As domestic travel gradually resumes in the APAC region, Director of International Sales for Swire Hotels, Chrissie Lincoln talks to us about the nuances of her market, and reflects on how APAC hotels can adapt to a new normal post Covid-19.
How do you think hotels in APAC have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic? Any thoughts on the lessons learned?
Hotels in APAC (particularly within Hong Kong and China that I know well, as so many of our hotels are located here) have responded more swiftly than most. From initial closures in the early stages to heightened sanitisation protocols for re-opening, the experience gained from living through previous outbreaks, such as SARS has been key to informing the region’s crisis response now. That said, a key learning has definitely been around adapting to an as yet uncertain timeline for the resumption of international travel, and adjusting to that. But we also see that as an opportunity to reach new customers in more local markets.
For most hotels the focus has been on survival; preserving cash, and retaining staff where possible etc. As travel starts to resume what strategies should hotels in the region be adopting in the current climate?
It has to come down to people. Our people are our biggest asset and retaining them and ensuring staff are safe and well is a key focus. While occupancy has been low, we have used this time to retrain, implement new systems and renovate. Training during this period has been very important, and regular updates with all team members regarding the various new protocols we’re putting in place have been paramount so that the guest experience is immediately one of safety, and confidence in that safety, as well as one of high comfort and the same levels of personalised service our guests are accustomed to.
What is different about the hotel industry / market in APAC, compared with Europe and the USA for example?
As mentioned, in the context of this outbreak, Asian hotels have been better placed to adapt existing guidelines, policies and procedures to address the specific risk mitigation requirements of this new outbreak in a quick and efficient manner, probably more so than those on other continents.
Furthermore, as practices such as the wearing of masks is second nature in our cities, especially if someone is feeling unwell, it is not something that our domestic visitors struggle to understand. So, for us the response and change has been more focused on adapting our existing playbook to where we are today – such as communication through social media which wasn’t so prominent in previous years - rather than affecting behavioural change.
The pandemic has shown that when needed organisations can take certain decisions and implement them quickly. What do you think this means for hotels in terms of the future application and role of technology?
The rise in the use of technology has been indisputable. Before the pandemic, guests were already increasingly using smartphones for things like payments, reading menus and checking in. However, with high levels of hygiene now a necessity, the use of technology through this aspect of the guest experience has accelerated. Beyond this base, but important, element, is the overall move towards a more contactless approach. Amid these factors, guests will have choices – including to go where service isn’t perhaps as compromised due to the virus, or a move to contactless. In our case, we’re committed that just because some of our processes and offerings have transitioned to technology (which of course can also include a number of premium in-room features), it does not mean the service ethic and soul behind the brand is compromised.
More generally though, I believe that there is an overall reputation for digital innovation that is associated with the APAC region, and our hotels frequently appear on lists of the most technologically advanced hotels in the world – including our very own The Upper House Hong Kong – one of our flagship properties that seamlessly fuses technology and human hospitality. As such we know that we need to bring the right tech, to the right property and guest at the right time to set ourselves apart, and to continue to surprise and delight our guests.
With international travel subject to restrictions for an indefinite period what should hotels do to optimise domestic travel. How may their marketing and distribution need to adapt?
As China began to recover from the pandemic prior to the rest of the world, we saw domestic business become the key market for our four China hotels. Whilst this has always been a strong market for us, we have seen additional business come from operators who were traditionally focused on outbound travel, but have had to re-align their business to include a focus on domestic travel. As a hotel group however, we’re always looking at new ways to bring the distinct values of our core brands, The House Collective (each a sophisticated, singular piece of design, reflecting the unique qualities of its surroundings), and East (lifestyle hotels that perfectly cater to both personal life and work balance) to likeminded guests.
What is the key to creating a great customer experience? How might this evolve post- COVID?
Our guest experience has always been focused on being highly personalised, unscripted and genuine. Post covid, this obviously continues, with a further understanding that guests need to feel safe and reassured that the hotel is doing everything to protect them in their ‘home away from home’. The key is getting this message across in a subtle way so as not to overly publicise hygiene standards and cleaning rituals, for instance, which should be a given in a luxury property.
What role does data have in the industry’s recovery? How can data be optimised to benefit both hotel and guest?
We have actually used this downtime to implement new CRM systems across Sales, Catering and Marketing. Leveraging data across these touchpoints to nuance and tailor outreach to our guests – both inside and outside of their stay with us – is essential now more than ever. For instance, we don’t want to be sending a promotion on our China hotels to our Australian guests, whilst Australian borders are closed!
Anything else that the crisis has taught you, or that will shape Swire’s strategy moving forward?
Anybody who knows Swire Hotels will appreciate that our approach is far from formulaic. The pandemic has only increased our capacity and appetite for innovating and improvising, something which will continue for many years to come. With this in mind, building and maintaining a strong team is vital as our people have always been a key asset to our brand.