By Chibuikem Diala
At the twilight of 2019, no one, predicted the global lockdown that has greatly affected the hotel and tourism industry. UNWTO reported that international tourists’ arrival grew by 4 % in 2019 to reach 1.5 billion and forecasts another 3% to 4% in 2020. With 2.4 million arrivals into Nigeria and many travelers moving within cities, countries and across continents, no one imagined the almost 360 degrees turn of events.
All of a sudden, no one seems to care about REVPAR, CPOR, ARR or TREVPAR. No one is complaining about the quality of service; neither is the menu for the day a thing to worry about. The banter that happens daily at the back of the house have become memories. The highlife, soul music, karokee and bespoke performances that inspire infectious laughter have gradually disappeared into thin air. Romantic sights between lovebirds no more color aisles. Now, the health and safety of the customers and that of employees have become a growing concern like never before. Every other thing appears to have “passed away”.
Really, by the time this siege is over, many hotels would have disappeared into thin air – turned into hostels – or hospitals. Many preferred guests won’t be returning back to the comfort of the hotels they used to stay. Regrettably, some may have died of the corona virus, while others may have made up their minds not to visit for fear of contracting the virus. Of course, a lot more would have rescheduled their movements, meetings and conferences to a safer option of using technology- until such a time that safety is fully assured.
That is the huge reality in the global hotel industry.
Locally in Nigeria, the sad story of the impact of Covid 19 on patronage, revenue, and employment is better imagined than described. For a sector that was already experiencing serious difficulty, the Covid 19 pandemic followed by the national lock downs and the interstate limitations as well as cessation of local flights seem to be the final death knell. Almost immediately leading to salary cuts by ‘lenient’ owners; in some extreme cases, most staffs have been sent home without pay and without any assurance of returning back to their desks after the lock down.
This is the tragedy of 2020- The Year of The Covid 19.
However, Covid 19 presents an upside that may turn out to be a blessing for the sector in Nigeria and indeed in Africa. One may ask, what was the Pre-Covid 19 State of Hospitality in Nigeria? What was the health condition of hotels, restaurants, lounges and bars? What was the state of tourism infrastructure in the country before the final arrival of Covid 19? It is pertinent to draw answers from the portmanteau of ideas that flood to your mind as you try to digest these questions. In my candid opinion, a lifeline assessment of the sector shows that the industry was not as healthy (Financially, Service, Management. etc) as often imagined. In one of my articles earlier in the year, while talking about hygiene and safety, I described hotels as accommodating more rats in the back of the house than guest in the front of the house.
Pre-Covid 19, we experienced the proliferation of hotels in majority of neighborhoods across the country and without any form of coordinated standards or regulations. The NTDC, Ministry of Information and Culture, Ministries of Tourism; Tourism Boards in the states and relevant agencies of government failed woefully in this regard.
Expectedly, low service standards, unprofessional management, no staff training; poor maintenance, abuse of employees, unhealthy competition, loss of revenue, absence of authentic leadership, etc became the order of the day.
Permit me to mention that despite the increasing number of hotels and employments, the quality of life of most employees didn’t change given that stipends were being handed out as salaries. Simply speaking, the jobs offered no future and no pension plans. One then should be worried that a hotel that could not sustain 1-month salary in a Covid 19 situation will most likely not have the capacity to offer its employees a healthy and reliable future.
On the other hand, Pre- Covid 19 saw many hotels that kept high standards, professional management, uncommon brand differentiation, dedication to ethics and values of the business with top notch commitment to employees’ welfare, and maintenance – in turn they saw their revenues grow and in most cases outgrew their thresholds. In truth, the Pre-Covid 19 hotels witnessed some reasonable level of boom, especially as travel became more of lifestyle in Africa.
Pre-Covid 19 witnessed a hotel regime that was undifferentiated. You simply couldn’t differentiate between the hotel next door- not in quality of service and spirit of excellence. Maybe the difference is in the name of the hotel, the aesthetics of the reception, and the quality of beds. Most of the hotels lack defined vision, purpose, and goal. Neither the General Managers, nor the staff have a clear understanding of what the business is all about, so does most of the owners. They don’t know and they don’t care. All that matters are patronage and revenue.
Pre-Covid 19 witnessed many hotels that were very unhygienic with terrible hygiene protocols, shabby housekeeping and absence of detailed cleaning of rooms and high touch areas. Countless times, I have checked into a room with beddings stained with semen. On one occasion, after, requesting for a replacement of the sheets, I still found similar stains on the replaced bedding; I simply gave up. In trying to save ‘revenue’ hotel rooms and environments are cleaned without chemicals, toilets not properly washed – dirt staring at you like Oliver Twist; surfaces are not sanitized and staff improperly trained and groomed.
However, this challenges presents huge opportunities in the post-Covid 19 dispensation. The ‘Upside’ of Covid 19 on hotels is the emergence of a new generation of guests who care a lot about their health, safety and the hygiene focused outlook of the hotels they want to stay in. Covid 19 has raised the bar on hygiene across the globe and only hotels with the right kind of leadership, passion and grit will survive. Ego investors, unscrupulous managers, toxic staff will no more have a place in the emerging ‘Post Covid 19’ hotel. Because the jobs will be fewer, only the detailed will find a place in a decent hotel.
Secondly, another upside of Covid 19 is standardization and regulations by relevant agencies. It will no more be business as usual as governments will begin to tighten their noose by developing guidelines and ensuring enforcements of same. Only an irresponsible government will sit down and do nothing to ensure that its people, community, visitors are safe in a ‘viralized’ society.
Thirdly, training and workforce development will become a major attribute of Post Covid 19 hotels. There is no doubt that constant training, updates of SOPs, and proper supervision will play a key role in the emerging hotels. Our organization IHTEF is helping hotels in this area with short courses and insights. This will help raise the service standards available, increase guest’s confidence and raise maximum revenue for the owners. This will also heighten the trust between employees and the owners leading to better welfare, insurance and a secured future.
Fourthly, new designs/re-designs of facilities with experiential technologies to meet with current realities will become a new normal. For instance, new elevators (lift) that disinfects the lift at intervals will likely be in the market soon. Also, we may begin to witness the redesign of receptions, rooms, conveniences, etc to improve access and reduce the number of touch areas. Artificial Intelligence, virtual check- ins, keyless entry, robots will definitely make a quicker entry. These, will definitely come with high costs and only the passionate, the forward thinking, and the determined will play in the pool. In addition, unscrupulous investors who appear on the scene as hoteliers will be a thing of the past as stringent conditions will be in place that may make it difficult for them to continue with their ‘interest’ in the industry.
The coming Post-Covid 19 dispensation for hotels will be challenging as well as interesting and offers a great deal of opportunity at personal development, design ideas, service excellence and uncharted marketing approaches. While the hotels are still locked-up, it’s time for management to begin to rethink their strategies, learn fresh ideas, engage professionals and reach out to innovative minds to help them create a blue print that fits into the future. There is hope.
Chibuikem Diala, is the CEO of Sustainable Eco6tem, and the ED, International Hospitality, Tourism & Eco-Sustainability Forum (IHTEF). He is a Hospitality Consultant With New Design Thinking Mindset For The Hospitality Industry.