We are in unchartered times. Few if any have experienced the fear and threat of a pandemic – at least in modern society – and no business has experienced such a widespread, global shutdown before. It’s one thing when a supply chain struggles or there’s a recession; quite another when you literally have no idea what the next day will bring and we really are in an unprecedented era.
So here’s my take on the situation now, and what happens next. Many of the hotel managers I speak to nowadays were not managing hotels at the time of the most similar disaster – foot & mouth disease – which struck down livestock, but which also brought almost the entire tourism & hospitality industry in the UK to a standstill.
Those were dark times indeed, when overnight the UK sector saw almost 100% cancellations and we were left in limbo. Of course, in real terms, the two are poles apart – one was geographically isolated, the other widespread; one was animal, the other human; one was industry specific, the other across the board. Yet I also firmly believe that there are lessons we can learn from what has gone before.
At the time, foot and mouth was one of the worst incidents the sector had ever seen, made worse by the fact that the government only recognised it initially as an agricultural impact, not a tourism one. Covid-19 puts it to shame, but I still firmly believe that there are lessons to be learned.
Lessons learned from foot and mouth disease
Let’s imagine for a moment that the government bail-outs have done what they need to and we’re emerging from the shadow of Covid-19 with an impacted but still operating business; what then? Well based on what has been before, I believe that we need to:
- Globally publicise that we are open for business. As well as showcasing our own businesses, Visit England and Visit Britain need to rise to the occasion with all our support, to kick-start the focus on the UK as a great destination to visit. After foot & mouth, we were slow off the mark to attract visitors and it took a long time for tourism to return to ‘normal’ in the UK – at least two years in fact. We can’t afford for that to happen, so you should be planning how and why you are going to promote your business to potential visitors.
- Capitalise on new trends. The global pandemic will serve as a reminder that there is a risk to international travel – both in terms of unknown disease, and in terms of loss of money / holiday bookings through cancellations. After foot & mouth, it took a long time for reputations to rebuild and we were very slow to capitalise as an industry on the changes in customer behaviours. With COVID-19, I predict that there will be four major trends that businesses need to be ready for:
- Booking local – I think for a year at least the pandemic will prompt people to look local with their travel and focus on the UK and Europe. Businesses will be well-advised to tailor their offerings for a local marketplace including short-breaks, arrival by car and public transport and the ‘self-isolation’ or perhaps more aptly self-reliant staycation experience.
- Booking last-minute – just as it was with foot & mouth, the unpredictability around travel will serve to make people risk-averse and they will see advance booking as an unnecessary risk. This means booking much closer to the date of travel and being more cautious about where they book and when. Businesses should be considering the balance between last-minute bookings and last-minute deals – so you don’t end up undermining your own proposition – as well as ways to add value for those booking direct.
- Booking independent – if there’s one thing that is trending on social media at the moment, it is a reminder to shop and visit independent businesses rather than chains. People are being reminded that small businesses employ ‘real people’ and that every pound spent makes a big difference directly. I imagine that the next 6-12 months at least will maintain this focus, so now is the time to update websites, remind people that you’re not a big chain and perhaps feature the people behind the brand to inspire future bookings.
- Sustainability – people are already heralding the silver lining of COVID-19; a sharp and unprecedented drop in pollution and emissions to make a much healthier outdoor space. Reinforcing the trend to ‘book local’ and travel closer to home, people will also be seeking to improve their carbon footprint. They’ve realised they can live without impact and there’s a laser focus on what ‘staying in’ can really do, so prep yourself now to get ready for the influx. I’d recommend paying the incredibly affordable fee to get a Quality in Tourism REST assessment which independently grades your business on its sustainability and offers advice on how to improve. See www.restourism.com for more.
- Marketing matters – an apt point given the title of my column – but it really does. Marketing & communications are usually the first thing to go and the last thing to come back, because it is an ‘easy’ and obvious cost saving from the budget. I appreciate, no one is budgeting at all at the moment and for the near future, this is an entirely moot point, but my advice is to re-establish a marketing budget as quickly as possible. Your business cannot be successful without customers and you cannot get customers without marketing in some form, so make it your first choice, not your last.During foot & mouth, most businesses opted not to market, but this passive approach to promotion means your business is not ready to capitalise on either the trade that is there or the new trade when it returns. If you’re really struggling, use this as an opportunity to see how you can do it differently and more cost-effectively. Outsourcing to an agency can lower the overhead in the short-term; joining organisations that can help market you e.g. your local DMO can help; and reducing previous budgets to get started, but not removing them completely is a possible compromise.
- Trust that it will get better, but adapt if you must. Unlike foot & mouth where the grants and financial support were extremely limited and came significantly too late, the government support, albeit limited as it is, will hopefully get us all through the worst of it until trading can return to normal. What you cannot lose faith in is that the business will return and it will grow in momentum, but it may not be exactly as you expect. My advice is to prepare now – use the time to come up with new strategies and consider how you can adapt. I remember one case of a fine dining establishment locally that lost all its trade back then. The market wasn’t there for a fine dining experience straight off, so they added a bistro experience in one part of the dining room and used that to keep the business afloat. It worked and their adaptation was key!
So what should businesses be doing now?
It’s not possible to ‘trade’ when you have an order to lockdown, but the sector can and should learn from other sectors and consider who and how employees can work from home. It’s perhaps not what any of us want or need right now, but I feel we must take advantage of the situation however we can. If I was still running a hotel, I would be:
- Updating processes and doing virtual training. You have a captive audience in your team who aren’t ‘too busy’ doing something else, so how can you take advantage of the time to bring them up to date? Brainstorm ideas, conduct online training, update process manuals and make sure your staff are upskilling and keeping in touch with the business. You can then reap the rewards when you reopen.
- Planning strategically. You have no choice but to plan ahead and although the predictions might be out of whack and your budgets might not be as big, you have little choice but to return to ‘business as usual’ as quickly as possible. They say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, but I prefer to think of it as prosperity.
- Inspiring people to travel – virtually that is. They might not be able to travel now, but they can save that inspiration for some what’s to come and change the way you use your social media so that people aspire to visit, when they can that is!
- Being fair and humane. We’re all taking it one day at a time as guidelines change overnight and businesses adjust, but the feeling of panic is no reason to behave anything but ethically. I often witter on about the way that you say things being important, but it really is. You only have to look at how badly Britannia Hotels has looked after its staff to recognise this situation being handled badly. It’s worth remembering that people have long memories, and so does the internet. Behaving badly or in any way that is perceived unfair will not just impact your reputation now, but also your ability to bounce back when we’re out of it, so be careful what you say and do, and if you do have to do something difficult, do it as fairly and favourably as possible. The same applies to cancellations – I know it is hard to part with the cash you’ve already been paid and it is your prerogative not to do so, but being a bit flexible is the best way to gain a customer for life. Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a real split in approach, with those offering free cancellations and postponements getting high praise, while those who refuse to refund are being slated. Yes, there is a financial implication, but surely there has to be a compromise, particularly if you want these guests to be your guests of the future.
So what should businesses be doing as we recover?
Aside from building on the plans you are making now, the most important thing of all is to be agile. I can’t say for certain what will happen, nor can I promise that things will return to the way they were before, but I am certain positive things will happen and it’s up to us to take advantage of them. Be prepared to deviate from what you’ve done before, adapting to the needs of your future customers; be prepared to change your proposition or at least adjust it in the short term; and be prepared to do things you’ve not done before, if that’s what the world demands of you.
All that remains is for me to say good luck, and if I can help in any way at all, please contact me on 01242 250692 or firstname.lastname@example.org, even if you just need me to be your sounding board! We’re all in this together.
By Deborah Heather.