Top Leisure Travel Execs Weigh in on Reopening Resorts

Though tourism and hospitality have been essentially on hold since March, many hotels, resorts, attractions and destinations are finally entering their first reopening phases as lockdowns ease and elements of normal life resume. Still, there’s no denying that the resumption of business and the guest experience is going to look somewhat different than it did before the pandemic struck.

To really offer a sense of how things are progressing in the travel sector post-COVID-19, hospitality titan Apple Leisure Group Vacations (ALGV) hosted a virtual conference, which brought together executives representing some of the world’s leading leisure brands to share their firsthand experiences and share some strategies for navigating within an unprecedented consumer landscape.

“These resort companies are investing a tremendous amount of money and limiting the revenue that they’re taking in just to make sure that we’re safe and just to make sure that we’re doing this the right way,” Ray Snisky, Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer, ALGV, affirmed. “I think that’s one of the things we’re seeing from customers very quickly is, it’s not the same focus of finding the greatest deal, it’s finding someplace with a trusted brand that I know is going to put my health and safety first. And so, more and more, all of us are teaming up to do that.”

Despite extensive, new health and safety protocols that are being implemented by each brand when reopening their properties, which many may have thought would be offputting, the initial consumer feedback seems to have been overwhelmingly positive.

For instance, this past week, Universal Orlando Resort reopened six hotels and all of its theme parks, at limited capacities and with modified regulations. Eric Marshall, Senior Vice President Park Sales, Universal Orlando Resorts, enthused: “It was so exciting to see people enjoying our hotels and our parks again, to feel the excitement, to get the feedback we got in terms of what we put in place in terms of spacing and sanitization and screening.”

He continued, “And, one thing that I didn’t fully expect, which was really exciting, was that our team members were so excited to serve guests again and it really did wonders for the energy in our first week.” The phenomenal service and enthusiasm seen coming from employees upon hospitality properties’ reopening turned out to be common theme reported among members of ALGV’s Executive Supplier Panel, which included representatives from AIC Hotel Group, AMResorts, Blue Diamond Resorts, Iberostar, Marriott, MGM Resorts, RIU and Universal Orlando Resort.

Ash Tembe, Vice President North American Sales, AIC Hotel Group, said of the first wave of reopenings: “Our staff was so excited to have people come to the hotel and they’re giving them unbelievable service, and just so appreciative to all the guests that are coming in…it’s what they do for a living, so they’re really showing that love.” Armin Kaestner, Vice President of Sales, Contracting and Business Development, RIU Hotels & Resorts, reported similar scenes from hotel reopenings, with employees applauding as clients arrived.

Guest Experience:

Despite the new social distancing and hygiene measures that have gone into effect, the first guests arriving at these hotels and resorts seem to be loving the atmosphere, largely because of the capacity restrictions. “It’s almost like they have the run of the hotel, they’re treated like kings and queens because of the smaller number of people there,” Snisky remarked.

RIU’s Kaestner reflected that, in contrast to pre-pandemic expectations, “We’d be happy to get 20- to 30-percent occupancies in the coming weeks. Imagine how those guests are getting treated!” AIC’s Tembe also echoed the observation, “They’ve just really been getting the pampering they’ve been waiting for all this time.”

As brands continue to move forward with their strategies, in order to really revive the tourism industry collectively, “The reality is that we have to strike a balance between safety and maintaining the freedom to have the full vacation that they had previously,” Snisky said.

Present Demand:

With a global presence, Marriott has been among the first brands to reopen its hotels after shutting down a large percentage of properties when the pandemic hit. Marian McLain, Vice President Global Sales – Intermediary Retail Leisure, Marriott International, said that just over 1,400 of the brand’s properties remain shuttered, 760 of those being in the Americas. Yet, that represents only thirteen percent of inventory in the Americas, which is an improvement over March and April.

In fact, McLain said, Marriott hotels are already starting to see occupancy rates as high as 80 to 85 percent in some areas. So, it appears, summer vacations simply will not be stopped, especially if the industry can continue to instill confidence in its consumers.

MGM Resorts, which was among the first brands to reopen its properties in Las Vegas, beginning June 4, and now plans to open a few more ahead of schedule due to increased demand, also reported that its first week exceeded expectations. Demand during the first weekend came largely from locals, who were excited again enjoy the Strip, and drive-in visitors, particularly from neighboring California.

Lee Ann Benevidaz, Vice President Distribution Partnerships & Transient Sales Strategy, MGM Resorts International, attributed much of this success to the company’s incredibly thoughtful approach to its reopenings, tempering its occupancies at 30 percent and adhering to Nevada state guidelines of 50 percent maximum occupancy in all public spaces, including restaurants, pools, casino floors, lobbies, etc.

Customer Expectations:

While some guests appreciate the new protocols and take comfort in the promise of protection that they offer, there are others who would prefer to proceed as though nothing had changed since the pre-pandemic era. The key to providing positive experiences on property, executives agreed, is to educate clients ahead of time and help them to form appropriate expectations so that they’ll know what they’re walking into.

This is an area where travel advisors can really shine (assuming they’ve done their homework) and help hotel brands to transition guests into the “new normal”.

“Our job now is really setting expectations and consumer education, which we certainly want the travel trade’s help in,” said Marshall of Universal Orlando Resort. “There are some things that can make the experience more seamless if you prepare them in advance, like downloading our app so that you can take advantage of mobile food-ordering and some of our virtual queues, things like that, so I think our big thing right now is guest education.”

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