Pandemic Trends with a Long Impact in Travel, Lodging, Hiring, and More
The key to growing from this challenging year is not going it alone. The global attractions industry crosses with numerous related industries, each with insights of their own on how consumers engage with their products and services. Funworld explores research and observations in five key areas to help inform the attractions industry as we grow stronger together.
Travelers Stay Close to Home
The global travel industry has faced an unprecedented challenge in 2020. In a year of low traveler activity, which includes searching and booking travel, experts have seen a slow return since early April’s lowest point. At only 40-50% of levels compared to the same time in 2019, global travel industry research and intelligence company Skift has found that activity has been slowly increasing in some countries. The Skift Recovery Index, a real-time measure of the status of the travel industry, has shown that staying close to home and car travel, over other modes of transportation, are two of the main trends since April.
Not the First Time
Data from similar past events of significant regional or international magnitude can point to what recovery could look like. When looking at an event that impacted the way consumers viewed safety and security in a region, such as the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States, a familiar picture emerges.
Following this event, consumers were more hesitant to travel by air or go to places with large gatherings of people. Industry research from 2001 to 2003 showed 1-2% decreases in attendance at U.S. destination parks, but regional parks (where most guests live within 200 miles of the facility) had consistent increases in attendance and spend in the same period.
Similarly, in the past year, the number of flights globally has decreased by 48% compared to 2019, according to OAG, a research firm focused on air travel. In addition, according to a Gallup poll conducted in July 2020, 52% of Americans surveyed said they “currently would not be comfortable flying.”
This reflects the trend Skift has observed: Air travel has seen a little improvement since April, but car rental is performing. In countries like Germany and the United States, which have large traveler bases that normally travel outbound, people are staying in their own country and investing in local tourism activities.
Hotels Rebound, Cleanliness Still Key
Many parks and attractions operate hotel and lodging amenities. A closer look at the broader hospitality industry brings to light cues and trends for navigating the post-pandemic recovery. As with many industries, there’s more than one story to how the hotel industry is weathering the pandemic and its effects.
Here are two trends to watch while navigating operational changes and contemplating next steps with on-site and attraction-owned lodging.
Occupancy Rebounding and Growth
As of this late-August writing, larger international hotel brands have seen demand return as reopening increases around the world.
Marriott’s second-quarter results show worldwide occupancy increased in July to 34% from the April low of 11%.
Franchise hotel chain Choice Hotels International reports good numbers, too. As of July 31, nearly 100% of U.S.-based hotels were open or planning a reopening, with 96% of its international properties returning to operation, according to its second-quarter earnings report. According to Choice Hotels International President and CEO Patrick Pacious, the chain continues to see a “leisure focus and strength in domestic drive-to markets.” A quarter of the June revenue came from guests who live less than 25 miles from the hotel destination.
Hilton also saw a rebound after April across all regions. Notably, the U.S. and Asia-Pacific were up in occupancy between April and June by 20% and 15%, respectively. By the end of July, 96% of its systemwide hotels were open.
The large chains also had good things to say about their outlook. Based on Marriott’s current trajectory, the company reports rooms could grow by 2-3%, net, by the end of the year. Hilton grew during the second quarter, opening 60 new hotels.
Choice Hotels International isn’t giving any formal guidance on the revised outlook for 2020 but states in a press release that the company expects COVID-19’s impact on the business to be less significant for the third quarter than it was for the second.
Safe Operations Guidance
Returning to some version of normal required swift action to make hotels and lodging safe, while practicing physical distancing and mask usage is still recommended or required.
The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) created useful tools for its members to follow when developing plans and customer communications.
Key among those offerings is the creation of the “Safe Stay” guide, which includes recommendations for enhanced cleaning procedures and protocols. Many hotels and resorts around the world have taken the “Safe Stay” pledge and followed these guidelines. Members also have access to an online training course to help ensure all employees know the drill.
With the pandemic hitting during the ramp-up to the summer season for much of the world, IAAPA members with resort accommodations had to balance the reopening process for both their parks and hotel properties.
Morey’s Piers and Resorts in Wildwood, New Jersey, developed its own “Safe Stay” program using guidance from the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association. On the whole, guests appreciate the attention to safety and distancing, says Zack Morey, operations manager for the hotel division. However, he is looking forward to when the park and hotel can get back to regular occupancy to sustain a seasonal operation. “If and when we are able to achieve the staffing levels needed to operate at 100% occupancy, we will do so immediately. In the meantime, operating at reduced occupancy has helped to create a less dense atmosphere around our public spaces.”
Europa-Park in Rust, Germany, which added the Rulantica indoor water park to its offerings last November, only opened its six hotels once the parks reopened.
“We formed teams of experts who thought through and implemented various options so that we were able to open the hotels with a very well-founded catalog of measures to protect our guests,” says Juliana Bachert, member of the press department at Europa-Park. She says guest response has been positive, with guests complying with mask-wearing rules in public spaces outside hotel rooms and pools. “We are pleased to see that our guests remain loyal to us even in these unusual times and give us their trust,” Bachert says.
The Future of the Workplace
Research organizations first started pontificating on the future of work habits as the coronavirus began to spread. Here are a few ways work as we know it could change and considerations for how to move forward with happy and healthy teams.
The End of the Central Workplace
According to a report from Cushman & Wakefield, a global commercial real estate services firm, there will no longer be a central workplace for many companies, but rather a “total workplace ecosystem” consisting of remote workers dispersed across a country or globe. The office will be a hub for collaboration, bonding, learning, and strengthening corporate culture.
In addition to the increase in remote work, research and advisory company Gartner has found additional trends worth exploring for future planning:
- Employers using new hiring and pay models for more flexibility in exchange for cost savings (for example, 80% pay for completing 80% of the work required)
- Use of data to track employee engagement and satisfaction
- Expanded employee benefits to ensure mental and physical well-being
- Greater focus on designing companies for resiliency over efficiency
Gartner advises focusing less on hiring for the role itself and more on the skills that help employers design processes and build competitive advantages. In exchange, employees gain skills that can diversify their career options, not just prepare them for a specific job description.
New Hires and Job Offers
With many industries actively recruiting, new considerations and questions have emerged amid the shift to remote work and workplace safety issues. According to an article from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), employers will face the following issues:
- Offering remote work from the start
- Handling job offers with employees who have tested positive or have symptoms of COVID-19
- Requiring quarantine or remote work in certain situations
- Requiring a doctor’s note from an employee in certain situations
- Employees who refuse to work on-site
Attorney Carl Muller with Tucker Ellis was quoted in SHRM’s article as saying: “The situation is fluid, and none of these decisions have yet been tested in the courts, so employers are advised to tread carefully and make sound decisions driven by the advice of their legal counsel.”
Hire Specialized Experts
The pandemic has created new types of work and the need for specialists in many fields, according to a recent SHRM report. Given the need for expanded safety measures, parks and attractions may look at growing certain areas of their workforce, if only temporarily, in the following areas:
- Plexiglass shields: Technicians to install and maintain safety barriers
- Office layouts: Designers and engineers to reconfigure open spaces or add barriers to ensure employees can return to work in a safe, enclosed environment
- Virtual technologists: Bringing high-tech professionals onboard to use new technology and educate remote staff throughout the pandemic and beyond
- COVID-19 tests and temperature takers: Nurses and additional staff to conduct health-related screenings for an extra measure of caution
Gaining Trust Through Exemplary Customer Service
Do guests trust your facility?
They’d better for the sake of your operation in this uneasy COVID-19 world. A whopping 83% of people refuse to do business with brands they don’t trust, according to the research and advisory company Gartner.
“Consumer confidence is a really, really big deal at this point,” says Beth Standlee, founder and CEO of TrainerTainment in Keller, Texas. “They’re entrusting you with their safety. We can’t miss anything.”
While customer service has always played a key part in the attractions industry, “a giant, bright light shines on it now,” she says. The pandemic has dramatically altered the entertainment landscape and how people spend their money.
“It has to be worth it,” Standlee says. “If you’re going keep them coming back and sustain your business, customer service is what will make the difference.”
It goes without saying that regular sanitation of all high-touch surfaces should remain paramount, Standlee says. However, she advises against relying on the “theater of cleaning” to prove the facility takes its COVID-19 measures seriously.
In other words, don’t put on an elaborate show scrubbing down an area that nobody goes near or wiping down an already-spotless empty table for the sake of the family eating a snack nearby.
“That might seem superficial,” she says. “There’s a balance.”
Traditional Customer Service Works
While skipping the theatrical elements associated with cleaning may seem wise, facilities should never neglect those make-or-break encounters with guests throughout their time at an attraction.
“Customer service is something that will always set us apart from the competition,” Standlee says. “Today, more than ever.”
Guests shouldn’t take 10 steps into a facility before an enthusiastic employee greets them with something like, “Welcome, I’m so glad you’re here! How are you doing today?” she advises.
After that initial connection, staff must continually stay alert for any guest needs. For example, at facilities with bowling, Standlee suggests the “seventh frame checkup” as an easy reminder for employees to swing by the lane and see if they need anything as their game winds down.
Strong customer service also considers the numerous unplanned moments that take place during the day, she says. This means employees should always make eye contact and pay attention to guests’ social cues. For example, if a staffer sees a customer aimlessly wandering around or with a puzzled look, they may be trying to find the bathroom, a particular attraction, or the nearest register.
“Speak to them before they speak to you,” Standlee recommends. “You can even turn it into a game: How many times can an employee meet the customer’s needs before they even ask?”
Body Language is Key
Staff should pay attention to their own body language as well, she stresses. Standoffish poses—like hands on hips or arms folded—can make guests feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.
These nonverbal signs become particularly important as tensions may rise in response to rules governing wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Standlee recommends a simple but firm message to guests who refuse to use face coverings, despite posted signage in a facility and public health best practices: “I’m so glad you’re here today, but as mandated by the state and our business, you must have your mask on at all times. It’s for your safety and the safety of everyone else here. If that won’t work for you, I’m happy to issue a refund, and you can come back another day when things are different.”
A manager should be contacted immediately if the situation escalates and the guest becomes aggressive, Standlee says, noting employees need constant education and guidance of current customer service best practices.
“It’s not a single event—coaching should be ongoing,” Standlee says. “You have to load their lips and tell them what to do. Plus, encourage them when you catch them having a positive encounter with a guest. Say, ‘Way to go. That’s beautiful engagement.’ Reinforce that behavior.”
Cash Is No Longer King
While current science shows close, unmasked, and prolonged contact with other people as the primary way the virus spreads, the pandemic has forced some to warily stare at doorknobs, grocery carts, mailboxes, handrails, and other shared surfaces in a new way.
This concern has led many consumers to shun cash in favor of contactless payment methods, according to new research. The National Retail Federation (NRF) and Forrester, an American market research company, found the use of mobile payments and credit or debit cards spiked earlier this year.
Nearly one in five U.S. consumers surveyed said they made a digital payment in a store for the first time this May. Of those, 62% used their phone and 56% used a contactless card; two-thirds say they were satisfied with the experience, and more than half would likely continue using this method post-pandemic.
Probably more than many other business types, the global attractions industry can embrace this shift toward no-touch payments, says John Gerner, managing director of Leisure Business Advisors. He points to the long history of innovations like pay-one-price general admission, radio-frequency identification (RFID) bracelets at water parks, and game cards for family entertainment centers.
“Many attractions were ahead of this without even knowing it,” says the Richmond, Virginia-based consultant. “They’ve been driven for years toward convenience in how people spend their money. We know you don’t want people to keep dipping into their wallets to buy something else. There’s a real negative feeling about doing that.”
Research backs this up, too. The studies came out pre-pandemic, but one by Dun & Bradstreet, a company providing commercial data and analytics, found people spend an additional 12-18% when using cards over cash. Data by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston saw a whopping 409% increase from $22 for the average value of a cash transaction to $112 for the average noncash transaction.
Of course, that jump in spending does come at a cost to businesses. Banks charge an average fee of 2.5% when a person uses a card for an in-store purchase (regardless if it’s inserted, tapped, waved, or used on a mobile device), the NRF says. The fee inches up to about 2.8% if the same card is used over the phone or online.
These processing fees rank as the biggest concern for retailers that accept no-touch payments, the NRF research shows. Cybersecurity and data privacy risks, fraud, and increased chargebacks of disputed purchases round out the top four.
Gerner understands these worries, but he says they shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. For example, he calls systems like Google Pay and Apple Pay “rock solid” from the threat of hackers. The convenience and increased business that comes with cards will offset any fees.
“It’s the economics of credit cards,” he says, noting that facilities can’t become compliant in generating revenue during these turbulent times.
As long as venues can safely operate with all the latest COVID-19 prevention measures in place, they should continue pushing the rides and attractions they offer that guests can’t experience at home, Gerner stresses. That means focus marketing and advertising efforts on the visceral excitement of riding the latest roller coaster, splashing down a water slide, or whipping around the track in a go-kart.
Facilities should get creative with some of their staples, he adds. An indoor party room might make customers uncomfortable, so set up a few tables in a roped-off area of an outdoor parking lot for birthdays. Venues also should develop some new packages or upgrades that will further reduce the number of times guests must make a purchase during their visit.
“People will value that and willingly pay accordingly,” Gerner says.