HotelPlanner CEO: How hospitality players can maintain competitiveness in 2021, Southeast Asia may set pace

13, Jan. 2021

CEO Tim Hentschel of HotelPlanner.com and Meetings.com believes Southeast Asia is poised to set the pace for the recovery of global hospitality industry. (Photo coutresy of HotelPlanner)
CEO Tim Hentschel of HotelPlanner.com and Meetings.com believes Southeast Asia is poised to set the pace for the recovery of global hospitality industry. (Photo coutresy of HotelPlanner)

By Celine Chen

SINGAPORE, NNA - The nasty arrival of COVID-19 pandemic has led to the collapse in travel worldwide, devastating every category of the hospitality industry in 2020.

However, with the imminent roll-outs of vaccination programs across the world, the travel market is poised for a rebound after months of agonizing times. But how can players such as hotels fill their rooms to pre-COVID levels?

NNA approached industry leader Tim Hentschel, who has extensive experience in the hospitality and MICE industry, to share with readers the crucial strategies that they should adopt to bring back guests and keep their business running successfully.

He is CEO of HotelPlanner.com, a leading online group bookings platform. Hentschel is also CEO of Meetings.com, the premier site for information on meeting and banquet venues around the world.

Hentschel should know about weathering major crises as he has steered his 18-year-old HotelPlanner through the global aftermath of September 11 attacks in 2001, SARS epidemic of 2002-2003 and other upheavals in its time.

Here's Hentschel's take on how the hospitality industry could mend and shape itself as it re-emerges in 2021:

Just before we entered 2021, the hospital industry would have already embarked on its annual ritual of predicting trends, setting goals and adjusting business strategies for the changing demands of the year ahead.

However, the new year is set to be different. If 2020 proved anything, it is that flexibility and an ability to adapt quickly are crucial to keeping businesses afloat.

As the world slowly emerges from the effects of COVID-19, and the vaccines gradually ease restrictions of movement across global borders, we expect travel to enter a phase of recovery. That said, expectations have to be managed, and an understanding of how different travel will look in 2021 is most important.

While nobody has concrete answers as to how the industry will look in the future, we have to try to make predictions based on trends and breaking news. Here are some things to expect in the Southeast Asia hospitality industry in the coming months, and what businesses and brands can do to prepare.

1. Identify trends, manage expectations, and acknowledge a new normal

In the group travel market alone, year-on-year demand has dropped globally by a whopping 80 percent. This dramatic downward trend is expected to carry into 2021, with a similar trajectory continuing through Q1 at the very least.

As vaccinations are gradually implemented worldwide, there is hope that this might help demand to bounce back. If recovery happens as expected – with nothing thwarting the successful progress of the vaccines – it is predicted that leisure group travel might return to 2019 levels of demand towards the end of the year. Events such as weddings, sports teams travel, and family vacations will be the first to aid the recovery.

In the case of individual travel, a rebound of 5 percent is observed monthly. This is being driven by domestic travel as frequent vacation-goers are forced to travel within their own country due to border restrictions. That said, individual travel has not been spared a year-on-year fall in demand of approximately 30 percent. Optimistically, the current rate of recovery should last till the summer of 2021.

2. Future of the industry

In Asia, 2021 holds many surprises and a lot of potential despite the ever-changing tides. Singapore is set to host the World Economic Forum 2021 in May, while Japan hopes to resume the Tokyo Olympics in July-August.

Any recovery in the travel industry will be led by the airlines, which have forecast a return to normal in Summer 2021. However, it is bound to be uneven as some countries prove more adept than others at handling the pandemic and controlling its spread.

If the situation remains stable, Southeast Asia is poised for a smooth road to recovery. As mentioned earlier, the upcoming World Economic Forum (WEF) is moving outside its usual home of Davos, Switzerland, to take place in Singapore. And that in itself will bring many international travellers back to this region.

Once the WEF proves a success, travellers worldwide will gain more confidence that brands within Southeast Asia can cope well with the new normal. In addition, the event might encourage similar MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) activities to be held in the region, resulting in a further boost in recovery.

3. How brands can cope with the new normal

Given all the statistics and predictions, brands should be prepared to welcome a return in demand, however slight. To ensure that they do not fall short when a surge in demand approaches, they will have to employ certain strategies and measures to not only cope, but thrive from the uptick.

Firstly, it is important to expect last-minute domestic travel. As more travellers turn to domestic tourism for a safer and easier option, the habits of consumers change. Long gone are the days when a vacation requires weeks of planning. Instead, domestic travellers are inclined toward the flexibility of last-minute trips, and hotels will have to be able to cater to that.

In addition, to prepare for a return to normalcy, brands should take this opportunity of a lull in demand to work on developing their business: consider expanding via partnerships, strategic mergers and acquisitions, as well as hiring to bring in new talent or making forays into new lines of business.

A slow recovery should be expected in the beginning, which slowly picks up as vaccines get distributed. Only once the vast majority of people have received the vaccination worldwide will we see pent-up demand exploding. When it happens, room occupancy levels are predicted to peak in the high 90s.

4. Tips and advice for brands

The trend over the winter travel season is staycations. These help people avoid quarantines and provide regular vacations while border restrictions remain in place. Brands should start marketing international travel from the start of Q2 in 2021 in order to be ready for the lifting of quarantines and the return of cross-border vacations.

Meanwhile, hotels with large-event spaces can get creative. For example, by bringing in high-quality, audio-visual equipment to host hybrid events - socially-distanced large events that can also be attended by people online. Venues can install temporary walls in convention halls, dividing up a large space into a series of smaller rooms hosting low numbers of people in each.

Lastly, keep your brand constantly in front of your customer, continually innovate and adapt to changes. This way, you can capture the business you need.