By Mark Jakins
Predictions are that foreign tourist numbers in South Africa will crash in 2020, to less than one-tenth of the 2019 number of 2,6m.
Share prices of listed tourism-sector companies have plunged 40-55% as a result of COVID-19 and the lockdown, and the impact on all, including the thousands of SMEs operating in this sector, has been catastrophic. Millions of South Africans rely on tourists visiting our shores, but they wait in vain until the world’s airlines are allowed to land at our airports. The domestic government and corporate travel segments are likely to be only a trickle until the end of this year.
Hoteliers in South Africa have responded by setting up strict, proactive sanitisation protocols and new standards. The MICE market, which showed so much potential in 2019, will see new social distancing standards in the conferencing sector, like those deployed by supermarkets. Expect to see footprint decals on floors, and hand sanitisers displayed in foyers, restaurants, bathrooms, bedrooms, pause and meeting areas. Tea breaks will showcase wrapped food items, whilst buffets will be replaced by served stations with extreme hygiene practices. ‘Grab and go’ breakfasts will become more popular. Guest interactions with hotel staff will be managed from a distance. It’s likely that new conferencing requirements will result in smaller groups and a demand for high-tech features in venues. Lockdown has taught us the value of teleconferences and dial-ins, notwithstanding data costs.
Hotels, like airlines, will look for ways of using remote self-check-ins and new tech, with minimal human contact, and plastic barriers are likely to feature at front desks. Masks and gloves will be expected, while seating in restaurants will be generously spaced. Wipe-down or disposable menus will be offered. Lift protocols will mean guests may wait a few minutes to get to their rooms. In-room standards will be raised, with new hygiene amenities, and even bagged, sanitised TV remotes. Shuttles to airports will be less congested, and luggage will be wiped down.
Back-of-house standards are now catching up to the new norm. HVAC filters are being replaced, water quality tested, and health and hygiene protocols and staff training have been ramped up. Many hotels have used this down time for a fresh coat of paint and other maintenance or softs adjustments, to be ready for reopening.
Unfortunately, these will come at a cost to hoteliers already reeling from the lack of revenues, layoffs and closures. They will seek to optimise staffing structures and shifts and will be alert to the creep of elevated brand-operating standards, amenities and cleaning costs previously not present. They will relook at management structures and layers, food and beverage cost of sales and other ‘profit biters’.
Hoteliers will tighten credit policies, yet still have generous cancellation policies to stay competitive. Revenue management will become even more crucial. To drop rates would result in a slippery slide from which it would be difficult to recover. Channel costs will be scrutinised and segment analysis enhanced to maximise yields. Marketing departments will rely more on personalised, loyalty-based response marketing to drive immediate results. The world of smart barters and co-operation partnerships will become more important.
Right now, SA hoteliers, associations and businesses are lobbying government to relax lockdown regulations. There is a dire warning that unemployment and poverty could result in massive socio-economic fallout that is possibly greater than the risk of the virus.
Until airlines fly and hotels, lodges, tour operators and other tourism stakeholders can demonstrate global lessons post-COVID-19, we remain hopeful that our industry will survive, and more importantly, that human dignity and employment will prevail.
Mark Jakins has 30 years’ experience in hospitality and has held senior executive marketing and commercial positions, which included group marketing and operations executive of Peermont Hotels and Casino Resorts and chief executive: commercial enterprises of the SABC. He has also held senior positions at Budget Car Rental, Southern Sun and Sun International. In February 2019 he was appointed group marketing, revenue and sales director of Premier Hotels and Resorts.