If you missed it or need a recap of our hospitality-focused Fireside chat, this blog post details all the critical points of our online panel featuring guest speakers from The PIG hotels, Foxhills collection and Boutique Hotel News. 
James Perrin
James Perrin

If   you missed it or need a recap of our hospitality-focused Fireside chat, this blog post details all the critical points of our online panel featuring guest speakers from The PIG hotels, Foxhills collection and Boutique Hotel News. 

Event Synopsis 


According to recent research from Deloitte, 90% of hospitality business leaders believe the pace of the sector's recovery will be slow – failing to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023. The next couple of years will be the most challenging for many hotels, restaurants and other businesses operating in the UK hospitality sector. In this fireside chat, we explored what and how leading hotel businesses have done to navigate the choppy waters of the pandemic, but more crucially, what their solutions are for the future to combat the looming dip in the hospitality sector in 2022. 

Discussion 

Sarah Jane Walker (Head of Client Experience) introduced the guest speakers, Fiona Buchner (Strategic Account Director, Etch), Tom Ross (Group Operations Director, The PIG Hotels), Sally Raith-Riches (Group Director, Foxhills Collection) and Eloise Hanson (Editor, Boutique Hotel News). We then jumped straight into our first question.

The problem

Considering both the challenges and opportunities presented by the last 18 months, what did you learn while operating during a global pandemic that you'll take into 2022?

Tom: The most important thing to remember is that there are various businesses in the hospitality sector (hotels, restaurants, leisure facilities, etc.) The best thing to do is focus on what you do well and focus on your business's centre. And we learned this very early on during the pandemic – after deciding to 'pivot' into the glamping business. We bought loads of tents and had everything lined up before realising that we didn't have a clue what we were doing, so we stepped away from it. 

In times of crisis, it's about understanding what you do very well and doubling down on it. Even though we're large enough to have the resources to make the decisions and small enough to execute those ideas quickly (especially when working with a digital partner like Etch), some ideas are better than others. So instead of glamping events, we took our large marquees and doubled the size of our restaurant business. It was successful because we moved quickly and worked with Etch to ensure the digital side of things – communication, booking, etc. – was taken care of.  

Sally: Being agile was a massive test for us. We usually plan years in advance, and we had to get used to planning only 24 hours or 48 hours in advance. We had to think outside the box in so many areas. For example, when we were allowed to open certain areas, we put up marquees like other businesses to enable exercise classes and events to go ahead still. It worked well and was so well received by our members. And even before opening up, we made sure we kept our members engaged with online content, specifically from our personal trainers and golf pros. It was great seeing how well the members responded to this. 

Ella: By the nature of being small, boutique hotels are nimble and agile and can enforce decisions quickly. But what we have learned is that the biggest challenge has been labour. Speaking to many hotels, I have learned that most of the covid protocols are still in place; the only different thing was around the wearing of facemasks. Still, the biggest challenge is filling the void of the staff who have left the industry (because of the pandemic); specifically, housekeeping and kitchen staff are much harder to recruit for. And I've seen some great examples of how you can overcome this hurdle. For example, hotels have increased pay rates. They've implemented improved shift notice and patterns, improved job security, engaged with students earlier in their education (colleges, schools etc.), and worked with parents more to help educate their children over career choices. All these things are helping to improve the enormous challenge of recruitment in this sector. 

What impact has the opening up of international travel had on your business?

Fiona: Before the new variants, there was a concern that the opening up of international travel would put pressure on the domestic market. And the cost of travelling in the UK has meant that people are looking for better value for money (hence looking abroad). And we've seen a lot of our UK hoteliers leverage their robust loyal domestic base as a starting point to overcome this. We've also seen some predominantly business travel-related clients pivot into the domestic market. We've also had other boutique hotels reliant on international travellers diversify their audience to target domestic only. 

Having the capability to diversify but work with a digital partner like Etch to quickly deploy those changes is crucial to overcoming increased pressure from international travel. So you can start to have the booking mechanisms to fill these opportunities. Focussing on loyal domestic travellers could help fill those potential revenue holes, so there is still an opportunity to grow domestically regardless of international markets opening. The enabler here is the agility of your technology and digital platforms. 

Ella: I was surprised to hear that city centre hotels could attract such strong local customers in the absence of international travel. It made me realise that guests are interested in all the different assets and touchpoints that a hotel has, e.g., restaurant, bar, gym, spa etc. 

Looking at international travel corridors, e.g., the US and Europe needed to open up on a two-way front to kick start international bookings. Since then, hoteliers have said it's so wonderful to hear American voices again in their lobbies. And it's reassuring because, despite the recent concerns over the new variant (omicron) on the international market, city centre hotels, in particular, have said there has only been a slight dip. I know that's only some hotels, others are saying that what's being reported in the media is having a massive effect, and we need to do more. So, there are two sides to the same coin. Anecdotally, I know many people who have had international holidays cancelled, so to turn that back on its head, there is a great opportunity here for domestic travel. 

Tom: Now is an excellent opportunity to showcase to a much larger audience, the biggest market you've ever had, to showcase what you're really good at and get extra buy-in. Just on Fiona's point about enhancing the digital capability, our website was getting so much demand, and we needed to change the booking process (to show when dates were available). We converted more business by working with Etch to change the booking process. But the challenge we have now is we can't always accommodate due to being busy, so how do we keep the guests who can't accommodate engaged? Because when their international holiday, for example, has been cancelled, we want them to be thinking of us. 

As guests now expect penalty-free cancellation, how can businesses manage booking infidelity?

Sally: It's been difficult, but we're getting the hang of it after three lockdowns. We went with the view of showing compassion and understanding to secure loyalty for the future. We always equip our teams with what to say and how to say it. Because of this loyal connection, and how our teams handled it, many cancelled or postponed bookings have now been rebooked. What we currently offer are credits or vouchers. We are still getting cancellations, but we try to keep the business within our group and rebook when customers are confident. 

Tom: Fortunately, because people are loyal and want the experience, many move their bookings anyway. I recognise that as we go forwards, we need to fall into line with how people want to shop – guests don't want to be treated as a commodity, but equally, some guests do just book and never show. So I do think we need a balance. To get to a position pre-pandemic where no shows for tables should pay upfront as you do at the theatre. But we've moved well away from that. We try to give customers flexible options, but this is all about cash flow, so instead, we'd move the booking or offer credit/vouchers. But I would like to get back to a position where I can stay firm with cancellations. 

Question for the panel from Jonathon Cook - Do you ask for evidence for cancellations due to covid? How long do you think you'll continue giving customers the 'benefit of the doubt when it comes to allowing bookings to be cancelled or deferred?

Sally: We have wanted to try this, yes. But we're equally mindful of our guests – is it the right thing to do? Is it infringing on their privacy? 

Tom: If two people cancel because they have the flu, we don't ask them to provide a doctor's note. In our industry, asking people to provide proof doesn't feel right. 99% of guests are great but do we have the odd one who's a problem. 

Ella: Flexible booking policies will remain in place because they instil confidence to book. Asking for evidence is always up to the owner/operator. I know technology companies are working on better fraud detection for bookings, so it'll be interesting to see whether these are adopted by small boutique hotels and high-end luxury ones. 

The solution

How can businesses transform their digital guest acquisition model to increase direct bookings and remove reliance on OTAs?

Fiona: You have to look at the shift from OTAs to direct bookings holistically. In the context of cancellations, one of the critical things about asking for proof or not and how we're going to refund people etc. is if we have a mechanism to deploy distressed inventory, it makes us feel a lot better about the potential for any cancellation. Having a robust database of loyal people to your brand who you can communicate with regularly to say that you have last-minute availability, for example, to fulfil last-minute cancellations. 

A huge lost opportunity for hotels is not owning the OTAs' data. When booking through an OTA, you know nothing about the booking until they are standing in your lobby saying "hi". A migration to direct bookings means control of your own marketing, collecting that information and establishing a relationship with your customers way before they arrive, and making the booking journey more wonderful and in sync with the overall experience of your brand. 

Tom: The important thing is the content and engagement with the guest. Whether the booking is there or not, it's about the customer being ready to buy when they want to. There's an aspirational feeling among our guests to feel part of what's going on at the PIG, because there's lots of interesting things going on. By building the experience that they will have (when they do eventually book), people will be more engaged. Guests often interact with us on social media, saying they are looking forward to staying. So it's about building branded content as part of the booking experience, so when they want to book, they will come to you directly and not via an OTA. 

How have your businesses adopted smarter guest experiences to foster loyalty and increase spend per customer?

Sally: We've all had to adapt and quickly make decisions on the fly. We had to improve our booking system and increase our ability to book a variety of different types of transactions. And it's a way that we've been able to undercut the OTAs. It was a tremendous success with people booking online. Before they came, we could offer an excellent digital engagement, so they knew about the brand before arrival, and when they were here, we would pick up on things like birthdays and special moments. We would then use this clever use of data to follow up and engage with the customer. So for post-stay communications, we send them a personalised email thanking them for their stay along with a nice little touch if we picked up on anything during their visit.  

How can hospitality businesses build resilience through a culture of adaptability and innovation?

Tom: We need to make the process easy for people. When people come and stay, we want it to feel like they're coming to our home (we want to remove our reception desk) and when you want to leave, just leave. No bill to pay, no fuss, just leave. People are paying to stay with us and for our hospitality, so in essence, that's all it should be. 

The idea we need to use more technology to make checks on people is frightening. The key is to recognise what you do well and make sure current, and future guests know this (through engaging content) and execute what you do really well. We don't want to lose the sense of hospitality.

We're not doing anything too drastic in innovation next year, other than focus on the experience. For example, we will be looking at how guests can leave without settling up face to face. We just want to make things as easy as possible for the guest. 

Takeaways 

Ella: Listen to your guests. It's been touched on from different angles today, from digital transformation to the guest experience, but your guests will align their values to the values of your business. And if they're not aligned, you'll struggle. So always listen to your guests and find out their needs. And you'll beat the dip. 

Sally: The three I's. Innovation (in the product offering), immersive experiences (rewarding stays for guests), and identification (audience needs, communication needs). 

Fiona: It's the entire concept of putting your customer first. The relationship with customers is no longer just in the real world; it's very firmly also in the digital world. And we need to leverage technology to bring across your unique brand experiences pre, during and post-stay. 

Tom: It's a combination of what everyone has said. We need to keep the story interesting. The guests need something exciting to buy into, and you need to tell that story digitally. One story we will be telling more of next year is around sustainability. So keep it interesting, keep people engaged and keep being hospitable. 

Catch up on our most recent Fireside Chat event below.

Fireside - Hospitality

 

If you'd like more information on how Etch can help your business get further, faster, check out our Starter For Twenty guide. And for more information about Etch's work with hospitality companies, visit our dedicated hospitality hub. 

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