59 – 2020 Skift Global Forum Special Edition

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In this special edition of the Suite Spot, we discuss the recent 2020 Skift Global Forum. Host Ryan Embree had the opportunity to virtually attend the event, which brought together some of the biggest names and brands in the travel industry. In this episode, Ryan shares his five biggest takeaways from the 3-day forum.

Listen as he reveals the thoughts of CEOs from major hotel brands and OTAs as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Their insights guide the discussion on what the future of the hotel industry will look like moving forward and when we can expect to see full industry recovery.

Episode Transcript
Our podcast is produced as an audio resource. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human editing and may contain errors. Before republishing quotes, we ask that you reference the audio.

Ryan Embree:
Welcome to Suite Spot where hoteliers check-in and we check out what’s trending in hotel marketing. I’m your host, Ryan Embree. Hello everyone, welcome to another episode of the Suite Spot. Today’s episode is a special edition, as you’ve heard before at Travel Media Group, we like to attend all hospitality trade shows and events across the country. We’ve had some special episodes and special additions of the Suite Spot where we’ve talked about HITEC and we’ve talked about Lodging Conference. So, you know, we are at the forefront of all of these industry events and trying to share it with you, the listener, some of our insights and takeaways. So with 2020, there’s been a slew of adjustments that these events have needed to taken, but fortunately, I have had the opportunity to attend Skift’s Global Forum, which took place September 21st to the 23rd, 2020. Like most events across the country, this was done virtually, but it was a great event. There was a ton of industry leaders, guest speakers that were there, CEOs of major brands like IHG and Marriott, major players in OTAs: Booking.com, Expedia.

Ryan Embree:
So it was really just a great session on industry leaders kind of coming together and taking a look at where we’re headed and what challenges hotels are facing right now in 2020 and going into 2021. So today what we’re going to do for this episode is we are going to talk about five main takeaways that I got, the five themes really of the forum and kind of speak to some of what the guest speakers were talking about, to give you again, the listener, a good idea of where everyone’s mindsets are, because that’s what it is right now in 2020, is there is a lot of uncertainty out there and it takes events like this to really get us together to kind of paint a path forward. So the first big topic we’re going to talk about that was brought up by nearly everyone on the panels and sessions that were presented was recovery.

Ryan Embree:
It was very interesting to hear everyone’s input on what they thought about industry recovery timeline. They even would actually do polls during sessions to kind of figure out what the audience and attendees’ thoughts were on some of these, and one of those was based around recovery. And the majority of people answered, what is the timeline for recovery, as saying that no one knows and it’s not realistic to kind of guess right now. And I think that was the overall sentiment with the industry leaders that were talking during this. They were obviously very hopeful. You always have had that sentiment of hospitality strong. We’re gonna come back stronger. Things are going to get better. We’re going to recover. And you could hear that in some of the CEOs and brands that were speaking, but there was also that tone of it’s going to take a long time. This is a recovery. I mean, we shut down, not only our countries, our states, our cities, we completely shut down our industry for an entire month. So it’s not going to be something that we can just kind of jump back into right away. I loved what Keith Barr, CEO of IHG said, he actually had a really great analogy when it came to recovery, he talked about being on a diet and losing the first five pounds. He says, “When you get on that diet, the first five pounds is super easy to lose. And you look and say, Hey, this, this is easy. You know I’m going to lose so much weight. You know, I’ve been doing the right things, but then after those first five pounds, it gets harder and harder.” And then maybe the next two weeks, it’s only half a pound or a pound. So that’s what he compared this recovery to. He said, “Over the summer, you know, we saw a huge, huge growth in occupancy and demand, which we’ve seen through STR reports, but we’re also starting to see that level out a little bit, which might be signaling that we’re in this for the long haul.”

Ryan Embree:
You know, another key phrase that I kept hearing about recovery is, “inspiration into invitation.” So we’ve taken using social media, using communication through our websites, online reviews, review response, we’ve been trying to inspire travel again, we’ve been trying to get peace of mind to travelers to come back out of their houses, of their stay at home orders and come travel again. And now it’s time to turn that inspiration into invitation and get people back on the road. Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott, believes that in times of crisis brands are going to become even more valuable. So Marriott’s been able to rely heavily on their technology, their loyalty programs. One of the main questions that we kept hearing at the forum was also about brand consolidations and mergers CEO’s were kind of reluctant to say right now, whether that’s in their plans, but another one of the Skift Global polls also revealed that a lot of the attendees did expect some of these mergers to come out of this crisis, you know, we saw that with Starwood and Marriott a couple of years ago. So it will be interesting to keep your eye on right now, we’re getting a lot of help government aid and stimulus packages, so one of the CEOs mentioned that if we’re going to see mergers and acquisition, we wouldn’t really see that until after the kind of dust has settled to see where everyone lands on that. So it will be interesting to see the major moves and shifts that happen due to this pandemic.

Ryan Embree:
Switching over to the OTA side, Glenn Fogel, the CEO of Booking.com had a great interview. He kind of joked about really not having to watch the news, to know where the virus was because he could tell based on travel demand. So as soon as countries or markets started to loosen restrictions and open up, they saw a slew of bookings come into that market, but as soon as they saw that rise in cases, the restrictions starting to tighten, maybe stay at home orders started to be mandated. That’s when they saw a flow of cancellations come in. So on one hand that’s really, really great for countries and markets that are starting to open up, doing a better job with the virus, because it is showing that travelers are willing to come back, but at the same time, if all of a sudden there seems to be a turn, we know in the winter, there’s kind of that scare about what’s going to happen with the virus and the flu. We might see some cancellations there as well, so it will be interesting to kind of see, again how that goes in the next couple months. And then Expedia, their director of marketing gave some interesting points. What they were seeing is that a majority of people are looking within three weeks or 21 days. So what this is signaling is there is a lot of uncertainty right now. We don’t know where things are going to be in let’s say the next three months. So travelers aren’t confident enough to potentially make that booking so far out in advance. They’re looking a little bit closer, maybe some spur of the moment trips. We know that there’s a lot of domestic travel coming too, we’ve seen in the other industries like airlines start to eliminate change fees. So what will this do for the hotel industry? Are hotels going to be able to adapt and become more flexible for these travelers that might be uncertain about their future future plans, but if something’s put in place where they have a cancellation policy, would they be more willing to potentially book?

Ryan Embree:
Very interesting to see, speaking of our next big topic: corporate travel, this was very, very worrisome for a lot of brands and CEOs. And it makes sense, right, right now we don’t see corporate travel,there’s practically no group business. When we talked to Jan Frietag, we were talking about convention business in Vegas being literally zero for multiple months, we’ve never seen that in the hotel industry ever before . These industry leaders are trying to figure this out. Now they have a lot of hope for group and corporate travel coming back. Some are under the impression that in the future, instead of offices, because working from home became so prevalent during the COVID-19 crisis, the future is really going to be companies meeting maybe three to five times a year in specific destinations, almost coming together as a mini convention for a business. If everyone’s still working from home, now this could lend to some business for hotels. So it will be interesting to see if there’s less office space and more of these kind of traveling offices, but they are putting a big bet on that coming back. You know, they talked about how they are confident that corporate travel is going to come back. Arne Sorenson again, talked about – he gave schools as an example of how seamless the change was once this pandemic started to go virtually. Schools were being praised about how easily they were able to translate from in room classroom teaching to online teaching, but after surveys and talking to people we’ve seen that that wasn’t as effective as being in a tangible classroom and in person one-on-one learning. So this is kind of Arne’s argument for things getting back to normal after this pandemic is that people are more productive in the office. They’re more productive on a one-on-one handshake deal than they would be over a zoom call, which I thought was very interesting and we’ll see how that plays out. There have been a lot of habits that might turn into our new normal that we’ve talked about. Now this wasn’t part of Skift’s Global Forum, but it was part of the news and I have to bring this up because I thought it was a very, very interesting, United Airlines just announced that they will be doing testing of their customers prior to flights, I believe it’s from San Francisco to Hawaii, but they are rolling this out as kind of an experiment to see if this is something that they can do long term. This will give people obviously peace of mind, if they’re tested before they get on a flight. How this translates to the hotel industry, is can this be done for meetings, conventions and groups? Could we get to a point where testing is so quick that we can have a group come in, get tested before they check in, and almost create kind of a bubble, you know, like a sports bubble, an NBA bubble, or an NHL bubble. Can we create that in the work environment? Jan and I spoke about that in our episode as well, so it will be interesting to see because corporate travel is really, really hurting the business right now and these leaders are looking for that to come back, hopefully stronger than ever.

Ryan Embree:
And that’s what leads me to our next topic, number three: future traveler experience. We talked about the new normal, what travelers can start to expect. A really good point that was brought up in a round table is how this pandemic will change the traveler experience forever. One of the things that we overlook is how the traveler experience has already changed through maybe past crises. One example that was brought up is after almost 20 years, we still take off our shoes at the airport because of 9/11. So if you ask a customer today in 2020 to kind of walk through the travel experience for flying in a plane, most travelers would tell you, they have to go through security, sometimes they’d have to take off your shoes, you’d have to obviously take out your laptop, they would walk you through that step. That doesn’t sound like too much of an imposition anymore. So that now has become a part of this normal travel experience. So what other aspects will this pandemic, COVID-19 put into the traveler experience that maybe a decade or five years from now, isn’t going to seem like a inconvenience. We’re doing this out of our safety. One of the things that was talked about was in room touchpoints, QR codes are replacing directories in the room. I was thinking about this the other day, how the first thing you go into a room and you want to know where the channels are, the channel list, and you get that piece of that laminated paper there. Now to avoid a frequently touched item like that directory hotels are now implementing QR codes that can come up right on your phone. Will that become a part of the process? We had higher up from MGM that had an interview that said one of the parts of the traveler experience for them, which I think is absolutely amazing is he said the example of room service. A traveler checks in, it’s late at night, their options, if they don’t want to go back down would just be room service. Now what they’ve implemented at their properties is you can order from any of the food and beverage outlets at the MGM hotel and that can be delivered to you almost like an Uber eats for your hotel room. That’s awesome. I think that is a change for the better. So not all of these changes that are going to come in this new normal traveler experience are going to necessarily be bad changes. Wyndham made a huge announcement that they’re launching a new mobile app and they have this really cool feature called lightning book. And what it is, is when you open your app, there’s a lightning bolt, you click on that and it’ll show you the three closest properties to you, and through a touch of a button, you can go ahead and reserve your reservation, just like that. Very seamless, very one touch. This sort of adaptation of technology would have taken years for customers in the travel industry to do, but now all of a sudden it’s being adopted very, very quickly. So some of these implementations are going to take time, when electronic boarding passes for airlines, when electronic key cards for your hotel room were first launched, it took time for guests and consumers to get it used to that. So what type of learning curve is there going to be, and how successful will hotels be in setting these expectations. And you can do that by using channels like social media, your online reviews, your website. So keep that in mind, because if you can make that traveler experience more seamless, it’s just going to be a better experience overall.

Ryan Embree:
Number four is cleanliness. There was a lot of talk about cleanliness, obviously this comfort level and cleanliness is what’s going to get travelers back out of the house and through our front doors and into our lobbies. The term “hygiene theater” was thrown around a lot. And what this talks about is overdoing the whole cleanliness and making sure that things are being wiped down and implementations, but there’s something to it. And I think, you know, these leaders were talking about temperature checks, right? Those thermometers that we see when you walk into a hotel and you point that at a guest, so that thermometer gun checking our temperature in the lobby and as a guest, we know that for COVID-19 that symptom of fever might not be one. You might be asymptomatic and you might not show a fever or a temperature. So it’s not a hundred percent fullproof that that’s going to expose someone that that is contracted COVID 19, but it sets a precedent. It sets a reminder to guests to practice health habits in your establishment. And it shows that the hotel does care and they’re implementing protocols to assure your safety. So again, with that hygiene theater, we’re talking about putting things in place that are safe versus things that make you feel safe, because once you get someone traveling again, they’re more likely to do it again and get them into this new normal.

Ryan Embree:
A great example was an airline industry leader talking about middle seats and keeping them closed. They cited that there really hasn’t been any sort of data that said having a middle seat occupied or unoccupied is any safer one or the other, but what it does is it gives traveler’s peace of mind. And he spoke to a statistic that said, once someone travels, they’re 80% more likely that they will travel again and they’ve had a good experience. So if you can just get them comfortable in where they’re at, at your hotel, that’s going to give them the confidence to potentially do it again and that’s how we start to see demand and occupancy grow. What we’re talking about the hotel industry, you know, we heard a lot at the very beginning about keeping rooms unoccupied for a certain amount of time between stays, so that might be something that you mention to a guest checking in saying that, “We want to let you know that no one’s actually been in that room for a full 24 hours or a full 48 hours”.

Ryan Embree:
Now, will that have an impact overall? We don’t know, but for that traveler hearing that, that’s again, showing them a sign that you care and it gives them peace of mind that this is going to be a safe experience. Another interview that they had was Lore Garrett, she’s award-winning science writer and author, she actually was a consultant in the now terrifying film Contagion. So, and she was talking about how the focus for the industry hotels should be on ventilation and not cleanliness. We know she was talking about how important that is. So that will be interesting to see if hotels and brands really focus on marketing ventilation and talking about that or whether a customer or guests, if that’s kind of gonna go over their head when they’re talking about ventilation. But I think it will be interesting to see, because I think that’s going to become more and more important.

Ryan Embree:
And then the last and final topic, and I would argue some of the most important conversations that were had during this global forum, and I’m very, very glad that they were, was talking to these CEOs and industry leaders about diversity, gender equality, racial equality within their organizations. And it was, it was a really, really great message overall that we were hearing from all of these industry leaders that really made a promise that they were going to have a focus on equality and diversity within their organizations. The hotel industry we know is one of the biggest employers globally, so it’s absolutely critical for us to be leaders when it comes to hiring practices and diversity, so I thought that was very important and I love to hear that a lot of CEOs for the brands had talked about a change and really this past year, really being able to reflect on their company cultures and where they want to be moving forward. So I know a lot of bad has come from obviously this pandemic and COVID-19, it’s had a major impact on our businesses, revenues, people’s jobs and livelihood, you know, but so to kind of end this episode with maybe kind of a silver lining, maybe it has given times for companies to reflect on things like this. Someone mentioned this in the Global Forum, of talking about, if we just go back to normal, then we’ve really missed out on an opportunity. We shouldn’t just bring back travel. We need bring back travel better, safer. We need to bring it back with a better experience. There is a lot of opportunity that we have here to really build things back up right. So very, very interesting. If you haven’t checked it out, Skift does an amazing job with the hotel industry. You can find a lot of their information on skift.com. They’ve got a lot of great resources on there. It was an overall great event and I hope that moving forward, we can go ahead and attend some of these other conferences, but for now this one was great. I definitely encourage you to check them out. Thank you all for listening and we will talk to you next time on the Suite Spot. To join our loyalty program, be sure to subscribe and give us a five star rating on iTunes. Suite Spot is produced by Travel Media Group, our editor is Anne Sandoval with cover art by Bary Gordon. I’m your host, Ryan Embree, and we hope you enjoyed your stay.

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