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COVID-19 has rewritten rules of engagement for just about every other industry... The hotel sector is still working on what needs to change. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

The pandemic has had a huge impact on just about everyone’s lives. As communities continued to work tirelessly to combat the spread, it is no secret that the pandemic broadsided the hospitality industry and placed it in an incredibly vulnerable position.

As of 2019, the contribution of the tourism sector to UAE’s GDP equaled 11.5 per cent. With borders closed, travel-related restrictions implemented, social and business events cancelled from February until July, the travel and tourism industry as well as business overall faced unprecedented disruptions.

The hospitality sector is no stranger to crisis. The industry has survived countless challenges and economic downturn - and COVID-19 is no exception. The SARS virus impacted the industry drastically in 2003.

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Seen it all before

There was a 50 per cent decline in hotel bookings, which led to a drop of nearly 9.4 million in tourist arrivals, with losses estimated at between $30 billion and $50 billion. Despite the downturn, the travel industry registered immense growth by 2006, with a total contribution of $5.160 trillion to the global GDP within the year.

Now, as prospective guests eager to return to travel tentatively book their stays, hospitality industry leaders are capitalizing on this and implementing strategies to gain travellers' confidence and, hopefully, bolster the entire tourism ecosystem. According to a survey by Colliers on the MENA Hotel Market, the recovery should start in Q4-2020 and continue into 2021.

Three-stage turnaround

Phase 1: Local demand with staycations as drivers;

Phase 2: Regional demand for leisure and business-driven stays; and

Phase 3: International travel once confidence returns.

During these phases, hotels are anticipating the onset of a new segment of travellers dubbed ‘Generation Clean’. This cross-generational traveller prioritizes health and hygiene when checking out a hotel.

From a recent survey, 38 per cent believe a change in health and safety will be the most significant trend during crisis recovery, and a further 47 per cent see this as the most impactful long-term trend. To meet the consumer expectations and deliver on exemplary guest experience, hotels brands are identifying and implementing strategies on cleanliness, safety, technology and training.

Keep the vigil

Hygiene protocols will be promoted and with enhanced food and restaurant safety and sanitary processes in place. Guests and employee screening for COVID-19 symptoms will be the new norm as well as maintaining social distancing.

Brands are leveraging remote service and contact-free technology and services where applicable. They are digitizing in-room and items like menus, information, brochures, etc. and revising some amenities to avoid contact.

To prepare for a worst-case scenario, hotels are working on an action plan for event response procedures when alerted of a COVID-19 case.

Phase 1 did well

Keeping all the safety and hygiene measures intact, the UAE hospitality industry capitalized on demand for staycations from guests craving an experience that keeps them close to home. Then, deliver meaningful experiences in the second phase for all types of travellers – from the solo adventurer, couples and groups.

In the third, benefit from the various events and conferences scheduled for the region, such as the Expo, pilgrims’ access to Mecca and Madinah during Ramadan and Haj, and continue benefiting from on-going tourism initiatives, upcoming mega projects as well as domestic tourism.

The sentiment remains undeniable - the travel and hospitality will once again thrive. COVID-19 acted as a catalyst to industry transformation, and the coming year will provide hotels with the opportunity to reinvent to serve a post-pandemic world.

- Dipinder Benjamin is founder & CEO of Morpho Hotels and Resorts.