Few suffered the business impact of COVID-19 as acutely as the travel and hospitality industry in 2020.
The industry itself faced a series of existential crises in the virus’ early days. Planes and hotels no longer functioned as escapes; rather, people feared boarding and visiting them. A helpful concierge was no longer a welcome sight; instead, contactless check-ins became table stakes. Long lines and slow-moving checkpoints no longer felt like necessary evils; now, they felt unnecessary and unwanted.
Now we’ve made it to the other side. Travel is picking back up, vaccine distribution is at scale, and people are ready to experience the world again. And while things may seem to be turning on far more like an adjustable light switch than an ON/OFF one, the focus on the travel and hospitality industry is undoubtedly brightening.
So, the question is a simple one: Do those in the industry see COVID-19 for what it was or for what it wasn’t? Because COVID-19 was not simply a disruption to the way things were. It was an awakening to the way things are - and the way they will continue to be.
The great acceleration
What do I mean exactly? We sometimes talk about the effects of the pandemic as if they instigated a revolution. But what they actually instigated was an acceleration. Customers wanted change for a long time, whether via improved experience, convenience, personalization or otherwise. The events of 2020 just turned that want into a need.
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Case in point: 86% of hospitality providers identified operations automation as a top priority over the next three years, according to a recent survey of more than 200 of them. That investment may bear fruit in a number of different ways, but one thing is for sure. It’s never been more important to technologically transform than right now.
Charging up the customer experience
Consumers have long accepted friction in their travel experience, largely because there were no mass-market alternatives. Well, that’s no longer the case. Companies like Airbnb and Vrbo were already on the rise prior to 2020, but the sudden cultural priority of health and safety helped bold and italicize the reality that vacation rentals often support both.
As a whole, technological initiatives must point toward rebuilding consumer confidence - in your brand and in the travel and hospitality industry as a whole. Companies must be able to embrace flexibility, customization and personalization, offering options such as mobile check-in and checkout, self-service customer interactions, digital queueing, digital key generation and app- or web-based access to room controls. Simplifying the process and putting guests at ease is paramount in our “new normal.”
Changing what we are to customers
The world’s evolving reality has also changed what customers even look for when traveling. Extended-stay hotels have outperformed traditional ones. Remote work and remote learning have dramatically expanded the flexibility of people’s “vacation” schedules. Short, local trips have become easier and more palatable than long, expansive ones.
Are those in the travel and hospitality industry prepared to expand their value proposition to adjust?
With customers more willing than ever to share their data with brands they trust - a recent SAP survey found 83% of millennials are happy to have travel brands track their digital patterns if it means a more personalized experience - it’s time companies use insight from customer data to build programs and offerings that encourage greater trust and loyalty. Advanced cloud technologies can show them the potential path forward - and help them get there.
Charting a sustainable future
The lockdowns and restricted travel habits we endured and adopted in 2020 did make an impact when it came to the global environment. According to recent data, global carbon dioxide emissions fell by 6.4% year-over-year, or approximately 2.3 billion tonnes. However, experts say that’s still not nearly enough to begin to prevent the worst effects of climate change, especially with numbers expected to skyrocket this year.
That’s why it’s no coincidence that airlines recently committed to industry-wide carbon neutrality by 2050. Think about it: There’s no industry where a sustainable and regenerative climate is more important than travel and hospitality. By slowing the warming of the planet, we can preserve the local cultures and conserve the natural resources that make tourism so meaningful and beautiful in the first place.
How to actually make it happen
So, what do we have to do to make the future outlined above a reality? Let’s get technological.
Hotels, for instance, will always need property management systems. A recent survey found 49% of hoteliers are prioritizing upgrades to revenue-related software (30%) and operations-enhancing software (19%) in 2021. This indicates they are now fleeing legacy, server-based systems in favor of innovative and flexible ones in the cloud that enable them to digitally transform — and to truly begin viewing “data” as more of an asset than a buzzword.
Technological initiatives must point toward rebuilding consumer confidence.
In essence, cloud operations can remove IT complexities throughout the travel and hospitality industry, enabling staff to primarily focus on guests, and to be more efficient in systems when they do work in them. They also give travel and hospitality companies the ability to quickly and intuitively see what’s happening across all touch points of the business - whether in food and beverage, lodging, event spaces, golf courses or elsewhere. With data spread out across countless disparate systems, this task would be far more difficult. Modern solutions can offer a seamless experience, one that allows for quick adaptation to changing market conditions and guest needs.
The top-down reimagining of these platforms also allows for better integration of data and sophisticated algorithms in the cloud. With this data consolidated, businesses can gain greater insight into customer preferences and behavior, helping them to improve customer engagement and the overall customer experience.
Cybersecurity will, of course, be important to keep in mind on this journey, as the ramifications of non-compliant systems or rushed implementations will quickly become evident in the real world.
Data protection, payment gateways and oversight of information access by third-party solution and application providers - such as SAP's new business-transformation-as-a-service offering offering, RISE with SAP, a single offering on a single contract - will be essential to a safe and successful future.