Hotels Surviving and Thriving in the COVID-19 Crisis
By Joyce Gioia CEO, Employer of Choice International, Inc. | March 22, 2020
Last weekend, which seems like a month ago now, I was in the Renaissance Hotel in Northbrook, Illinois. This property is a business hotel in one of Chicago's northern suburbs about 25 minutes from O'Hare Airport. One of the employees shared in confidence that 80 percent of their reservations for the coming weeks and months had recently cancelled. That startling statistic caused me to begin brainstorming.
What could hoteliers do to offset in any way the serious downturn in business that many will face? And what else makes sense for them to do to even capitalize on this? This article brings ideas from around the world---some that were even used during the SARS crisis in Asia. These ideas are win-win-win.
Marketing to Locals
1. Pajama Parties
While I was in Chicago, I went to lunch in a local Glencoe iconic hotspot. Hometown is a bistro-like cafe that offers a wide variety of smoothies, salads, coffees, and even burgers. The restaurant was virtually packed with young women who had been sent home from their colleges and universities. With thousands of young adults who are home from their schools, these young people miss opportunities to socialize with their friends. Promote pajama parties to these students with a maximum of nine people in two or three rooms. You could even take the idea a step further and offer popcorn, movies, and breakfast.
2. Family Staycations
Last year 10 million US families spent an average of almost $2000 spring break vacations. This year, both parents and their children will apparently be forced to stay home. For local families who will miss their spring break and summer trips, staycations are an obvious answer. Market to these local families, including information about local parks and other outdoor locations they may visit. Ask your housekeeping staff looking for additional income to babysit. Consider including discounted or free movies. With a package that includes adjoining rooms, you will be helping families to have the recommended social distance between family members.
3. Monthly Meetings Need Not Be Cancelled
Local organizations often rely on local hotels and restaurants for their monthly meeting venues. If you have contracts with these kinds of local organizations, contact your client groups that meet at your property regularly. Suggest they meet online. Offer plated, to-go meals that folks may pick up or have delivered. You can even facilitate their online meetings by offering the online platform. Their members can break bread together, even if they are sheltering in place.
4. Keep Your Restaurant Open
Unless prohibited by local mandate, offer to allow people to eat in and advertise that you will provide enough space that they may socially distance from others and still enjoy a delicious meal out in your restaurant. This crisis is the time to take advantage of your email list of regular restaurant patrons who love your food and eat there regularly. You might even choose to give restaurant guests small bottles of hand sanitizer. Moreover, place large bottles in strategic locations around the restaurant.
5. Meal Plans
This strategy is my favorite: while I was in Chicago, I came across a restaurant called Amitabul, a highly rated Korean vegan restaurant. Amitabul is a Hindi word that means "the awakening." The food was fantastic, but the most interesting aspect of dining there was something I found on their menu. This unassuming neighborhood restaurant offers something they call their "Monday Meal Program." Their monthly program features up to seven meals per week. The premium seven-day/four-week plan costs only $350 for 28 meals. And with their extensive menu, diners will never be bored by the offerings. It's enough to make me wish I lived in Chicago. Many hotel restaurants could do their own versions of Amitabul's meal program.
6. Sell Gift Cards
Many restaurant and hotel properties are selling gift cards good for use once they are able to come back to the restaurant. Selling these cards can help you through this cash-flow crunch. You might want to give away a weekend (or a mid-week) night as a premium with the purchase of a $100 or $200 restaurant card. Be sure to include blackout dates so that people will not try to use them at your busiest times.
Taking Care of Employees in this Crisis
1. Find Out When Employees Would Like to Work
During the SARS crisis in 2003, the General Manager of the Copthorne Kings Hotel in Singapore had an out-of-the-box idea. This caring GM asked his employees how much they actually wanted to work? To his surprise and delight, many of his employees wanted to work only part-time. Thus he was able to layoff fewer employees. That small tactic helped this general manager to get through that business contraction with less pain and affect to his bottom line.
2. Ask Employees for their Help
As we have mentioned so many times in the past, your front-line employees understand how the best ways to reduce costs and be more efficient in their jobs. Do not overlook the tremendous resource they can provide to your property. Ask them for their best ideas, either in one-on-one meetings or in department meetings. Then, be sure to implement them---or let people know why you are not.
3. Use this Opportunity to Upskill Your Employees
This business slowdown could be your golden opportunity to give your employees the training they want and need---without taking them out of the schedule when they are desperately needed. Wise hoteliers will take advantage of this opportunity, knowing that when business turns around, their properties will have high occupancy rates again. And when you are considering what kinds of training will be most helpful, think about whether having employees learn other languages (including English for your ESL housekeepers) and what kinds of cross training your employees could use. As we move into the future and business heats up, you will be very glad you took this opportunity. Your employees will feel greater loyalty and have the training they need to be even more valuable to you.
4. Schedule Movie Nights for your Employees' Children
While taking the proper precautions, including arranging the chairs to include social distancing, consider scheduling a movie night for families with children. Serve pizza or chicken tenders or other kid-friendly foods.
5. Help Your Employees to Make Ends Meet
Look for other small jobs you can give to your frontline people to help them survive. Remember, for furloughed employees, every little bit helps, including babysitting and even the opportunity to do odd jobs like food shopping or meal delivery.
6. Set Up Childcare Onsite
For your employees whose kids are home from school, without affordable childcare, they will not be able to come to work. Take one of your empty meeting rooms---hopefully one with natural light. Ask your local school system for assistance and go to your local Goodwill or Volunteers of America store to acquire the books and toys you will need to give the children appropriate activities. To staff this new function, let your housekeepers take turns staffing it. For the older students, consider letting the high school students be interns when they are not doing homework. You may discover they can be excellent employees---and you might predispose them to consider a career in hospitality.
Recently, HotelExecutive and other publications have been running lots of articles about the critical labor shortages in the hospitality industry. These articles are not exaggerations; hoteliers worldwide are struggling to hire and retain qualified employees. Be very careful about letting your staff go. Weeks from now when you need them back---urgently---because travel will have heated up again---they may not be available.
Another thought for taking advantage of low occupancy: With high occupancy rates that many hoteliers had experienced, some hospitality professionals have been postponing repairs and redecoration. if you are one of those general managers who has been putting off a renovation project, now is the time to get those improvements done.
We Have Been Here Before. . .
A futurist, I study wildcards and black swans. These events are natural or man-made events that seem to appear from nowhere and once they are here, nothing is ever exactly the same. This COVID-19 Crisis is such an event. We have been before: after September 11th, 2001, after SARS and MERS, and the Great Recession. With our resilience as a planet, we lived through these challenging times to thrive and enjoy a burgeoning industry and we will again.
For now, we just need to hunker down for the duration, do what we can to maintain equilibrium, and have faith that our industry will come back.
With the COVID-19 Crisis situation changing almost daily, we offer these suggestions might work for you. Please consult your local health authorities for the appropriateness of ideas for your area before implementation.
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