Commentary: Lessons on hospitality from a Phuket resort dealing with COVID-19’s impact
Overseas tourism will eventually return after the coronavirus pandemic but hotels will need to drastically change the way they operate, says Anthony Lark.
PHUKET: More than 100 million travel and hospitality jobs will be lost in 2020 due to COVID-19.
The devastating impact this will have on many of those individuals’ families and communities, already reeling from the profound loss of life caused by the coronavirus, cannot be understated.
Here in Phuket — where I moved in 1988 as the opening general manager for Amanpuri, Aman’s first-ever resort — we have seen as many as 60,000 job losses in the hotel sector alone.
It’s a similar story at other tourist destinations around the world.
More than four months have passed with no local infections on Phuket. Yet passenger arrivals have plunged and there are no imminent signs of recovery, despite the country opening up to domestic air travel and guests from Bangkok becoming our “weekend warriors”.
The first country to detect the coronavirus outside China, Thailand deserves high praise for taking decisive actions in late March that successfully stopped the spread of COVID-19.
But by closing the tourist-friendly nation to all non-resident foreigners, the country’s leading resort island now finds itself at an inflexion point.
Local demand simply cannot stem the dramatic losses on Phuket with its 86,000 registered hotel rooms. Nor can it reverse the rapidly escalating financial and social crisis across Thailand, where the World Bank estimates tourism accounts for 15 per cent of GDP.
What I know — from leading Amanpuri through the 1997 Asian financial crisis, then helping create and operate Trisara resort for 20 years through SARS and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami — is that we cannot continue to stand still indefinitely and wait for the magic bullet – a vaccine.
We need to get safely back to business as soon as we can.
MORE ROOMS THAN GUESTS
From the very earliest days at Amanresorts, our founder Adrian Zecha schooled us to engage with every guest as though they were friends in our own homes.
Most often, I would park myself in the open-air thatched-roofed lobby where relaxed conversations allowed my team and me to get to know our guests, and each other.
At its heart, hospitality is a business built on meaningful human connections.
As we emerge from this crisis, creating even more exceptional moments for our guests will be of greater importance than ever, as travellers start to move again.
Our best case scenario is 2021 although with cases flaring up all over Europe, this seems unlikely.
As president of the Phuket Hotels Association, I work with 80 members to prepare for the inevitable return of international arrivals.
After several aborted plans, the Thai government is currently discussing “green bridges” similar to that being used now between Singapore and Hong Kong plus New Zealand and Australia, that may allow entry to foreigners from destinations with little or no COVID-19 infections, such as Singapore, New Zealand and Taiwan, as well as parts of China and Australia.
The reality is that we can do our best but we are guided by something out of our control – infection rates. So while we plan for safe opening, we can start thinking of how to transform our industry to become more compassionate and thoughtful, to adopt a guest-centric approach to policies.
It’s going to be a buyer’s market for years to come, as we already had an oversupply of hotel rooms in many popular tourist destinations. Hoteliers will need to work like never before and get out ahead of guest expectations.
We need to seize this opportunity to restart, rethink and fix a number of longstanding faults in the way we have been doing things.
CUT COOKIE CUTTER MINI-BARS
First, frontline staff need to be empowered to make decisions, such as giving guests reasonable refunds or credit when they complain about an actual mistake.
We all know that irritation as the last impression at check-out, with your flight take-off time looming, as the reception staff disappears to ask an invisible manager about removing an erroneous charge for that Toblerone you didn’t eat.
It is tricky to balance between unreasonable guests and staff empowerment but this is a good time as any to invest in training on how to make such decisions.
Second, overcharging for cookie-cutter minibars is over. Hoteliers can and should customise the minibar prior to or on arrival, adding healthy (and not so healthy, this is a holiday after all) options including authentic, hygienic and plastic-free packaged local treats.
The concept of minibars have not seen any innovation in decades with a reputation for being over-priced. Now is a good time to rethink this. With a little planning, the minibar can be a good-value, local mini-store in your room.
If items are sourced well with reasonable prices, I believe guests would use it more than they do now, creating profit.
Third, no more "nickel and diming" on the hotel bill. Hotels owe it to guests to stop profiting off necessary conveniences like water with breakfast, Internet and hotel laundry.
Hotels and resorts make their money from room sales and I can’t tell you how many guests have told me they would be happy to pay a few extra dollars if the hotel would stop adding annoying little charges for things that in the nature of traditional inn-keeping, would and should be included.
FLEXIBILITY IS KEY
Hotels also need to get better at allocating rooms. There should always be a private space for guests who arrive before 2pm and if hotels are not 100 per cent full, guests should be able to leave after midday without being slapped with a half-day charge.
Let’s also say goodbye to standard policy lines of charging 50 per cent or even 100 per cent room charges for late check-outs unless the hotel is actually fully booked, which guests understand.
However, when a hotel is running at 50 per cent and there are vacant rooms we should make a few friends and be generous with letting guests in early or to stay a little longer to catch that late flight.
The positive publicity and word-of-mouth could be invaluable and may mean the difference between a guest returning, which is the desired outcome of any stay.
And finally, breakfast should be included, full stop, and let breakfast finish late.
Since there is nothing more luxurious than a long, relaxed breakfast on a holiday, guests should not have to rush down to their first meal of the day simply because the chef wants to start prepping for lunch at 10am.
In addition to what attracts guests, hoteliers can and must protect the planet too. Drinking water should be in glass bottles, plentiful and complimentary.
There must be a unilateral end to plastic shampoo bottles and laundered garments shrouded in cling plastic have to go.
In Phuket, we challenged our member hotels to remove plastic water bottles in 2018, which resulted in a reduction of six million plastic bottles from our landfills.
Our industry’s humble beginnings offer valuable lessons for any hotel’s future success.
What was standard practice for a medieval innkeeper should guide the 21st-century hotelier: Take care of your guests’ needs, buy local, support local communities, engage with and protect the local environment.
We look forward to a time, hopefully soon, when you can check in.
Anthony Lark is the founding President of The Phuket Hotels Association. He spent 32 years in development and management of Southeast Asia’s luxury resorts and hotels and now runs a luxury hospitality company.