How will travel operators navigate the brave new world of social distancing?

  • Global
  • Thursday, 18 Jun 2020

A greeting robot called Pepper waiting for guests at a hotel lobby in Tokyo, Japan. Will these robots ultimately replace a majority of the human workers in hotels? — AFP

As travel vaporises with on-off lockdowns, airlines, airports, and hotels are pondering the future of hospitality in these fluid and fearful socially distanced times. While it may appear oxymoronic, professional hosts are examining how to safely distance yet offer hospitable warmth without turning everything into a set from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

If travellers today feel journeys are an out-of-body experience surrounded by masked stewardesses – a smile only gleaned from crow’s nests crinkling eye corners – and hazmat suits, how about, perhaps, hotels of the future?

Architects and designers are furiously ripping up traditional blueprints to envision straighter lines, wider corridors, bigger spaces with improved ventilation and energy-saving natural light, lower density low-rise, less fuss, and minimal human contact. Think robot room deliveries or lobby scrubbers, smartphone-operated lifts with restrictions on numbers, facial recognition, motion sensors, and “contactless” routes for staff and guests.

While this may appeal to the South Korean honjok (solitary tribe) millennials who prefer their own company, robot-partnering Japanese, or privacy conditioned Hongkongers for whom social distancing comes naturally, many will quail at the prospect of touch-me-not travel when human interaction and intimacy is, after all, a great part of the allure of discovery.

What’s the Philippines or a Thailand without those incandescent smiles? Would any click-happy tourist attend a saucy live show to watch a titillating romp by a bunch of people in gumboots and beekeeper suits? Might masala dosas suffer the ultimate indignity of being consumed with preppy knives and forks rather than curry-dribbling fingers in a Covid-19 world?

   A housekeeping staff cleaning a room in a luxury hotel in Vienna, Austria. Guests need to see and be assured that hotels take all measures of safety and hygiene seriously. — ReutersA housekeeping staff cleaning a room in a luxury hotel in Vienna, Austria. Guests need to see and be assured that hotels take all measures of safety and hygiene seriously. — Reuters

Airports, the central clearing houses for human traffic, are becoming the first line of defence. Arrivals at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) are bussed to the neighbouring Asia World-Expo where deep-throat swabs are analysed while passengers wait 12 hours or more for their coronavirus test results. It is a bold frontline move but not a feasible long-term solution without rapid testing as the facility is able to handle just a single planeload in a day.

HKIA is also testing a disinfecting booth that sprays passengers for 40 seconds with a sanitising spray. Antimicrobial coatings are being sourced for common surfaces along with robot cleaners. Airports from London’s Heathrow to Singapore’s Changi and Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi are examining fast scanning and testing measures as the world prepares for a return of traffic and airlines plan limited services from as early as this month.

In the air, travellers may be presented with more of The Mummy’s Revenge. Airline crew have had gloves and masks on for a few months but protective uniforms may take a novel sartorial twist with the sort of avant-garde gear being explored by Philippine Airlines (PAL) and others. Among the PAL designs are full white spacesuit body coverings and headgear with long visors, straight out of a nursing home or a motor-welding garage. Chic if cheerless this may be but a return to the singing stewardesses of Asia’s swinging budget carriers of yore seems improbable. Airlines that are still solvent are gearing up for limited services with middle seats or alternate rows left empty and perhaps higher fares. And beleaguered Boeing, still wrestling with the B737MAX fallout, has walked away from a US$4bil (RM17.17bil) deal to control Brazil’s small-jet leader Embraer.

The hotel sceneHotels – snobbish, saucy, or skinflint – have been hit hard with meetings, weddings and banquets rudely eviscerated, the disappearance of this cash-cow business noted on sagging profit and loss sheets the world over. Can hotels combine social distancing with the human touch? And how will brands respond as service becomes increasingly invisible?

In Asia, there is bullishness tinged with wariness. A senior Bangkok general manager who wished to stay anonymous put it thus, “Have the natural resources changed? No. Have demographics changed in any material way? No. Once the danger has subsided – in this case, with effective medication – people will tend to return to their comfort zones.”

   Luxury resorts with a limited guest capacity may just be the perfect holiday space for travellers looking for the ‘safest’ place to check in to. — JULIUS SILVERLuxury resorts with a limited guest capacity may just be the perfect holiday space for travellers looking for the ‘safest’ place to check in to. — JULIUS SILVER

Similarly bullish is Hans Jenni (former partner and president of GHM, Singapore) who believes “Covid-19 will go into the history books” but will soon be forgotten, as this is human nature. He cautions, however, that “social distancing would be a nightmare for the (hotel) industry and destroy guest experience in no small way. Long term social distancing will simply not work.”

This sentiment is echoed by Giovanni Angelini (Dusit advisor and former CEO and managing director of Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts) who strongly believes that social distancing and personalised service make poor bedfellows. “We can operate hotels following social distancing guidelines but we are not in an ideal position to extend ‘warm and friendly’ service, ” he feels.

Lily Udomkunnatum, the livewire founder and managing director of the Bangkok-headquartered Burasari Group is a profound optimist and, in something of a path-finding move, has a phased reopening of her shuttered hotels from early May. Says Udomkunnatum, “Travellers don’t simply need to be persuaded it’s safe to travel, they need to see actual physical changes that will make travel safer.”

How might social distancing affect hotel management style in the near or long term? And what might be its effect on brand perception? The Covid scare will jolt travellers out of the budget travel haze to the detriment of Airbnb and nudge wallets upwards into the realm of five-star hotels and luxury boltholes that are now equated with greater safety, simply because they can afford it and follow a corporate rulebook.

Carina Chorengel (senior vice president, commercial, Hyatt Hotels) feels new standards will soon be the norm. “Social distancing is temporary and will ease once the infection abates. However, our new normal means some or all precautionary measures Hyatt has implemented – temperature checks, masks and gloves for staff, more frequent sanitisation, will become standard or even mandatory across our hotels.”

Hyatt and other chains are also considering contactless options with digital check-ins and mobile keys.

Digital transformation

For luxury brands in China it has been a sobering period of reflection. Markus Engel (CEO and founder of Urban Resort Concepts, Shanghai that operates luxe boutique hotel RuMa in Kuala Lumpur) believes that, “The outbreak has accelerated digital transformation and pushed us to think about how we can conduct our businesses more effectively, even without the need for face-to-face meetings.”

Veteran hotelier Gregory Meadows (a former general manager of the Conrad Bangkok and The Sukhothai Bangkok) feels Covid-19 has offered an opportunity for a major land grab by bigger chains. Says Meadows, “I have no doubt that the current crisis will be used as an opportunity for the mega chains to re-engineer their operations. Where there were 400 employees in a hotel, say, there will now be 300 because artificial intelligence will feature even more heavily in future. Head office gurus are always moaning about team size... it’s in their DNA. It was always in the long-term plan and now is the time to get it done without too much negative feedback.”

Anne Arrowsmith (group general manager of 137 Pillars Hotels & Resorts, Thailand) believes that terminology is key: “Perhaps I might clarify that what we have is ‘physical distancing’ with an increase in social connectivity. How nice would it be if cleanliness became an obsession with public transportation, public places and public spaces? As for hotel interactions, I think it places small, luxury properties as being in the right ‘space’. Resort style and low-rise vs high-rise. Space becomes part of the definition of luxury.”

Luxury brands could be the biggest beneficiaries of the change in safety perceptions. Says Vincent Guironnet (general manager of The Apurva Kempinski Bali): “The perception of luxury travel will change. Travellers will demand more visible safety and hygiene measures and will incorporate these aspects into their journey.”

Many believe that tinkering with the brand is unwise. Says veteran Bali hotelier Ron Nomura: “When we go out of our way and do exceptional things to help guests during these difficult times they will appreciate the effort and always relate it to the brand.”

Jenni is sceptical of knee-jerk responses. “You cannot change the brand philosophy because of a crisis, ” he says, ... “but the giants like Marriott, Hyatt and InterContinental will of course emerge stronger with fire sale acquisitions and true, authentic, hospitality may ultimately lose out.”

Thailand and Vietnam could be two beneficiaries of a post-Covid shakeout as destinations of choice. But they will need to stake out their territory. As Neha Pandey (country director, brand and marketing, Sun Hospitality Group, Vietnam) points out, “It will be a challenge to bring back business travel because people have had a taste of the convenience of working from home. But leisure travel is there to be claimed. People are not going to scrimp on safety. They may be less budget driven. But luxury will have to claim back its throne. It will not be an easy win for any brand.”

Vijay Verghese is a Hong Kong-based journalist, columnist and the editor of and

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Covid-19 , coronavirus , hotel , new normal


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