It wasn’t too long ago that the old saying, “don’t let a good crisis go to waste,” might have elicited a laugh or a benign knowing sigh of agreement. Then the COVID-19 pandemic and the grim results over the past year gave this phrase new meaning. The stakes for a long-term, healthy (in all senses of the word) recovery from the pandemic could not be higher, or more final. “Not letting a good crisis go to waste” is no longer a wry aphorism, but something deeper, more personal. We have nothing short of an obligation to rebuild in a fundamentally different way. And build something newer and better than before.
Which is why the response from the travel and hospitality industry is all the more puzzling. Countless jobs lost, businesses closed for good, entire sectors such as in-person meetings and events that might never fully recover. And what has the industry done? If you read even just a few posts on LinkedIn from travel industry professionals, what you come away with is a sense that the recovery is being driven by collective wishful thinking — “say it and they will come.” Influencers are taking note and heading back to Instagram posting the very same type of content they did into early 2020, hopeful that their somewhat questionable livelihoods will return with the click of a shutter. The entitlement cabal between points bloggers and loyalty programs is busy snapping up discounts and freebies, more concerned with the “stuff” than the memories. And they’re getting less too, as customer service contacts are either being stripped away or it can take up to 41 hours to reach a live elite customer service rep (Source: View From The Wing, 5/11/21). Not to mention that basics such as housekeeping might suddenly be confined to by-request-only (Loyalty Lobby, 5/24/21), if they can even find staff to answer the request (The Wall St. Journal, 5/18/21).
The reality, though, is that while travel brands would like their guests to think that everything will soon be back to “normal” (my winner for the latest word to lose all meaning), these same brands have used the crisis to scale back in favor of greater profitability. Some executives cite “green shoots of optimism,” referring of course to booking data on a report or maybe additional flow-through from the reductions in service, not really focusing on the fact that the data is a real person just wanting to be taken care of (didn’t we learn over the past year that behind the staggering numbers were mothers, fathers, grandparents and friends?!). Some in the C-Suites have proudly proclaimed they will drive for higher margins, while others are shifting their strategy toward more of a franchise model, offloading direct responsibility for pesky concepts such as brand standards, which in practice have always been viewed more as a cost — especially in the upper end of the industry — than a source of competitive advantage.
Which is also why the latest forecasts from industry leaders that the luxury segment will come roaring back to pull the industry out of the chasm are also puzzling (The Future of Travel, Tripadvisor/Accenture, 5/21). First, it’s hardly news — anyone who has looked at historical data from The Luxury Institute and others knows that the affluent segment has always come back first and most strongly. Second, they are trying to retrofit the same old offerings to a “new” emerging guest, when the guest really isn’t “new” at all. Upscale travelers have known that suites and villas offer more space and privacy for some time now. And third, what these executives are really hoping is that the affluent traveler has somehow forgotten the traditional aspects of craftsmanship, quality and service, and become fully conditioned to less.
The one perspective that seems to be missing lately is that of the guests themselves. The hospitality business is becoming far more the latter than the former. Even brands such as Rosewood and Belmont, with unique pedigree and backing, seem content to largely play by the previous rules, confining the introduction of new experiences to opening those properties that broke ground well before the crisis. These are brands that once — and that could and should once again — capture the traveler’s imagination rather than just her wallet. I can’t help but think of Aman and Bulgari Hotels & Resorts, maybe even Auberge, as they seem to be playing a Hermes-like long game, and wonder what brilliant surprises they might have in store, even if it’s a continued focus on excellence, which would be a surprise indeed in the current environment.
Against this increasingly impersonal tide, the exceptions easily stand out, even the small ones — the real “green shoots.” A story from a single Kimpton property about a poet seated in the lobby, before an old typewriter, waiting to do nothing more than listen to a guest’s story before turning it into something even more magical. Auberge thoughtfully noticing and acting on guest behaviors with personality and sincerity — an idea for a new snack here, a perfectly laundered and returned shirt left behind there (Auberge Resorts Carves Out Luxury for These Times, Skift, 2/23/21). And American Express Centurion Lounges initiating new policies to try and return some semblance of serenity to their airport lounges.
If fresh thinking were as plentiful as wishful thinking, travel and hospitality would be poised for a bright future and sustained, strong growth. What one cannot help but wonder is what will happen after the first few trips when travelers realize they’ve come back to less than they had before.
Some fuel for thought as we head into a crucial period:
In the end, the travel industry will of course survive. Maybe even thrive in the immediate post-COVID environment. The desire to escape, explore, learn, be pampered, gather with friends and colleagues, is simply ingrained too deeply in our collective psyches. Long-term success, however, may only come when industry leaders, including key stakeholders such as hotel owners and asset managers, start demanding more of their brand experience and marketing teams and less of their customers and guests. Because in a post-crisis world, less is unfortunately what we might be giving them.
Interested in exploring a “more” mindset and how RP3’s approach to breaking category conventions can help ensure your brand doesn’t end up with less? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.