The hospitality industry, globally and regionally in MENA, has gone through its worse crisis due to the pandemic. While the resilience and re-birth of the industry after every crisis is well known and documented through anecdotes and examples throughout its history, the core essence of the industry has always stayed same: Service. Some may argue that Hospitality is a concept and an obligation, not just a word that we use to describe a whole variety of different commercial contexts.
Hospitality, often described as “offering hospitality services in exchange for a cost”, is one of the world’s oldest industries/professions. Immense amount of emphasis is given to the importance of maintaining traditions and heritage while evolving only on selective aspects. Hospitality was and still is known as one of the most challenging and demanding sectors to work in due to the sheer versatility of human nature and human needs.
No two guests are alike and all guests should be treated with equal intent, has been the fundamental paradox that the industry functions around. This has further been co-related with the aspect of a commercial transaction, whereas originally hospitality was all about generosity, a warm reception, special care for a guest, good intentions and the willingness to help. It is here that the hospitality industry has got an opportunity to re-imagine itself and go back to the roots of “offering hospitality” instead of “offering transactions of hospitality needs” because, in the current scenario, the transaction will happen only if the hospitality on offer is considered honest and transparent. In more ways than one, the pandemic has emerged and spread itself as a “Great Equaliser”.
Whether a small bed & breakfast or a global giant, both are facing the same challenges of maintaining overheads in an initially zero but now limited footfall season. A globetrotting nomad travelling five days a week for business is grounded in the same way as a thrifty deal-seeking tourist planning a 5-day getaway. While the transactional potential of both guests may vary, the core needs of hospitality remain identical for all the guests. This provides a unique opportunity that never existed before: staying true to the core principles of hospitality and embracing the equaliser instead of resisting it.
The approach to adopting this is straight forward and is built on re-creating and maintaining trust. The travelers are seeking reassurance which the hospitality industry can display in multiple ways:
- Physical: Reassuring that the physical spaces on offer are safe, hygienic and will be maintained during the course of stay. Whether breakfast buffets or bed duvets, both need to be treated and designed with safety and hygiene at the core and should use clear and transparent communication to convey the measures taken to achieve it.
- Emotional: Reassuring that you understand your guest’s emotional needs is a crucial aspect in times of stress and apprehensions. Curt reception desk calls need to be replaced with compassion, and the customary two-knock barge-in housekeeping needs to evolve to an interactive exercise where the guest is proactively informed about the steps and reagents used in cleaning and hygiene maintenance.
Beyond the reassurance aspect, a lot needs to evolve in the current operating model of the hospitality industry, which essentially has been operating only on two dimensions of boarding-lodging and food service. Needs beyond the above two dimensions are restricted to a single-seater concierge desk which is avoided by most guests, as alternatives both in terms of cost and flexibility are aplenty, e.g. from packaged tour buses to shared taxi cabs. Currently, due to concerns around shared services and shared spaces, hospitality establishments have an option to offer 360-degree hospitality as part of their offerings.
A designated vehicle and driver picking up the guests from the airport and arriving at the property for check-in, to a personalized stay curated and assisted by a butler to the same vehicle and driver driving the guest around the city for the leisure or business needs and finally dropping to the airport.
All its dimensions can be curated by the establishment, thereby ensuring that only one set of guests are in contact with one set of staff members. This, not only contributes to the reassurance aspect of guest’s safety but also represents a responsible and care driven business model adhering to the evolving regulatory guidelines to limit the spread of the pandemic; not to forget generation of employment opportunities in an industry which has seen the most numbers of job-losses globally due to the current crises. While this model may seem counterproductive in cost and value terms at first instance, the particular design of service has been pioneered successfully in the MENA region in the form of “bio-bubbles”.
Innovation in times of the pandemic, a Bio-Bubble can be defined as a safe and secure environment isolated from the outside world to minimize the risk of infection. By design, it permits only authorized and accounted for inhabitants to enter the protected area after testing negative for the infection. The most recent and successful example of this is the ongoing IPL T20 Cricket tournament underway in UAE from September 19 to November 10 2020. Through a series of hazard analysis and critical control point evaluations, protocols have been established for players, officials and other participants to stay in the UAE without the risk of contracting and spreading the infection.
Major focus has been to ensure smooth gameplay, leisure aspect of the participants is being taken care of through bespoke travel and stay arrangements with dedicated vehicles, hotel floors, support staff and contact persons. Dedicated sterilization of living quarters, travel vehicles and high contact surfaces at regular intervals is a daily feature and is done under the observation and recommendation of leading industry brands and experts. This setup and arrangement have emerged as a benchmark to follow for both in the region and globally.
While the nuances can and should differ as per need, the essence of bio-bubbles can be applied to dynamic requirements of guests, and it has the potential to kick-start the sector. On one hand, innovations such as bio-bubbles take care of the boundary conditions; however, there also exists a scope of innovation within the confines of the hospitality property itself. With health, hygiene, and wellbeing becoming the prime focus for consumers in the new normal, one needs to adopt such innovative elements into the core functioning of a hospitality establishment. Examples of the areas it could be adopted in:
- Bed: Sleep has regained focus as a key parameter for developing and sustaining immunity. Numerous research studies have highlighted the importance of sleep and hence the sleep aspect of a room takes center stage. Sleep friendly room designs such as blackout curtains, decibel-controlled flooring and wall architecture coupled with the bedding, are easy and straightforward aspects to highlight a sleep positive atmosphere curated by hotels.
- Bath: As the hygiene factor gains more attention, ensuring a clean and thoughtfully designed bath area becomes critical. While towel and linen washing has recently raised environmental concerns, in the new normal, innovative ways of achieving hygiene through laundry disinfection, mask sterilization, waste segregation should be the new areas of focus.
- Breakfast: Food service remains at the heart of hospitality, and due to social distancing norms and behavior, the traditional buffet breakfast needs to be re-imagined. Digitization of the menu, custom-made meals, time-bound room service coupled with pre-ordering, should be the areas of exploration which limit the contact as well as the cost associated with traditional dining in the hospitality industry.
- Beyond: Wellness focused spas with immunity-boosting procedures, holistic treatment rituals focused on mental health, and eco-tourism tours should also be high on the menu in the new normal. Evolution of these offerings can be the key differentiators where the traditional guest touchpoints are becoming more and more standard every day.
In conclusion, while the industry is in the process of reinventing itself, it is prudent that the decision-makers understand the basics and ensure that it is not only done in the right areas but also with the right intent for the check-in bells to keep ringing and the footfalls to keep increasing.
Foods and Nutrition Consultant
Frost & Sullivan