The future of travel after COVID-19, according to the pros

The executives of SWIRE Hotels and Secret Retreats share their coping strategies and their views on luxury travel and hospitality amid and after COVID-19.
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It has been a year since COVID-19 has taken over the world. One of the industries that has been hardest hit is undeniably the tourism and hospitality industry. While many died down, some brands have managed to come through. To shed some light on the current situation and the future of luxury travel, we recently talked to two Asian-oriented luxury hospitality brands on their strategies on maintaining the presence during the tourism hiatus and their views towards the future.

Swire Hotels, a group of individual international hotels under two brands, which are The House Collective and EAST, were one of those who were hit hard before anyone else, since its focus is the Chinese mainland. “At the start of the outbreak, nobody knew quite the scale of the pandemic or what was to come. Swire Hotels has a big presence in Chinese mainland, which was initially the focal point of the virus, so our first concern was on our people in these properties – both colleagues and guests – and ensuring their health and wellbeing,” says Swire Hotels’ Managing Director Dean Winter. “Then, of course, our attention turned to focusing on the business and ensuring we could maintain communication with our guests and keep things ‘ticking over’ as best we could. As a brand, Swire Hotels continuously improvises, is open to new ideas, and spontaneously adapts to different circumstances and changing needs, and the pandemic period has been no different. Continuous creativity and innovation across all areas of the business is key, in addition to our focus on the people of Swire Hotels.”

From the start, Swire Hotels shifted its focus to F&B to attract more local customers. Last year, The Opposite House in Beijing have launched three new dining and bar venues that blends contemporary art with present-day culture. The new additions includes Union, a modern-day salon and bar concept, invites guests to exchange ideas over craft cocktails inspired by the ancient Silk Road, Superfly, the casual Sichuan bar and restaurant features vibrant interiors inspired by local street culture, which is juxtaposed by Frasca, a sleek trattoria serving Italian classics by chef Marino D’Antonio.

“In terms of what’s next, our properties in Chinese mainland and EAST Miami are already experiencing stronger occupancy levels. Of course this is driven by the domestic market, so in the meantime our focus will be on stimulating local demand with attractive packages and unique culinary experiences, while we wait until international borders have reopened. Other key initiatives that’s keeping us busy over at The Upper House in Hong Kong is the renovation of the penthouse and a new dining concept that will be reveal this Spring, which are all exciting news for the year,” he explains. 

Having spent many years working and living in Asia, Winter says that despite COVID-19, the Asian market has changed a lot. “Increasingly, I think adventure, new possibilities, and exclusivity are important for travellers within the Asia region. Additionally, travellers are prioritising spending their time and money on brands who prioritise ‘doing good’. They are more aware of their own impact on the world, and how their habits can impact this. With this in mind, having solid, imaginative partnerships and procedures in place that speak to this is key.”

Still, COVID-19 has played a large part in shaping the future of travel. “Hygiene is becoming travelers’ first consideration. And inevitably there’s a growing trend that people are increasingly seeking private and personalised luxury experiences. Hotels definitely have a role to play in providing these experiences by creating connections to the surroundings in which the guests find themselves. Whether it be with design, service, food or experiences, people want to be surprised, delighted and even intrigued. Moreover, we do see travelers’ increasing needs in wellness program. Among all that we’ve learnt this year, it’s clear that we all want a well-balanced life where we can put well-being first,” says Winter. “Another key to success is to be able to blend digital with humans. The digitisation of the world is irreversible, but people are also social creatures, and thrive with face to face interaction, so creating vibrant, interesting spaces that ignite conversation is key, while at the same time harnessing the benefits of technology. ”

And who will save the hospitality industry? In Secret Retreats’s co-founder Stephane Junca, the recovery of the global tourism industry will start with two types of travellers, which are the high-end travellers looking for seclusion, private travel experiences, exclusive use options or villa stays, and the active/adventure/wellness travellers looking for space, nature, remote properties away from the crowd. “Properties offering very high end and exclusive services on one hand, and small remote properties located in natural and wide-open environment on the other hand will be the ones to recover the fastest. Large hotels, with huge halls , buffets or meeting facilities will probably still suffer for a while. There is a chance also, that guests will require more transparence on sustainable practices advertised by hotels or restaurants, and ask for more certification/verification on origins of products to prioritize local sourcing. This seems to be comforting for us because our credo, for many years, is about conscious travel.

Formed in 2012, Secret Retreats is a curated community of Boutique Hotels, Lodges, Villas and Resorts, Yachts and River Boats located exclusively in Asia. The community aims to unite and support select independent and privately owned boutique properties, yachts and river boats that offer quality hospitality with a strong sense of place while supporting sustainable and responsible tourism to their destinations. Since COVID-19, the situation has been dramatic, but Secret Retreats has implemented several new strategies to keep the business going. “We have developed a Clean Care Pledge, built after researching the enormous variety of recommended practices for hospitality businesses in dealing with coronavirus as recommended by the CDC and WHO, with a list of recommendations for eco-friendly disinfection. We also created new travel products in the form of packaged full service travel itineraries, focusing on outdoor excursions. For example, the new series of countryside walks are available in India, Laos, Indonesia and Thailand. Moreover, we have launched Gift Certificates which target the traveller who, post covid, will be looking to secure good deals but with the flexibility in terms of stay dates which is so needed by travellers in the current climate where travel restrictions can appear overnight preventing flights and so on,” says Junca. 

While aiming to penetrate the domestic markets, Secret Retreats still keeps looking at the big picture. “The gap in behavior between the Asian market and the Western market has narrowed in the last 20 years. With globalization and the rise of a well-traveled generation all over the world, the needs and expectations are more or less the same, at least on the high-end segment. It is probably different for larger chain hotels or lower markets. When guests come to one of our Secret Retreats, they choose to go for a boutique experience, not a main-stream hotel. They expect less facilities but more personal touches and services. Each guest is unique and shall be attended with a unique care. Trust with  the concierge (from Secret Retreats team) and the host (at the property) is key and they expect us to be available and flexible to cater to their needs- which we do. In terms of experience, they understand our philosophy and search for authenticity over opulent luxury, they value more the interaction with local people, communities, culture, gastronomy. They appreciate efforts to reduce waste, source local products, minimize carbon emission or compensation activities (replanting trees, or even seaweed). They appreciate (especially in the current situation) to have full privacy, to be away tourist beaten tracks, to be the happy few to explore certain hidden areas.”

In his point of view, Junca estimates that the industry needs at least 3 years to recover. “Hoping the pandemic will be over, and all restrictions lifted, I believe the reasons that make people travel will still be the same: discover something new, different and learn, open eyes and see things from a different perspective. What may change though is how/where travelers spend their dollars. The current crisis show the importance of tourism, not only for the GDP of a country, but concretely for many people to live decently (directly or indirectly) from travel related activities. So as I mentioned earlier, the trend would for conscious travelers to make sure that the dollars they spend is benefiting local people and communities. They will have the right to ask how a hotel is integrated with local communities, how they redistribute income, generate jobs or trading, also how they protect environment from pollution, preserve local cultures and traditions… I foresee a sense of responsibility growing, so that people can see travel, but they want to be sure they are helping and not destroying. This component will become more and more important for all travel related activities.”

Just like Winter, Junca believe in keeping the balance between technology and human touch. “Technology will continue to help find more information to prepare a trip. Many parts of a trip can be bought online,  but I still believe nothing can replace human contacts and onsite knowledge and experiences. Nothing can be customized by “robots”, so for people looking to have tailor made itineraries, the role of a travel consultant/ travel designer or concierge will remain essential,” he concludes.

Photos: courtesy of Swire Hotels and Secret Retreats

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