her busy travelling schedule.
Speaking with LATTE from her home in the UK last week, Gostelow says that despite her lull in travelling she has “never been busier in her life”.
“Time is being so condensed. Life has changed. My world has changed. For instance, whereas before I would have been getting ready to go to the airport, then I’d wait for the plane, and travel to my next destination. Now I’m all over the place,” she says referring to the world of virtual connections through Zoom meetings and Facetime.
“In just the past couple of days I have had important meetings in Bhutan, I have done an interview in Mumbai, I have talked to people in Stockholm, I chatted with folk in Chennai. Straight after you, I have an interview on the Mekong, after that, I have an interview on Vladivostok, and then I am going to [update] myself on what is happening in Korea.”
Now on the road again after an extended hiatus, Gostelow has altered the way she travels.
“Two weeks ago I was in Tuscany, in one week I will be in Bavaria, two weeks after that I will be in Istanbul. So my travel is changing to shorter trips which is exactly what is happening all over the world.”
Gostelow says she is packing more into a very short time. Staying closer to home, her trips are four days at most and include many more experiences than prior to global lockdowns.
“I only travel with hand luggage so four days is a cinch. But I am longing to do some longer trips,” she confesses.
She says people are now wanting even more meaningful experiences.
“For instance, if people are near Wagga Wagga they want to know what to look for when they are buying the best kinds of steaks. When they are in the Yarra Valley, they want to know even more about a particular wine and label.”
“One of the many interesting things is that the consumer, particularly the younger consumer, is becoming much more knowledgeable than ever before.”
“During lockdown, many people have had to cook at home and they are not used to it. They are used to buying food or buying ready-made meals on their way back from their office or even stopping off several nights a week to dine out. Now they have been cooking at home and they’ve been watching streamed programs on food, and they have become much more knowledgeable on a particular kind of artichoke, for example. So now when they go out they want the experience of learning even more and they want to show off what they know about particular kinds of artichokes.”
Gostelow also believes there is an opportunity for suppliers to cater to this need by providing further knowledge and deeper education.
“Some hoteliers are yet to realise it’s not just a case of getting people to stay in their beds for the night. They’ve got to get even more interested [in] their neighbourhood. They’ve got to become more connected with their community,” the travelaholic said.
She cited one example of a hotel that had diversified its business during the pandemic – a property in West Hollywood. Without specifying the name of the luxury property, she said the hotel – like most worldwide – had lost almost all its rooms and meetings business due to the coronavirus crisis. The GM of the hotel, who has ties with the local Chamber of Commerce, was aware that many shops in his local area were also suffering and some had closed for business.
“To cut a long story short, he has invited some of those shops into his meeting rooms on open-ended low rents. He now has a shopping mall within his hotel. It’s very good news for the employees of the hotel, they love it.
“It’s very good news for business because he gets rent. He also gets local people coming in, who not only buy in the shopping mall, but they support the food and beverage side of the hotel too.”
Gostelow – who writes a regular hotel review column for LATTE – said hotels in regional destinations are now flourishing due to travel border closures and travel restrictions.
“The more rural, the more difficult to get to places, are doing much better than city locations.”
She says city high-rise hotels have several “hiccups to overcome” in order to fill their rooms, primarily their busy CBD locale and confinement when travellers are now seeking space and solitude.
“By contrast, you look at rural properties such as [Emirates One&Only] Wolgan Valley. There are no elevators, you are in a separate villa with its own pool. You get there and you know there is no chance of you getting any of those nasty little things called viruses sharing your space with you.”
“People are staying longer and in many cases are staying longer, longer because they realise they can work from a rural lodge,” she said.
As for the travel rebound, Gostelow believes the Asia Pacific will lead the global recovery. Destinations such as Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, as well as China where many cities are already “booming” back to life.
On the topic of COVID-19 hotel health and safety protocols and messaging Gostelow says, “the ones that really stand out are the ones not pushed in your face.
“High spending travellers do not want to be told. They do not want to be greeted with anything that is sanitary – they hate the word and do not want to be reminded. They are spending their money, not corporate money. They assume that where they are going to stay has taken all the precautions at the very top level too.”
She says that some of the bigger hotel groups have overdone the messaging.
“There is nothing unique now in having signed up with a health care or a cleaning company. Subtlety is key.”